"The Assumption Is That I'm a Prop": On Being a Woman of Color in the Indie Music Scene
Coming of age at post-hardcore, indie folk, lo-fi, twee shows in Pennsylvania, I never expected or looked for diversity on stage or in the crowd at shows. I had grown accustomed to being the only person of color in attendance. I was a child of the suburbs and used to existing in predominately, if not all, white spaces. In the latter days of my twenties, my experiences in the scene -- like being asked if I was a "halfie" by a girl in the Music Hall of Williamsburg bathroom or being assigned hip-hop coverage by editors once my ethnicity is made apparent -- have left me starved for more diversity. Whiteness and indie rock do not have to be inseparable, but the enforcement of that idea has made me contemplate how other women of color [WOC] in the scene have negotiated, navigated, and survived in the predominantly white landscape of indie rock.
For Brooklyn based singer, songwriter, and rock visionary Tamar-kali's experience as a WOC musician in the indie scene struck a chord with my experiences as a fan. "[The] overall understanding [of] the aesthetic that comes to mind when one hears 'indie rock' is a dominating force in the industry," she explains. "Therefore, voices or bodies that do not fit that mold are interpreted as novel or less authentic. This paradigm leaves so much to be desired and so many stones unturned. It's either the usual suspects or the occasional token." On-stage or off, tokenism alongside gender-based discrimination, especially within the space of the concert venue, can be problematic. "It is a function of living in American society," Tamar-kali explains. "Sexism in general is the primary nuisance as a female musician. Gender pretty much trumps all on the everyday working level. That is the issue most prevalent in my experience. No matter how many shows I do, I [am] almost never... approached by front of house sound staff when a question concerning my set up needs to be asked. Even after introducing myself formally. The assumption is that I am a prop, barely even a front person and certainly not the captain of the ship."
Despite such instances of discrimination, the indie scene has also served as a space where solidarity has been fostered. "I bonded with some of my best women friends [and] musicians in the late 90's and organized shows we called Riots as 'Sista Grrrls,'" Tamar-kali recalls. "It spoke to the lack of identification and visibility for WOC in punk rock, hardcore and indie rock."
Reena Shah of My Pet Dragon
Credit: Tina Russell
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Reena Shah of the indie pop duo My Pet Dragon, echoes similar experiences in the indie scene. "[While] touring with My Pet Dragon throughout America over the past few years... I sometimes am the only WOC or female artist performing on the line-up," Shah shares. "It empowers me to be me - to be exactly who I am." Shah describes her on-stage performance and presence as follows, "My husband - Todd Michaelsen, and I are the only two members of My Pet Dragon. People are intrigued by the two of us performing together -- two American born individuals who look completely different from one another." Shah's experience on stage suggests that the indie scene is as hungry for more diverse representations. "It is also very important for artists to help other artists and that's what I do," says Shah. "I spread the love! If I have an opportunity to book additional artists on the same line-up -- I always recommend artists within our own community."
For Tamar-kali dialogue is also key in fostering a more diverse scene. "Real conversations about race and gender definitely need to happen but that can be challenging... it is hard to cultivate a safe and productive space." Despite the complications and difficulties of these conversations, the work of creating diversity in the indie scene can start with the individual, as Tamar-kali suggests, "It has always been my choice to create what I wanted to see. I have never waited for someone to create content or opportunity for me. I think a fan [that] is troubled by a lack of diversity in their scene should request and or put on shows with bands that reflect diversity."
Adopting a DIY take on cultivating diversity in the indie scene, Tamar-kali and Shah's dedication to their music and creative work has and continues to pave the way for other women of color, ultimately fostering more diversity in the scene as a whole. "In carving out my own journey as a multi-disciplinary performing artist, I know that I am fostering more diversity than anyone else could do for me at the moment," Shah states. "I can't depend on others to create the life I want for myself, I have to manifest the life I envision while empowering this generation and the next generation of artists."
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