Esme Davine confronts tokenism, surveys the damage it does to female musicians and questions what real diversity looks and sounds like.
This is the year of the Woke Olympics. It feels like every designer, magazine, event line-up and most other art and media outlets are in some kind of wacky race to see who can appear the most diverse without actually having to deliver these ethics that they so desperately want to ram down our throats.
What these companies are too egomaniacal to realise is that their half-assed cherry picking of minority voices does not count for diversity. It is tokenism that stems from the incorrect assumption that every person of colour has had the same experiences; that every queer person has shamefully cowered in the closet; that all women endure the same level of misogyny.
These platforms need to evaluate why they are centering the voices of privileged, white cisgendered men in the first place. Trying to ‘include’ PoC, queer, disabled, working-class voices acts as a diversity band-aid is just ignoring the root of the problem.
The problem is not just diversity, it’s that the systems deny access to the people that are not deemed marketable. These guys have a business to run and wealth to hoard, and if you’re not a skinny white cash cow you’re invisible. This, then, creates the dynamic that everybody is at the mercy of the rich white dudes who run shit, and if you don’t have power then you’re at the mercy of those who do.
I’d always found a way to smile through gritted teeth at music industry heads when they clearly just saw Piss Kitti as a novelty and a commodity with there being a spectrum of genders within our band. Until February when we were booked for a gig at the Punk At The Picton exhibition at Liverpool library to play a support slot for The Gentle Scars. The bassist of this band approached us and expressed his disappointment that we weren’t an “all-girl band”; he then went on to encourage us to bring back an ex-member for the Punk At The Picton event so we would appear more of a “girl band” to the man from Liverpool Council, who was funding the event, as he had agreed to put us on the line-up because they needed “females” involved to avoid complaints.
Following the realisation that we had only been booked as a diversity token and not for the quality of our music, I attempted to contact the head organiser of the event explaining why we were pulling out of the gig. I received no reply, so we went ahead with posting a statement on social media about the incident, encouraging promoters to book gender-diverse gigs and centre voices equally, without resorting to blatant tokenism. We awaited response to no avail, yet the words “Piss Kitti” miraculously changed to a replacement band on the poster. The other support bands saw our statement and pulled out of the show in solidarity and the event was soon cancelled, in more ways than one. This is a daily occurrence for womxn and queer bands, more often than not it remains a lose-lose situation; do we grin and bear it and play the show anyway? Or do we reject the offer and silence ourselves while clinging on to our principles and integrity? We shouldn’t have to make this decision and still hinder the success of our band either way. How is that fair?
If you don’t have money, you have to succumb to the rich in order to be let in and have your voice heard. To overlook this structural power imbalance that lazily uses individuals as diversity tokens is insulting and derogatory at best, and racism and misogyny at worst.
This inherently tokenistic constitution trickles down to smaller social constructs in the form of underrepresentation in local music scenes. It’s hard to exist – let alone thrive – in a community where you see no relatable material or reflections of yourself. There have been moments where I wanted to tear down what I saw as my opposition, and slander the gentlemen’s club that is the small-time local music industry, but I’ve since realised that everybody needs to decode and confront systematic misogyny together.
How can a cocktail of different styles and experiences be a bad thing? To have a genuine sense of diversity can only benefit everyone, giving us all room to grow and bring more opportunities.
However, I feel like we still have a very long way to go. The amount of times I have heard “next up we have female-fronted punk band Piss Kitti!” when referring to my band is absolutely soul-destroying; would you refer to a band as male-fronted? No. Didn’t think so.
If I had a pound for every time a music reviewer referred to us as “riot grrrl”, I wouldn’t have to work full time on a minimum wage job just to scrape by. To brand us as riot grrrl is, in itself, unabashed sexism – or just downright lack of musical knowledge and/or creativity.
Riot grrrl was a subcultural movement in the 90s consisting of feminism, activism and politics, mainly expressed through musical mediums. It really illustrates the lack of opportunity and visibility of womxn musicians if this is the only thing that springs to mind when you see us perform.
We don’t want to be a subculture, we want equal exposure and representation. We have learned from experience that dividing gender and having resentment for more privileged musicians can be detrimental to us personally and is never going to make a change on a bigger scale. We are visible. We don’t need you temporarily offering your space to us for your own gain. We aren’t victims. We aren’t a novelty. And if one more person compares us to Bikini Kill, I’ll chop your brain up and eat it.