In May, NYC-based rapper Mykki Blanco, techno selector and producer Ciel, and Toronto DJ Bambii were invited by Absolut Vodka to illuminate the ways that Toronto’s inclusive nightlife and programming are a platform for social progress. Winnie Luk of Rainbow Railroad—the Canadian charitable organization which helps LGBTQ+ individuals escape violence and persecution in their home countries—organized the event at Free Space in the Queen West neighbourhood to highlight the city’s leading progressive nightlife communities, and celebrate the dance floor as a catalyst for global change.
Global change may seem like a lofty ideal, but Absolut’s “Tomorrow Tonight” panel is a symptom of a new climate where growing numbers of communities recognize the value of diversity. Underground communities like It’s Not U It’s Me want to promote these progressive ideals in order to promote the cultural value of their city as a whole. The intention is to overhaul nightlife’s status quos on inclusivity from the ground up, in order to compel commercial nightlife and corporations to follow suit, as they desperately look to the underground for ways to stay relevant.
Music Canada is a non-profit organization that promotes the interests of artists, and advocates for the protection of music’s value. Music Canada recently released the report, “Keys to a Music City: Examining the Merits of Music Offices”, as a follow-up to its 2015 study, “The Mastering of a Music City”. Authored by the organization’s Executive Vice President Amy Terrill and Policy Analyst Ramiah Ismail, one of the key points raised within the document is the importance of putting “political champions” (government affiliates who endorse and advocate for music’s value) in legislative power in order to enact the kind of evolution that keeps the entertainment economy thriving.
Between the lack of financial backing and outdated bylaws at the municipal level, the music economy faces fundamental obstacles that stunt its growth. These initiatives are a direct reflection of the way that entertainment organizations often find themselves in a corporate chokehold. It’s ironic then that the “Tomorrow, Tonight” panel—which highlighted the merits of underground and DIY nightlife—was also corporately sponsored.
It’s for these reasons that underground communities are inherently suspicious of brand involvement. Promoter Cindy Li asserts how, “it’s a money-making thing where entities that were never doing the work before four years ago all of a sudden say they’re progressive, only for you to find out later that behind the scenes they pay their female artists a third of what they pay their male artists.” This is problematic, because then we’re left with artists who are starving for whatever compensation they can get, which often skews not only their moral principles, but the entertainment industry’s pay scale as a whole.
The financial power that comes with corporate involvement, however, makes it a necessary evil. Mykki Blanco jumped in to recall when he was offered a budget from Pornhub to produce a music video, which caused problems for him among feminist circles. “I completely understand why, but one of the things I had to tell them was, listen, you don’t have any idea how being Mykki Blanco—all the shit with my identity—how difficult it is to get big budgets,” he said. “When someone presents a budget to you, it’s like, okay, well, how evil are you? It is a thing.”
Nightlife easily becomes expensive, regardless of whether you’re attending or throwing the event. Those who organize parties or create media depend on that income for their survival. “There are very few opportunities for artists of colour to make that much capital,” Bambii told the audience. “Just get the coin and then flip it into something that’s sincere and progressive.” While music is a significant driver of economic activity, capitalism and equity often struggle to find common ground. Generally, promoters are more interested in commercially lucrative artists than they are in equitable bookings. This creates the misconception that booking marginalized artists will have a negative impact on attendance.
Promoters like Cindy Li of Work in Progress or Bambii’s through her JERK parties are fighting for this visibility. Unfortunately, marginalized people are often held to scrupulous standards of diversity and inclusivity within their bookings that their white male counterpart rarely faces.
“The way I navigate who I choose to work with has a lens—a lens that I do not witness on my white peers,” detailed Bambii. “Obviously, it’s also because I propagate a certain kind of politic, but reality needs to be considered, and the fact that I’m a real person who has to pay for shit.”
The assumption that mainstream nightlife is solely reserved for conservative heteronormative individuals and their peers is misguided. Underground culture invites all communities to participate—from the alternative and nonconforming members of society, to the white-collared and open-minded.
Cindy Li pointed out that there is a striking visual difference between Toronto’s techno scene, and parties like Jill Foster’s queer-positive Yes Yes Y’all. She detailed the impact of the straight white male’s monopoly on the community, which results in the scene’s resistance to diversity.
“I’ve seen a lot of people of colour abandon techno in Toronto—not because they don’t like techno, but because they don’t feel welcome in those spaces,” she said. “I really believe that you have to work with men, work with the establishment if you want these ideas to spread, and in a lot of those spaces, I really have to watch how much of my own values I have to compromise in order to seem more palatable, and easy to work with.”
Abandonment of local scenes in any form jeopardizes the overall health of the entertainment economy, because commercial nightlife pulls so much of its core substance, such as headliner bookings or genre curation, from these communities. Underground communities are imploring that change be enacted in the face of the threat that these communities are withering.
If the local government understood the extent of music’s contribution to a city’s cultural capital, the willingness to financially support these communities could amplify the political agendas of these organizations. Their inclusive perspectives are the necessary ingredient that drive the global move towards acceptance of diversity. They enable a cultural fabric that unifies a city’s various communities and identities, and have the ability to imbue cities like Toronto with a global reputation for its entertainment.
As parties are woven into our weekly lives, the ideas that are housed on the dance floor become a reflection of the ideals of those who attend. In turn, nightlife accumulates its political weight, and enables a radical shift in mainstream dialogues—particularly about sexuality, diversity, and gender parity. What began in Toronto with a growing resistance to pervasive misogynist cultures is now amplifying the pressure for change from observing corporate giants. This is underground music’s most crucial ability—its potential to disrupt the status quo, and remodel the infrastructure that enables an entertainment economy to thrive.
Corinne Przybyslawski is on Twitter.