Making Space in Montreal’s music scene

A new organization aims to make the music community a more welcoming and inclusive place for everyone.

Ari Swan 5

Ari Swan during a POP Montreal performance. Swan will be moderating a conversation organized by the Making Space collective.

Montreal is considered by many to be a progressive, inclusive city in many respects—our creative communities are tight-knit and supportive, cultivating a strong DIY culture of experimentation with enthusiasm for the marginal and non-mainstream. Ask around however, and it won’t take long to discover that our scenes are not as welcoming as they could be. Women, people of colour, disabled people and LGBT communities frequently experience obstacles and discomfort or even outright oppression and danger when navigating our venues and creative scenes.

It’s with the goal of identifying and working towards eliminating these barriers that a group of Montreal musicians have formed a collective called Making Space: Reflecting on the Limits of Our Scenes, and will be hosting the first of a series of community conversations on the topic at Bar Le Ritz PDB on Sunday, June 5 at 3 p.m.

Each conversation will be centred around a different theme, with the first event ‘exploring racism and the way it manifests in the independent music scene of Montréal’s Mile End and adjacent neighbourhoods.’ On the panel will be Peggy Hogan (Hua Li), Markus Lake (Markus Floats, Sheer Agony), Julie Richard (Orkestar Kreminal, Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra), Jamie Thompson (Esmerine, formerly Islands) and Jef Elise Barbara, with Ari Swan acting as moderator.

To learn more about the new collective and the conversations it hopes to spark, we caught up with organizers James Goddard (Shining Wizard), Ari Swan, Gregory Burton (Bantam Wing) and Noah Bick with a few questions of our own:

Lisa Sproull: How did it happen that you all came together to form this collective?

Noah Bick: I was inspired by an event in Toronto co-organized by my pal April (Hooded Fang and Phedre) and I was thinking about helping put together something like this. We reached out to a bunch of rad panelists and most of them said yes.

Ari Swan: I was really into the idea, and given how personal this topic is for me I knew that I needed to be a part of building this event. So I approached Noah and Greg, who were the initial organizers, and said that I’d like to be involved. I can’t lie, it’s a HUGE dream for me to moderate a discussion like this.

We described it as ‘An ongoing series exploring marginalization within Montreal music scenes. We hope in the future to use this forum to ‘call-out’ manifestations of oppression in other music scenes.’ I particularly like this phrasing because it really shows how much we want to focus on creating a public space for frequently uncomfortable but totally necessary discussions.

James Goddard: I was watching what happened in Toronto around the band now known as Preoccupations [ed: the band recently changed their name after a public controversy over their previous, culturally insensitive name], and there was another huge conflict around an Awesome Tapes from Africa party. That actually led to a really cool art piece by Nadijah Robinson. These things got me thinking about the Montreal scene and I heard Noah was organizing around this and wanted to get involved.

LS: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in the Montreal music scene and how those experiences led you to take action in this way?

AS: My own musical experience in Montreal has been varied. Generally, I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the help I’ve gotten and the opportunities that have presented themselves. But underneath all that, there was (and is, though I’ve been participating in the scene in a different, perhaps more political, way) always an anxiety and a feeling of otherness I couldn’t quite explain. On an obvious level, it’s ‘othering’ to play shows and be the only person of color in venue, or to meet with bookers, promoters, managers, etc. and have them all primarily be white men. On a more insidious level, the question becomes ‘how does that actually affect my ability to fully participate in the scene?’ How do you address how you’re feeling without further marginalizing yourself, or experiencing a ‘gaslighting’ effect that makes you feel like you’re totally imagining everything?

JG: It’s hard to talk about specific experiences because at a certain point all these little things blend into one. How many times am I mistaken for other black people I look nothing like? How many times do weird terms get applied to my music and art because that’s the only way to understand or talk about black artists? Why waste mental space on things others consider irrelevant, y’know? But if you want to know why this might be important (and not just for POC [people of colour]), simply look at the paucity of POC in most of the music scenes in Montreal. We live in such a vibrant city, so why do certain groups of people not engage or feel excluded from certain scenes? We should talk about that.

Gregory Burton: I’ve been hearing friends and acquaintances of colour expressing a lot of pain and frustration regarding racism for some time and wanted to contribute to something that could help in airing those grievances publicly. More recently, the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement really got me thinking and reading and listening more deeply about how racism manifests in ways that I may not always recognize. As a white, cis, heterosexual male, I see my role in the organization of this panel as largely facilitative. I am also still doing a lot of learning.

LS: In my mind, Montreal is a pretty progressive city—at least when the arts scene is concerned—and seems to be getting even more so the longer I’m here. Of course however, there’s still a long way to go before I’d characterize it as welcoming and safe for everybody. In your own experiences in Montreal and elsewhere, would you say Montreal is more or less progressive in these respects than scenes in other cities? Are there any scenes you’ve been a part of that you feel is doing something right that Montreal could catch up on and do better?

AS: The Montreal scene thrives on creating spaces for those on the margins so to speak, in a very general sense (i.e., lots of experimental music venues and festivals, artists that really push boundaries can have an audience, etc.). That means that there IS an audience and a desire from people to have these kinds of discussions. On the other hand, there is still a LOT of reflecting on individual privilege and power that needs to take place. I do find that people tend to get a bit more uncomfortable having these discussions, perhaps out of a desire to keep things neutral and polite? But it does mean that, while everyone might have the vocabulary around racism and its existence, most people aren’t comfortable exploring how their own position lends itself to perpetuating systematic marginalization.

JG: I think it is important to acknowledge that arts scenes are in no way distinct from the broader ecosystems in which they exist. Subcultures or independent communities of practice often replicate the same lines of structural power as the mainstream communities they are attached to, so there’s no way for an arts scene to be more progressive than the city it exists in. If—and this is a very topical Montreal example—most venues are physically inaccessible and the public transport is not very well equipped to handle mobile devices, there is no way that the arts scene can be ‘inclusive.’

I’ve lived a lot of places and in general Montreal seems quite inclusive. In Kingston for example, I got called Nigger on the street regularly. That doesn’t happen here, but we can’t rest on our laurels—we have to engage with why you can often go to shows and see only white folks. Or why a non-white friend of mine says they are afraid of playing music because they feel they will be held to a different standard. I think opening a space for folks to address these issues is a start. But hopefully through this conversation we can see what needs there are and how people might like to develop tools and strategies to address some of these issues.

LS: The first roundtable you’ve organized will address issues of racism and how systemic racism manifests itself in our venues. What are some of the jumping off points you’re hoping to discuss on Sunday?

AS: Our goal for this discussion is really to provide a space where voices that are usually marginalized can use their own lived experiences to drive the conversation. We have some pre-composed questions of course, but we’re really hoping the questions (that look more broadly at how we discuss racism in the art world, how our panelists have experienced racism, etc.) can lead to a conversation between the panelists. So we will start with a panel discussion and then end with about 30 minutes for audience questions.

LS: What are your ideal outcomes for the series and the first event?

AS: For me, an ideal outcome for both this event and the series at large is to shift the focus from teaching people in a dominant group about oppressions to giving space to marginalized people to speak their truths without needing to defend themselves. As for this event, I REALLY hope that some kind of tangible change can be felt. The panel will explore what that (i.e., ‘real change’) looks like, but I know that I would deeply saddened if this didn’t inspire some kind of response that takes what we learn together on Sunday and applies it to our scene.

GB: What I personally hope for this and future talks is that they can become normalized. I really hope that events like this can happen regularly and that people continue to feel compelled to attend, engage and listen.

I believe that power dynamics occur as a function of living socially, however if left unchecked can (and historically have) swing wildly out of control. I hope we can encourage folks, particularly white folks and particularly males, to check up with themselves everyday as part of a regular practice of personal reflection about the ways in which they are influenced by those power dynamics, and also to actively make time and space in their lives for that reflection to manifest itself in their relationships with others.

LS: There are so many stakeholders in our music scene, from artists and musicians to technicians, venue workers like owners, bartenders and door people, to audience members and even periphery industries like music equipment retailers. Out of all these groups, do you feel there are any particular spheres where there are more gaps in making safe spaces, where you feel the information coming from these conversations will be particularly well placed if it can reach those ears?

JG: Artists are important because of their visibility. Recently my pal Meghan Merrigan asked male-identified artists to explicitly avoid working with venues or promoters who have bad track records vis-a-vis gender representation, and that kind of thing can make a difference. Promoters need to actively seek out and encourage talent that represents voices that are rarer.

Mostly I wanna reach young, curious non-white / non-male / otherwise marginalized folks who might not feel like they belong, and say ‘yeah, there is space for you. It might be hard won, but how can I help you get into the DIY?’ They know what they need and my realities are already passé.

GB: I think it’s impossible to disconnect any of these perceived areas of interest from one another—racism is all-pervasive. At any step along the way to making, producing and performing great music, there are going to be people in positions of varying degrees of power who need to be aware of how they acquired and how they distribute that power.

What I hope is that the vocabulary for talking about systemic racism is developed well enough among folks of privilege who hold power, and that the willingness to actively address racism and other forms of systemic bigotry becomes strong enough among folks of privilege holding power to make it the norm for those issues to be addressed actively, regardless of what aspect of the music scene one interacts with primarily. I believe it takes all of us.

That said, male sound techs often have a reputation for being particularly shitty. I am also one of those as of recently, and it sucks to have become one of a group that is regularly panned as being particularly sexist, imposing and unwelcoming in general. Let’s please all do better. ■

The first panel discussion from the Making Space: Reflecting On the Limits of Our Scenes collective, tackling racism, takes place Sunday, June 5 at Bar Le Ritz PDB (179 Jean-Talon W.), 3 p.m., free.

Questions for the panelists can be submitted here.