"The Assumption Is That I'm a Prop": On Being a Woman of Color in the Indie Music Scene
Coming of age at post-hardcore, indie folk, lo-fi, twee shows in Pennsylvania, I never expected or looked for diversity on stage or in the crowd at shows. I had grown accustomed to being the only person of color in attendance. I was a child of the suburbs and used to existing in predominately, if not all, white spaces. In the latter days of my twenties, my experiences in the scene -- like being asked if I was a "halfie" by a girl in the Music Hall of Williamsburg bathroom or being assigned hip-hop coverage by editors once my ethnicity is made apparent -- have left me starved for more diversity. Whiteness and indie rock do not have to be inseparable, but the enforcement of that idea has made me contemplate how other women of color [WOC] in the scene have negotiated, navigated, and survived in the predominantly white landscape of indie rock.
For Brooklyn based singer, songwriter, and rock visionary Tamar-kali's experience as a WOC musician in the indie scene struck a chord with my experiences as a fan. "[The] overall understanding [of] the aesthetic that comes to mind when one hears 'indie rock' is a dominating force in the industry," she explains. "Therefore, voices or bodies that do not fit that mold are interpreted as novel or less authentic. This paradigm leaves so much to be desired and so many stones unturned. It's either the usual suspects or the occasional token." On-stage or off, tokenism alongside gender-based discrimination, especially within the space of the concert venue, can be problematic. "It is a function of living in American society," Tamar-kali explains. "Sexism in general is the primary nuisance as a female musician. Gender pretty much trumps all on the everyday working level. That is the issue most prevalent in my experience. No matter how many shows I do, I [am] almost never... approached by front of house sound staff when a question concerning my set up needs to be asked. Even after introducing myself formally. The assumption is that I am a prop, barely even a front person and certainly not the captain of the ship."
Despite such instances of discrimination, the indie scene has also served as a space where solidarity has been fostered. "I bonded with some of my best women friends [and] musicians in the late 90's and organized shows we called Riots as 'Sista Grrrls,'" Tamar-kali recalls. "It spoke to the lack of identification and visibility for WOC in punk rock, hardcore and indie rock."