| Rachael Taylor
A half hour, $30 Uber trip with your drunk friends leads you to a tiny street in downtown Toronto.
Small business storefronts line the street but your GPS guides you to a nondescript vinyl shop. In the back is where the magic is happening. A red light flashes from the bathroom. The only other light inside is placed beside an industrial fan. Band equipment is lined up against the partition wall, and the patrons are quietly awaiting the first set.
Soon enough, the cement block back room was dripping with sweat from the energy and lack of air circulation. By midway through the evening, the floor resembled a Slip ‘N Slide rather than a concrete slab.
This was far from a typical show; it was a night highlighting diversity – a festival created to promote and call attention to the lack of representation in one of the most diverse cities in Canada.
“Festival Lingua Franca represents the diversity that exists in the underground rock scene with a focus on the Black, Caribbean, and Latinx communities. It is meant to highlight and showcase musicians of colour whose contributions to the loud music canon far too often get ignored or erased,” the creator of the festival, Daniel G. Wilson said.
As a Caribbean musician, Wilson saw a need within the punk and rock community to promote musicians of colour. Frequently, when you attend a show in your own local downtown venue, diversity is not the top priority. “Unfortunately, more often than not diverse voices get the shaft,” Wilson said.
“The indie rock sphere has slowly gotten more diverse over the past 20 years. More visible people of colour are forming and playing in awesome bands. Men, women, and non-binary people who don’t fit the all-white stereotype of rock, punk, or indie musicians are making their voices heard but the shows that are getting booked don’t reflect this as much as they should,” he said.”
I GET FACEBOOK NOTIFICATIONS ALL THE TIME LIKE, ‘COOL, THE SAME BAND, ALL BOYS, PLAYING THE SAME VENUE AS THEY DID FOUR MONTHS AGO’ AND IT’S LIKE, THERE’S MORE. THEY’RE MISSING OUT ON SO MUCH WHEN THEY AREN’T DIVERSIFYING THEIR LINEUPS”– Daniel Wilson, creator of Festival Lingua Franca
In fact, Wilson said Toronto has an issue with all-white bills. “Toronto is the most racially and ethnically diverse city in Canada and the world. By that metric, it should be the norm to have a racially diverse line up on most local band bills. Unfortunately, that is the exception. I cannot tell you how many times I have been to random shows … over a short period of time where I never saw a visible person of colour on stage.”
Within the local music communities, this seems to be a well-known and accepted fact, so much so that images mocking all- white sets have become a meme on sites like Facebook and Reddit. If you were to find some of these images and search through the comment section, you will find praise for the creator, friends tagging others saying how accurate it is, and people divulging their own stories about the whitewashed industry and lack of representation.
As the frontwoman to her own band, Averages, Taylor Holden has experienced her own ups and downs with the local industry. “You know there have been instances where we’ve had to kick people out of shows,” Holden said. “We put up signs at every show that was inspired by July Talk (a Canadian alt-rock band), signs that say ‘if you’re not going to be welcoming then you’re not welcome’ and maybe like just don’t bother coming.’”
Holden said she believes representation of women in bands in local communities is improving. “There’s so many [female bands] on the rise right now. It’s a strange thing where you’re a ‘fem-fronted rock band’ and that’s it. We like to make our lineups very balanced (in terms of) diversity, but it’s easier if there are more bands.”
“I get Facebook notifications all the time like, ‘cool, the same band, all boys, playing the same venue as they did four months ago’ and it’s like, there’s more. They’re missing out on so much when they aren’t diversifying their lineups. You’re just going to get the same thing and the same content because people are all writing from the same place. Even our band, we’re just four white kids it’s not like we’re the peak of diversity,” she said.
The importance of a diverse lineup is noted and desired within the local music communities. To look onstage and see someone like you playing the music you enjoy enables others to envision themselves in that role.
“When I was younger, I rarely knew about or saw people who looked like me or came from a similar cultural background playing rock or punk,” Wilson said. “While I never personally felt discouraged, I was fully aware that my existence went against the expectations that society imposes on Black people. I would have loved to have seen more Black faces in the rock mainstream as a kid if only so I wouldn’t feel so alienated and alone.”
“It’s weird when the only representation people can point to is a guy who died in 1970 (Jimi Hendrix). It creates this weird subconscious idea that we used to play rock music and we used to play more than just rap and contemporary R&B. It erases the people who, like me , are still making and enjoying aggressive music,” he said.
Wilson raises a good point. When thinking of punk bands, the names that come to mind are The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Dead Kennedys. Punk is perceived as a white genre. However, a three-piece Black group called Death is credited with its formation. AJ+, an online news channel, interviewed the band for a video called The Very Black History of Punk Music. They explained their sound switch stemmed from seeing Alice Cooper perform. Although not gaining a lot of momentum in the mainstream, the group became well known among the underground punk community.
After Death dissipated, groups featuring people of colour came into the spotlight.
Notable bands include: Pure Hell, Fishbone, and female fronted British band, X-Ray Spex. By far the most iconic was Bad Brains, popularizing the usage of reggae influences and the faster, more aggressive punk subgenre known as hardcore. During the interview with AJ+, musician and writer Greg Tate claimed that many of these bands didn’t gain the same notoriety due to gatekeeping on both the corporate and radio side.
Today most of the diversifying burden lies with promoters and bookers for venues. Adam Magoffin, a graduate of the Music Industry Arts program at Fanshawe College and a promoter and booker for ADM productions. Magoffin explained how exactly the booking process works, “I either have my own ideas for shows, or specific bands reach out to me. I know quite a few bands so I’ll personally message them or sometimes I’ll put ads or posts out for bands to get a chance to join a bill.”
As for diversifying sets, Magoffin said he’s “never had a problem because I know how beneficial it is booking a broader range of bands. Most of my shows are heavy but I’ll have a female fronted Melodic Thrash band co-headline with a death metal-ish band and it works.”
The role promoters play in diverse bills cannot be denied. As Wilson said, “Promoters are an interesting and important part of the musical ecosystems. It is not ridiculous to say they are often the first step in the chain that can decide what is popular or what is not in a scene or in general.”
It is the promoter’s primary job to find cool bands and musicians and put them on a bill that will be a good experience for everyone. In a perfect world, that means doing research on all the bands in your preferred genre that are in your city or scene regardless of their “level” and booking shows where newer faces can play alongside established ones.
“Promoters rarely take risks on newer bands and even more rarely reach out to them until they have some kind of buzz. Newer bands can’t build buzz or get their name out there until they play some shows and the cycle continues. This is even worse with racially diverse bands as people of colour may be nervous or scared of entering what they may see as an all-white scene or get discouraged because they feel they can never get booked in the same way as an all-white band.”
But how can we fix the seemingly never- ending cycle?
“The best way to add more diversity is to just change the orthodoxy of booking,” Wilson said.
“Actively reach out to these bands and be willing to take risks on them. Give them a chance to grow their audience and make friends in the scene. Because odds are that they don’t have the same connections that all-white bands have or the same initial draw at the start because it is difficult to get a large group of friends to your shows at first when you are the only person in your family who listens to rock music and you get called ‘whitewashed’ by your friends.”
“I don’t think it is an obligation for promoters to book racially diverse shows,” Wilson said. “I think it is their obligation to book awesome shows and that means booking and giving racially diverse [groups] a chance to play and show their stuff. Newer faces and diverse newer faces means more chances for unexpected shows and gems that might have been missed.”
“Imagine if Jimi Hendrix or Phil Lynott never got the chance to play their first show because a promoter was happy to settle with the same four all-white bands at every show. Best way to get representation … [is] … simple: reach out to diverse bands, book diverse bands … and make friends with racially diverse people.”