Women Clap Back: Talking with Laina Dawes

What does it mean to “clap back” in the face of discrimination and stereotyping as a woman in the arts? A wide-ranging group of creatives gathered together on Saturday, April 30, at Eugene Lang College The New School of Liberal Arts in New York City to explore this question as part of Women Clap Back In Music and the Arts.

The one-day symposium aimed to unpack how women who are active in alternative music scenes like metal or punk—as well as women who are DJs, writers, journalists, photographers, pornographers, and filmmakers—push beyond the assumptions they face on a daily basis and continue with their creative pursuits despite discrimination.

Music journalist, author, and avid heavy music fan Laina Dawes organized the event. Her work has been featured in SPIN, Cuepoint, and The Guardian, among many others, and she is the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal. Dawes is also an adjunct lecturer at The New School. Femchord had the opportunity to speak with Dawes about organizing and moderating the event, as well as her experience as a woman in alternative music scenes.


femchord: You have collaborated with many of the women who spoke at Women Clap Back in the past. How did you go about organizing the panels?

Laina Dawes: There is a generation of young women who are working in artistic practices where there are very few ethno-cultural minorities, such as cosplay, graphic art and design, music journalism, and photography—but you would never know it by looking at the media. I wanted to create a space where these women, who are simply doing what they feel called to do artistically, are celebrated. It is extremely difficult to be a minority within these scenes, so this event aimed to let these women talk about their experiences.

Some of the panel ideas came from collaborating with my friend and one of the event moderators, Justina Villaneuva. As an instructor at The New School and from talking to students—both as a teacher and when I was a graduate student—I felt that there were a number of female undergraduates who needed a space to talk about their artistic practices that didn’t correlate with their lives on campus. Villaneuva and I both work within the New York City metal scene, and we wanted to talk about the music industry as a whole, since there have been issues with women’s experiences being purposefully left out in “industry” panels.

I also felt that it was important to create a panel based on sex and sexuality, simply because it was a topic I had little knowledge on. As Kristen Korvette’s work is focused on this and she has created an online magazine highlighting women of color who are involved in the burlesque scene and alternative sexuality work, I thought it would be a great addition. The interview with Simone Maurice came from being impressed with her work, which incorporates visual media with activism within the entertainment industry.

fc: During the “Navigating Race and Feminism in the Music Industry” panel, Dianca London commented that finding catharsis in connecting with like-minded women is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing about the music she is passionate about, despite the alienation she has often felt as a woman of color interested in alternative genres. Do you think being a part of this symposium had a cathartic effect on the women involved?

LD: That was my aim in creating this symposium. From personal and professional experience, I know that safe spaces for women of color to express their experiences within the arts scene are a rarity. I enjoy creating spaces for networking and developing new friendships, and I was pleased that the women who attended and spoke at Women Clap Back were able to find common ground through sharing both positive and challenging experiences, despite the diversity of their voices and backgrounds.

fc: Did any of the conversations surprise you or grow into something you wouldn’t have expected?

LD: Samantha Hollins (GhettoSongBird)’s experiences as a female guitarist and bandleader were particularly frustrating to hear. It almost seemed like she had to resign herself emotionally to the fact that while she is driven to succeed, it is always going to be a difficult road for her. It was important for her to share her story, and her determination to create the art that she is passionate about is inspiring.

fc: An overarching theme of the day was women actively engaging in the creative pursuits they’re passionate about in spite of the many obstacles they face in alternative scenes, like metal and punk music, and on a daily basis as women of color and/or women who identify as gender non-conforming. How did the conversations that took place help to dismantle the idea that women do not belong and should not be welcome in these alternative creative spaces?

LD: In some ways, just their presence alone is enough to dismantle notions that they do not belong within these scenes. Not that this was a surprise, but the sheer power of these women’s experiences, education, and determination to continue on during challenging times, solidified their right to do what they want to do, regardless of societal pressure to be placed within a box. There is no logical reason for people to believe that women cannot do whatever they want. However, I have received many messages from young black women, and a few men, who are really feeling pressure not to embark on artistic careers that would—and I say this sarcastically—take them out of the “black” community.

fc: Why do you think that women—particularly women of color—have been marginalized in these alternative scenes? It seems particularly contradictory given that genres like metal and punk are known as safe havens for people who feel marginalized.

LD: It is contradictory, which is why I love talking about it. I believe that women of color are drawn to energetic, aggressive music for the same reasons anyone else is. I argue that the music is particularly relevant to them, as it serves as a way to vent out the pain, frustration, and anger that they experience as marginalized people. Because our society places an emphasis on silencing women—specifically women of color—the music serves as a healthy way to express frustrations that they will be punished for expressing in the greater society. The women on the extreme music panel demonstrated that despite the challenges, it is worth staying involved in the industry for that reason.

In addition, I firmly believe that no scene should be exclusionary towards people of color. Music is for enjoyment, and the scene is for cultivating communities who have a shared passion for whatever genre they are into. Since I see no logic in what is happening, I continue to be very vocal about creating ways to eliminate exclusion.

fc: What do you think the symposium achieved? Do you think it empowered and encouraged women who might be hesitant to pursue their interests in alternative scenes? (I’m thinking of one moment in particular during the “To be a Musician…and a Woman” panel, when Samantha Hollins reached out to Destiny Washington and said that she would love to guide her as she moves forward with her pursuits to start her own band.)

LD: That is a perfect example of what I wanted to achieve with this symposium. Currently, we are stuck between wanting to be seen as individual artists, regardless of our gender and/or ethnicity, and wanting to find communion with others who share our gender and/or ethnicity because we need their inspiration and support. Events like Women Clap Back allow black women working in extreme or rock music to connect with others who might have had some trepidation in getting involved in areas that are minefields due to anti-black racism.

fc: As a music journalist, author, and heavy music fan yourself, did you relate to much of what the panelists had to say? What inspired you to bring women together to discuss these issues?

LD: Definitely! I have experienced a lot of what these women are going through, and it saddens me to see it still happening to the younger generation, despite the social and technological advances that have happened since I was a kid. As a Canadian who grew up in a rural environment and within a family where my parents and siblings were white, I’m astounded that the same experiences are happening to black women who grew up in cities, among a more culturally diverse community. This signified to me that there is really an issue that needs to be discussed, regardless of our backgrounds. As an academic and an author, I enjoy putting on these events as I plan to have a long career as an educator. More importantly, I do not want anyone to go through what I have experienced in my life, in relation to feeling completely isolated and alone because of my gender, ethnicity, and music preferences.

fc: In addition to buying their music, art, films, books, etc., what are some other ways that people can support these creatives, bring attention to their work, and keep the conversation going?

LD: Speak out when you see unjust behavior. Question how journalists exclude or demean women or women of color within the media’s representation of artists. Try to promote women of color’s artistic endeavors on your social media pages. One of the issues that keeps the belief that women of color do not exist in these areas—or do not belong in alternative culture—is that they do not receive any visibility. One of the major factors in continuing discrimination is that while allies do exist, they refuse to speak up or defend women within the scene in public spaces.

fc: You mentioned in your closing remarks that you’re hoping this will be the first of many Women Clap Back events. Do you have any future symposiums currently in the works?

LD: I’m starting my PhD in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University in the fall. I’m hoping that we might be able to have another event there! It is also imperative that events like this happen outside of institutional spaces. Depending on time and financial resources, I would like to organize another event soon.

Click here to learn more about the women who spoke at Women Clap Back.


Photo (from left to right): Samantha Hollins / Ghettosongbird, Maya Choy-Sutton, Crystal Durant

Author: Natalie Slack

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