Goodbye Gene Simmons – Rae Spoon and Nazmia Jamal

As twenty-year-old musician who hoped I had a career in music ahead of me, I attended in a music networking conference in Vancouver in 2001. It only took a keynote speech from Gene Simmons (of Kiss) to tell me that the industry was not the place for me. Between gulps of spring water he managed to say some of the most offensive things I had ever heard, outlining exactly how capitalist, misogynist, homophobic, and racist the path to mainstream success was. The crowd seemed decidedly impressed by everything he had to say, as he bragged on and on about how much money he had made without knowing how to read music.

Today, the commercial music industry is in a state of panic. Since 2001, profits have dropped by over half in many of the biggest markets. A lot of people in the music industry talk about the decline of profits like it’s a tragedy that affects everyone (it’s hard for me to muster sympathy for the death of the $90,000 music video), but they never talk about the oppressive way that music is sold. Even on “indie,” subsidiary labels, the acts selected are largely white, straight, cis-gender men, and they way they are sold is still with the careful slotting of genders, perceived race, and sexuality. So-called “underground” bands are handpicked by younger versions of the same people who recruited Kiss.

This is not going to be an article about how unfair it is that my friends and I can’t get access to large-scale publicity and fame because of our identities. It’s not an article about how it’s really hard to be a musician and how people should buy music. Outside of this crumbling industry there are the DIY/queer/feminist music organizers that have given artists such as myself a place to grow and perform. For decades they have been using models of organizing that the mainstream “indie” movement later co-opted, putting on events before Facebook, and funding projects before Kickstarter.

Earlier this year, I was in Berlin at the same time as one of one of my favorite DIY organizers, Nazmia Jamal. After our visit to a photo booth, I sat down to ask her some questions about ten years of organizing outside of the commercial mainstream.

Rae Spoon: How did you become involved in DIY/feminist/queer culture?

Nazmia Jamal: I was really into reading the music press at school, and through the ads for music fanzines they used to run I got involved in a postal zine network. That was the start – I must have been around 15. I made mixtapes and zines and exchanged them with people all over the world. When I moved to London in 1997, I was briefly involved in the spoken word scene and finally ‘found my people’ in 2001, when I read in the national lesbian magazine that there was a Ladyfest in the works for London in 2002. At that point I hardly knew anyone who liked the same bands as me or was queer or even a feminist.

RS: What/when were the first events that you were involved with as an organizer?

NJ: Ladyfest London 2002 was the first explicitly feminist and DIY event I helped to organize – and it was pretty queer. I was still involved peripherally with the poetry scene and had some of the people I knew from that come and perform at benefits. I was just coming out onto the gay scene in London in 2001 and volunteered to organize the nightlife aspects of the festival, as it meant having a reason to get really involved in the queer clubs happening at the time and meet DJs and talk to people I might have been to shy to talk to without the ‘shield’ of an event to organize. To this day I love to have fliers on my person to start a conversation with. After the festival, the main core of people carried on putting on shows for local bands and people like Kimya Dawson and members of The Raincoats. We threw parties and brunch shows and were pretty twee, to be honest – our collective was called The Bakery… and I remember in 2003, for The Gossip’s London show, I made loads of gingerbread biscuits and decorated them to look like the band. That kind of thing. Later it became more about considering identity issues – talking and writing about feminism, race, gender, sexuality, etc. – but for me, at least, in the early days I admit it was mostly about chasing girls, learning to knit, and eating cake while playing records.

RS: How did you find/meet other organizers/publicize those events?

NJ: With Ladyfest I got the email address of the organizing committee from Diva magazine, and when I emailed them I got a reply back straight away from Amy, who it turned out had written to my best friend at school and read our zine. She was living with Maddy at the time, who I’d been penpals with through the zine network and had then become friends with. The world suddenly got a lot smaller and more exciting. The people at the meetings had all met on message boards or at shows or through the zine network, and unlike most Ladyfests, we became friends after organizing the festival rather than starting out as a clear group – which is probably why most of us are still friends. We’re about to have a 10th anniversary reunion and everyone seems excited about it.

That festival – which was the first Ladyfest in England – acted as a hub for a lot of people. Looking back, a lot of the people who put on DIY/queer/feminist shows in places like Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, etc. were all there, and after a year or so of other festivals springing up, there was a ready-made tour network for bands to use if they wanted to do a UK tour because we mostly all carried on putting on shows and events. There were also listservs – Yahoo groups and the like – that we used a lot. Mostly we all just knew each other and would pass on bands to each other via email.

In terms of publicity there was a lot of flier making. I still cut and paste fliers and photocopy them but these days there are fewer places to put them. There used to be a big circuit in London that would get fliered for events – queer cafes, the women’s bookshop, lesbian bars, lots of record shops, the women-only sex shop – nearly all of them are gone now and no one fliers in the same way. Now I would say that I rely on Facebook events pages mostly. I don’t even bother with press releases most of the time, but before we always would and there was a good chance we’d be listed in Time Out or The Guardian. I don’t think people buy print media for that kind of information anymore.

RS: How did you fund those early events?

NJ: We held benefit shows for the big events like Ladyfest and Ladies Rock! UK. We got a couple of sponsors for the rock camp and some really good in-kind donations. For smaller shows I try and work on a door split or something similar, but there have been plenty of times when I’ve put up the money myself and just hoped for the best, which doesn’t feel that viable anymore.

RS: What parts of social media do you recognize as a continuation of DIY culture?

NJ: Facebook, for all its problems, is a very helpful DIY form of communication. You can throw up a page in seconds – let people know of changes to events and answer queries, etc. When I look at the fliers I’ve been putting out into the unknown for the past decade – all with my personal email and phone number on them – it is amazing that I thought that was okay. It is nice to be able to offer personal interaction through a less personal medium like an event page now.

When we ran a campaign to stop the eviction of Lambeth Women’s Project recently, Facebook was really helpful but what was more powerful was Twitter – especially on the day when the school (who manage the building and were trying to evict us) locked a bunch of women into the building by adding new locks. Twitter meant that people knew about this straight away and came down to be legal observers. Local bloggers came down and took photos and wrote about the event, and our own emergency blog had heavy traffic over that time. People were reading about our situation on Twitter and just popping in with donations of food or money. One of our friends was able to produce a couple of videos about our nightly protests and the project itself and posted them online within days of the original eviction threat. All these social media outlets really came into their own when it became about sharing our experiences and truths.

RS: What are the most recent events/organizing you’ve been involved in?

NJ: The campaign to save Lambeth Women’s Project (LWP) earlier this year (it looks like an eviction will still happen, but we are in a considerably better position than before and were able to raise enough money to take legal action). Initially we just wanted the local people to know what was being illegally taken from them (the eviction is illegal because LWP still has a valid lease to share the building with the local school), so I suggested that we start a nightly pot-banging protest. I’d been really inspired by the stories coming out of Montreal and was getting very weary of endless demonstrations (around the government cuts mostly) here, where we’d all turn up and trudge around endlessly shouting and exhausting ourselves. Instead I thought it would be more effective to go and stand in the middle of Brixton (stationary protests do not need a permit in the UK) and bang pots for a single hour every night. We did this for about 10 days. Some days there were only 3 people, some days nearly 30. We made a huge amount of noise, handed out fliers, talked to local people, put up posters and made some joyful noise that allowed us to get rid of some of the anxiety and frustration we felt. Much better than shouting and we got lots of attention without losing our voices.

Other than that, I still put on the occasional show under my ongoing project The Closet Mixtape. Mostly for friends – like you (because I’d be sad if you didn’t come to London at least once a year!) or bands like STLS, who I really wanted to see play in the UK. In April I got together with the organizers of Scumbag, a queer club in London, and Club Milk, who put on shows, and we held a queer all-day show called Power Queers in a venue called Power Lunches. That was fun, but not at all financially viable really, given the cost of everything in London.

These days I am teaching full-time and have also been programming films and events for the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival for a few years, so a lot of my energy goes into that. But when I have time, I try to organize around QPOC stuff and have been having ad-hoc get-togethers at my place under ‘The Interfaith Bollywood Gang – South London Chapter’ and more recently, POCluck dinners. I’ve always liked the idea that the personal is political, and by bringing the community into my home, even on a small scale, I feel like I am doing something to help sustain it – in a way that is also nourishing and sustainable for me and balances out the big, more formal work that happens at the film festival for example.

RS: Are there any older models that you think worked better or could be incorporated into newer ones?

NJ: I think it is still important to keep hard-copy fliers, minutes, calendars, etc. in circulation – I’ve spent a lot of time looking at out-of-print books, archives, journals, ephemera, etc. in recent years. That is really where I’ve learnt about how our community has developed and what came before. In Britain, I think we can sometimes look too much to America for inspiration and more recently I’ve tried to find out more about organizing around gender and race in Britain. Our contexts are actually pretty different and in order to work on viable solutions we need to look at what is going on at home – which isn’t necessarily best done on the internet.

Also, social media is great for gathering people in the moment but what happens when the website hosting all your notes and history decides to delete all their content? People in my generation for example have lost everything they ever committed to Friendster (that’s what we were all playing with pre MySpace and FB, young people) – which might not be much but whatever it was (dates of events, who went to what with who, relationships, loves, links, the development of a shared queer language), it is gone now. We should, where possible, be keeping good records of the work we do – even the stuff that doesn’t seem that important. Donate your notes, your diaries, your fliers and photos to archives if you can. Go out and interact with the people who were doing similar work before you and who are attempting to move your community forward too. Get off the internet sometimes and talk to people.

RS: What do you think are the most pressing issues in the queer community?

NJ: I think this really depends on where you are and who you are… and I couldn’t offer an answer on behalf of the whole queer community. For me, I’d say that the dismantling of the welfare state in the UK and the curtailing of civil liberties… these are the things I worry about. Within my queer bubble, I might worry about racism within our community, the struggle to talk about difficult relationships that fracture our chosen families, and various abuses of privileges. But I think, right now, we should be thinking outside of the queer community, because globally things look like they are going to get worse… and legal gay marriage is going to mean bugger all if you can’t access healthcare, education, or the right to free speech. Britain is going backwards – there are schools that plan to start teaching Creationism this year, the far right is on the rise and marching through the streets… most of the queer people I am friends with are focusing on immigration or sex worker activism, which I wish I had more time to get involved with. Even the feminist community is getting more right wing here – it is depressing.

RS: Do you think social media can be used to continue work on these issues?

NJ: Yes I think so. There are so many issues and for me, social media and talking to my friends means that I at least hear about some of the things I perhaps don’t have time to get involved with, like the increase in immigration raids locally or where the EDL (English Defense League) might be marching next and where the counter-protest might be gathering. The internet also means that I can keep in touch with my friends all over the world and share experiences… or just hang out with people without having to leave the house – which is a pretty good short-term way of dealing with community burn out: download a rom-com and Skype with your pals across the road and across the ocean… then get up and fight another day.

 

Rae Spoon is a Canadian indie/electronic musician and author. They have six albums and have toured in Canada, the USA, Australia and Europe. In Fall 2012, Arsenal Pulp Press published their first book, First Spring Grass Fire. www.raespoon.com

Nazmia Jamal is a programmer at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and recently co-curated a workshop at Tate Modern with Toronto’s Feminist Art Gallery. She teaches at a high school and secretly hopes that her students will become radicals who save us all. nazmiaijamal@gmail.com