Ladyfest Philly Brings Music and Activism Together

Courtesy of Ladyfest
Courtesy of Ladyfest Philly

By Nick Sukiennik

At a time when inequality and discrimination are rejected by current societal standards, what is the real state of women’s rights in this country? Ladyfest Philly, a festival of music, arts, and activism, challenges the notion that equality is a reality for all individuals, and aims to take some of the necessary strides to make it so this weekend, Friday, June 7th, through Sunday, June 9th.

A primary issue in this fight for justice, and one that Ladyfest intends to vocalize, is the notion that women, in addition to other underrepresented groups, should have the right to choose what is best for themselves.

I asked Sara Sherr, who co-organized the event and was active in the public relations and booking committees, about this standpoint. She explained: “On paper we have more opportunities than we’ve ever had, but there are people trying to take away that freedom.” This relates to the issue of “reproductive rights”, one of the most controversial topics of the past decade.

This is not the first time feelings of injustice have spawned displays of art and activism. Ladyfest began in Olympia, Washington in 2000, and has since taken place in  cities in the US and around the world (London, Glasgow, Amsterdam, to name a few).

Philadelphia held its first Ladyfest in 2003, and its second, ten years later, will bring workshops, live musical acts, and zine readings to West Philadelphia’s The Rotunda, the Airspace Gallery, and Locust Moon Comics and Movies over the three-day duration.

The festival offers an atmosphere of openness and indiscrimination toward all who attend. All event organizers will be wearing green bandanas, marking themselves as a beacon of information from whom attendees can learn. Also implemented into the invisibly-intricate inner workings of the festival is a “Safer Space Policy,”  to which all Ladyfest participants and audience members are expected to adhere. This policy aims to give everyone an equally strong sense of comfort by encouraging interpersonal respect and abstainment of rash judgements or actions.

Sherr explained how a festival, rather than a rally or protest, could be effective in bringing about change in the overall perception of the role of women in society: “A lot of big festivals don’t have women [performers], so we wanted to show different representations of women”.

In doing so, the festival shatters preconceptions by contrasting the glamourous women of show-business with the more relatable and realistic performances of women in small scale venues, doing something for the passion of it, rather than the superficial glory so commonly seen in pop culture. The idolatry of such women seen so frequently in mass media without being contested promulgates the continuation of current trends of perceiving women as subsidiary in society. The bands performing at Ladyfest will contest those perceptions, simply by being on stage, expressing themselves to the fullest.

Sherr and the rest of the booking committee deliberately chose bands whose music had a message and “something different to offer”.  Specifically, most of the bands performing play punk music. “The whole idea about punk is that you can rewrite the rules”, she said.

The growing local music community factored greatly into the decision to host Ladyfest in Phialdelphia for the second time, as Sherr explained: “Ladyfest sprung out of the West Philly scene, where there are a lot of galleries, house shows, and venues such as the Rotunda, where a lot of people know each other and set up shows through word of mouth”.

I asked Tiff Cheng, guitarist and vocalist of Batty (who will be performing at Ladyfest), about her band and how their message fits into to that of Ladyfest Philly.  While she acknowledges that Batty uses music as a medium for activistic expression, Cheng does not see her band as one that is “preaching” feminist ideals. “Through playing the music that we play and writing the music that we write, we are disproving the notion of what women in bands should be like,” she said, adding “It’s more effective to take action instead of just talking about what needs to be done”.

In the past, Cheng has been heavily involved in various activist movements, which she contests has been “important in developing a sense of what needed to change in the community”,  but she ultimately realized that “it’s better to do small things like this to show other people what they can do”.

For Cheng, it was always a pipe dream to be in a band until she got inspiration from such groups as Screaming Females (who will also be performing at Ladyfest) and saw that it was possible to start a band without having to rely on an external power like a record label.

Ladyfest takes that DIY attitude and expands it into an entire weekend of bands who have something to say and the courage to say it. Whether those bands include cis-women, cis-men (cis being a prefix to describe those whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned with at birth), trans*, queer or intersex individuals, they are all equally integrated into the supportive and diverse community of people that Ladyfest exemplifies.

The festival also serves as a forum for people to talk and come together in a comfortable space where they can express themselves. Workshops such as “Sexual Communication and Consent”, “Queer and Trans Yoga”, and even “Urban Gardening” are all meant to engender a supportive atmosphere where people can express themselves without being concerned with the judgement or perception of others (the full schedule can be found here).

Let me make it clear, though, that men are equally encouraged to attend Ladyfest, as both Sherr and Cheng have asserted. “We would like men to listen… be there and support friends, and also learn.”

Tickets are sold on an individual or three-day basis. All proceeds go to covering the cost of the festival as well as to support local organizations Women in Transition, and Project SAFE.