Juliette Brown interviews local musicians on diversity and inclusion in the Canberra music industry
The local Canberra music scene is fertile ground for new artists, experimental sounds and for finding collab opportunities with different and creative talents in music, art, production and animation. Yet female, Queer, differently abled, BPOC and Indigenous artists still face a number of systemic barriers within the local music industry, which preclude exposure, innovation and the reflection of Canberra’s diverse cultural voices.
I had the opportunity to chat with local experimental hip hop and RnB artist Ikenna Enyi, or Ike(from)Pluto, as well as the founders of Vessel, an inclusive DJ Collective that seeks to ‘dismantle systemic isms and phobias’, about their work in the Canberra music scene, hoping to gain some insight into its level of inclusivity, how far we have to go, and what venues and consumers can do to help break down the systemic inequalities in this space.
Pluto raps, sings and produces, ‘as well as doing audio engineering for not just [himself] but other artists as well.’ When asked what kind of music he creates, he states, ‘I love to push the boundaries of what music is “supposed” to sound like and create authentic records. I pride myself in creating songs about my real life and the world around me. I feel like my music is very honest – I have a new single, ‘Kill Me Softly’ being released this month.’
Regarding his involvement in the Canberra music scene, he sees himself as ‘just as much a consumer as a creator, constantly trying to find the super talented unknown bedroom musicians in the city and show love to them.’ He comments: ‘I go to as many love shows as I can and I’m always putting my friends onto local artists. I also feel like I’ve played a role in connecting Canberra musos with each other to work, as well as connected musos with local artists in other mediums as well. Other than that I have recorded with, mixed and mastered music for many talented Canberra artists including ChiefMaez, Partyateleven, Genesis Owusu and YNG Martyr just to name a few.’
This shows the benefits of a smaller local music scene, in which artists can feed off each other’s creativity, fostering community and collaboration. However, Dot, one of the founders of Vessel, mentions that this ‘insularity’ is also one of the problems with the Canberra DJ scene, which is male-dominated and primarily straight and white. These people then pass on their knowledge, opportunities and gear to their friends. This compounds issues of accessibility to expensive gear – ‘decks are often around $5000-10,000 and even beginner gear is around $400’. Niamh, another of the founders, mentions that this creates an echo chamber of the same kinds of representation, music and values, ‘replicating the same structures that have historically oppressed minorities’.
This is one of the reasons why Joanne, Dot and Niamh decided to start Vessel just under a year ago. The extremely bright, colourful and switched-on trio of ANU students wanted to create a DJ collective focused on workshops and discussion, where people could share knowledge and space equally, with the freedom, tools, guidance and confidence to try out new things and play the music they wanted to play. They wanted to create a space in which women, BPOC, Indigenous and Queer DJs felt comfortable and didn’t feel like they were getting opportunities due to ‘diversity box-checking’, or that the people giving them these opportunities didn’t really care about them or their music.
As Joanne stated, ‘we only learnt how to DJ because people gave us the opportunity, so we wanted to pass on the same.’ They wanted to create something ‘with permanence’, where people could come to the beginners workshops, and then build upon those skills in practice sessions and knowledge-sharing sessions. Vessel also tries to choose mentors that its participants can relate to, with the necessary ‘time and motivation’ to invest in its participants. On this, Joanne comments that ‘different demographics have different experiences and face different issues, so the music they want to play is different, so choosing autonomous mentors for the beginners workshops is just good teaching – being true to what’s there and to people’s stories.’ They also want paying mentors to ‘go back into the cause’, along with the rest of their initiatives. Joanne adds, ‘people who belong to marginalised intersections often are expected to carry out extra emotional labour without it being acknowledged, so paying is one of those acknowledgements.’
As vessels run through the body, delivering oxygen and lifeblood, so too have Vessel been busy over the past year, running workshops and events, bringing energy and fresh air to the Canberra DJ scene. They run supervised practice sessions, open to everyone, usually advertised on their Facebook page. They also run workshops, for example, on learning how to use loops and effects, as well as panel discussions on things like how to run a safer event, focusing on drug health and safety and safe spaces. They facilitate recording sessions and make an effort to recommend female, BPOC, Indigenous and Queer artists they have taught to event planners and club owners when asked. Vessel has created a network of not only DJs, but animators, sound technicians and visual artists as well. Finally, they run club nights, mostly at Sideway, but during the pandemic they have pivoted towards livestreams.
Why the name Vessel, by the way?
Niamh: ‘It’s got connotations of making space; there was also an art course about this at ANU where the theme was ‘Vessel’. A vessel is also a boat, and so there’s this silly pun you can make about having ‘all hands on deck’ because we’re an inclusive DJ Collective. It’s also just a cool name.’
Has Covid-19 made the space more or less accessible, do you think?
Niamh: ‘It was a steep learning curve. It was less busy initially, but now we are busier than ever. It’s also allowed us to be truer to our ethos, giving people the opportunity to do their own streams – both giving them technical opportunities but also opportunities to direct an event, plan a line-up, choose the theme etc. Now that we know how to set them up, they are easier to run than club nights – they are less stressful and more accessible, and hopefully in the future people will be more comfortable to appear at club nights, because they’ve had a try at home first. In all, we’ve become more focused and creative in the events that we are running.’
Dot: ‘Before it was just club nights, with disco, funk, techno, experimental – the same line-up – but now we can have smaller line ups, more dinner party vibes etc.’
Niamh: ‘It’s forced us to think outside the box.’
Joanne: ‘Before, we were also limited by venues, with their established clientele and music demands. Even if we had some freedom, we were still limited to what people wanted to hear. We don’t have that with streams, and we can record them for the archives to play at a later date, to give people more exposure.’
Venues were cited as one of the biggest barriers to a more diverse representation of talent in the Canberra music scene. Niamh mentions that there are some really great venues but oftentimes line-ups and staffing are completely made up of white males and ‘if you have all these guys you don’t know running the event, and if you don’t have someone who you feel comfortable talking to if a problem arises, you aren’t going to say anything…so if you don’t feel comfortable with the line-up that can be a barrier to proper representation’.
Dot adds that ‘diversity is also about safety. What are your safer spaces policies? Do they allow for addressing concerns for people who feel marginalised, and accessibility for the disabled? There needs to be diversity in not only the line ups, but in the security, runners, bar staff – at all levels.’
In addition, Joanne comments on the realities of tokenism in the Canberra music industry: ‘People want to be diverse for clout, to check a box, but don’t want to listen to the material changes we suggest. It’s easy for people to message to ask about how to run a safer, more diverse event, but these people need to listen – often there’s no tangible changes. That’s why it’s important to us to work with people who respect our principles and how we want them to be represented. It’s up to organisers to actively reflect on what they do and how they are motivated, and not just put people on because they are (for example) a woman.’
Similarly, when asked about the level of inclusivity in the Canberra scene, Pluto thinks that ‘the mission to increase representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in the Canberra music scene and also Australia-wide is doing really well and it’s great to see, and I’m 100 percent supportive of that! Unfortunately, however, there is definitely a narrow passageway for artists of colour, particularly black artists, to be booked for shows, played on radio and listed on playlists. It’s as though we are drip fed into the industry a couple artists at a time, even though we are responsible for much of the innovation in the industry.’
Vessel agrees that diversity breeds innovation, choosing to be a non-genre based collective because ‘different genres come out of different communities, meaning that we have all kinds of different music coming together in our workshops, which is cool to see.’
Another obstacle to diversity is the increasing commercialisation of Canberra music venues. Though there are some venues that tirelessly support smaller acts, like Smith’s Alternative and the UC refectory, as Canberra develops, places like ANU bar have been replaced by Badger & Co, with Joanne noting that ‘businesses usually prioritise established headliners, because they would be taking a risk with lesser known DJs’. However, she affirms that being ‘actively anti-isms requires sacrifices and risks’.
Likewise, Pluto feels that ‘one problem with the industry is that change is seen as a threat to the status quo for those that are content in their position, and the content ones are usually the ones making the big decisions in the industry.’ This is why Vessel chooses to run a number of its events in art galleries and creative non-for-profit spaces, because they ‘don’t rely on the structures of club music’ and are ‘not bound by that business model’.
So what needs to change before we can see Canberra’s rich cultural diversity accurately reflected within its music industry? Firstly, Pluto states that ‘we definitely need to increase the number of black and brown artists being booked for live shows’.
In the same vein, Joanne articulates that ‘venues need to be actively and intentionally anti-isms’.
We need a ‘permanent, ongoing shift in the control of music spaces,’ Dot adds. ‘Collectives, clubs and event runners need to ask themselves, ‘Are they teaching women, POC and Queer people how to run events? Are they listening to their decisions?’’
Secondly, we need to support our local diverse talent over international headliners. As Pluto asserts, ‘some of the biggest and best artists in the country are your neighbours, listen to them!’
One local artist Vessel recommends is Hei Zhi Ma. She has taught some of Vessel’s women’s and people of colour workshops, and ‘infuses her sets with lots of thematic meaning and interesting perspectives, drawing from podcasts, speeches and a huge range of genres.’ Vessel advocates for the ‘excellence in our backyard’ and that we need to speak up about the changes we want to see in the industry.
Pluto notes that Canberra’s small scene ‘gives more opportunity for the consumers of local music and local musicians alike to have a voice for change, and I think it’s time we use it.’
‘When people complained about the lack of diversity at Spilt Milk, they changed it in the years to come’ Niamh argues, as evidence of our power to affect culture for the better.
Thirdly and finally, the government needs to continue to invest in the arts and in more creative non-for-profit spaces. Vessel relies heavily on grants for its continuance, and asserts that small-scale funding is necessary for the growth and viability of experimental artists. Joanne emphasises that ‘what we see as really important is grants and funding for individual artists and smaller collectives and initiatives like Vessel, n.10.as Radio and Sol.Sonik. This type of funding at the grassroots level allows creators from marginalised intersections more creative freedom and ways of working around systemic inequality. In contrast, when funding is directed towards established institutions rather than makers, whatever inequalities already exist in those spaces get reproduced.’
Niamh adds that ‘if you invest in the arts, you will get it back, with people turning to the arts more than ever before during the pandemic.’
With a robust ecosystem of world-class talent, venues like Sideway that are receptive to experimentalism, and a small supportive community of passionate creatives, the Canberra music scene is ripe with opportunity. However, Joanne emphasises that we need to ‘fix the soil’ if we are going to see any meaningful change. When asked to clarify, she continues that ‘you can transplant women or people of colour or LGBTQIA artists into the line ups all you want, but if the soil is patriarchal, racist or homophobic, it’s still going to be fucked. So we have to fix the soil.’ So here’s to uprooting systemic prejudices, and let’s get gardening.
Pluto: J Dilla, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo
Vessel: King Midas Sound, Roger Robinson and DJ Bus Replacement Service