Three Female Canadian DJs Discuss Gender Inequality in the Dance World
Misstress Barbara, Bambii, and Shaydakiss speak out on sexism and the state of the industry.
Image courtesy of Ben Ruby
Last year THUMP's Zel McCarthy wrote an essay entitled, "EDM Doesn't Have a Woman Problem, It Has a Straight White Guy Problem." In it, he outlined many of the issues women in electronic and dance music communities worldwide face, including sexism, racism, and homophobia. While there's been plenty of discussions about what can be done to correct gender imbalance—whether that be with festival lineups, club bookings, or largely, positions of industry power typically only granted to white, hetero males—there's plenty of systemic changes to address.
Inspired by THUMP's Gender Equality in Dance Music panel at last year's Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival, we decided to speak to three talented Canadian artists playing this year's Igloofest in Montreal, to hear about their experiences as women in the industry and find out where they envision the conversation heading.
Misstress Barbara: Montreal-based techno producer and founder of record label Iturnem. Igloofest will mark Barbara's 20th year in the industry.
Bambii: Up-and-coming Toronto producer who's been making a name for herself by hosting local parties and dropping eclectic mixes.
Shaydakiss: House/hip-hop producer who's been a staple in Montreal's club scene since 2005.
THUMP: Let's start by talking specifically about sexism in Canadian dance music. Do you think the issue of gender inequality is more or less prevalent in your hometown than it is elsewhere?
Misstress Barbara: I think it's an issue everywhere. I don't think Montreal is different than any other place when it comes down to gender equality. It's always the same story. We live in a inated world and even though there are very successful women, they will always be regarded as women. When there's a woman DJ, they'll say she is a successful female DJ, but I don't understand why gender needs to be underlined.
Bambii: That's a hard one because I've only played Toronto, New York, and Montreal. I think that in New York, there's more of a political dialogue around gender and race in dance music than there is here—especially because of GHE20G0TH1K and that whole movement. There's a bunch of DJs starting these conversations, but there's not a movement, so I'd say Toronto is a little bit behind.
Shaydakiss: In Montreal, the community is very open and receptive to talent and creativity, so personally I've been lucky enough to never really feel like a female DJ. I've never had an issue with people not being open to having me as part of the event because I'm a girl. I think it's based on the history of Montreal being such an innovative city, a musical city, since the 1970s. It's always been a place where people could express themselves and be creative without any kind of negative energy.
In what ways have you personally experienced sexism?
Misstress Barbara: I think my producing career has been affected by my gender. I've produced lots of music, I've probably released 40 EPs, if not more. If you multiply that between two-four tracks, that's a lot of tracks, and two full albums as well. But I'm pretty sure that if instead of Barbara, I had been called John Smith, I would have had a different outcome as a producer. I've had a very successful career, but it may have been even more successful had I been a man. I would never complain about the career I've had, and I think I'm a good producer. I really don't think that my music sounds shit, however, it's never been as successful as I expected it to be.
Bambii: I've had instances where people say fucked up things to me. Not so much now, because I think once you gain a reputation people are less likely to say stuff, but definitely when I started DJing. It used to be explicit where I'd get hit on in a really obvious way. I remember it was like my third gig and someone came up to me and said. "I really didn't like your set, but I can see your tits, so it's okay." When a guy comes up to his favourite male DJ, you're not touching the small of his back, why are you touching the small of my back?
Shaydakiss: I've been in situations where people assume that I'm a damsel in distress. I'll be in the booth with my boyfriend, who's also a DJ, and people will say like, "hey, I've got a tip" to me but they won't say anything to him. You have to prove yourself in a way that men don't have to.
When you tell people you're a musician, what assumptions do they make?
Misstress Barbara: They'll ask me what instrument I play, and then I'll respond, "I'm a producer." I have to tell them that I don't really have an instrument, my instrument is the studio.
Bambii: People assume that I DJ only in certain spaces. I'll say I'm a DJ, but then they think I'm doing like pop-up shops or fashion-related things. They don't think I'm doing real, large-scale events. When people picture girls DJing they picture you in a store on [Toronto's] Queen Street.
All three of you perform under monikers that are distinctly female. Was that a conscious decision to identify your gender in your name?
Misstress Barbara: In the beginning, I was just Barbara. Since there were not many women, people were calling me Lady Barbara or Miss Barbara, and I was like, "Where do you see 'lady' or 'miss' before my name? Don't you understand it's just DJ Barbara?" I hated it so much.People were putting all kinds of [prefixes] before my name. I was like "Jesus Christ." If I put one myself, then they couldn't call me lady.
Bambii: The funny thing about Bambii is is it came from the character in the Disney movie and it's actually a male name, he's like the prince of the forest. Often times, I call myself Prince Bambii, like a young prince Bambi. It's funny that it's seen as this female name because it's actually a male name. It's kind of my reference to being gender fluid. I identify as female, but I also have masculine traits. Sometimes I feel like dressing like a boy, sometimes I feel like doing just whatever the fuck I want to do.
Shaydakiss: It's just a nickname I've always had. It's just a play on my name, Shayda. A lot of people are like, "Wow, I thought Shaydakiss was a boy, I didn't realize it was a girl." For me it's like, "What the hell are you talking about?" I don't think it's masculine. It's just people instantly assume DJs are guys.
As a woman, do you think it's more difficult to break into the industry now, or when Barbara started twenty years ago?
Bambii: That's a hard one. Because of the Internet, I would say it's easier now, just because there's more of a dialogue around sexism and misogyny. A lot of the words we used to describe gender-based violence, slut-shaming, or gender constructs didn't even exist five years ago. There was no word for slut-shaming. It was just like a trending conversation that happened amongst a lot of people. These conversations have always been happening, but it was in a very academic space. Now, the common person more or less has a broad understanding of sexism or misogyny.
Shaydakiss: For sure. I find that with social media, you're able to take shit into your own hands and promote yourself and not be dependant on labels or stuff like that. Back then, there was no Internet. You had to break into the clubs through releases on [vinyl] records. Women pioneers like Misstress Barbara and Miss Kittin charged ahead and created the avenue for the next wave of women DJs to follow. It was harder for them because there was no conversation back then. Now, people are paying attention to the inequalities and frustrations of women. But with the Internet, I do feel like you're exposed in a way that's less about the music, and more about the way you look and act. That's annoying.
Misstress Barbara: In 1996 it was really about the music. Now we're always talking about sex. It's really part of the reason why I slowed down. Sometimes it makes me a bit sick to see how the scene has evolved. So, I do my thing, I do what I like, I take what I want, I know [the venues I choose to play will be really strictly about the music, and I focus on the music.
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THUMP: Barbara, from what you've seen at festivals and in the media in recent years, do you think upcoming DJs and producers are presenting themselves in a good way?
Misstress Barbara: With a bunch of new faces in the past few years, I've been like "Wow, who the hell is that." But then I've seen ones that have tits outside their shirts, they do a sexy dance for ten minutes, then play a record, and then do a sexy dance for another ten minutes. I don't care if they're on top of the Beatport charts, I don't care if they're on every festival line-up. I have no respect for that. If you remove the dancing and you remove the boobs, are they really going to make people dance? That's the question we need to ask, and if they do, great, do whatever you want. Most times, if they focus too much on that, there's something else they can't do. I really like someone who is low-key and focusing on the decks and playing music.
THUMP: What can be done to ensure that women in dance music are treated more justly?
Shaydakiss: Just do exactly what the fuck you want to do and don't worry about people judging or doubting you because it's going to happen. Let your work speak for itself. When people ask me that I say don't think about it like "I'm a girl DJ, how can I use this angle?" because that's not what people are going to respect. Don't let your gender be your number one focus.
Bambii: Individualism is not the way to combat any political issue. I think collectives are the way to confront any issue that exist in the arts. You just have strength in numbers, you're using each other's networks. When people see more than one person moving together, whatever idea they're trying to get out just gets out way more efficiently than if it's just one person.
THUMP: Bambii, are you familiar with Discwoman? They're doing something similar to what you're suggesting.
Bambii: As I was saying it, I was thinking of Discwoman. I actually went to their last event [in Toronto]. Because electronic music is so large, and techno is so niche, I feel like that conversation is only hitting a small group of people. Discwoman is really important, it's just so centred around techno, and dance music is so vast. I just wonder how many people it's reaching. The conversation needs to be happening in more spaces.
THUMP: On a more positive note, tons of women will be performing at this year's Igloofest. Why do you think that is?
Misstress Barbara: [The people of] Igloofest are smart and they're not stopping themselves at thinking male or female. They're thinking about talent and deciding who needs to be booked and that's amazing news. Not that I'm surprised. I have a huge respect for them and they are my favourite festival in the world.
Bambii: I think there's more women in dance music than ever. I think there's a lot of women making a lot of noise and that's where the Internet helps. If you have an understanding of aesthetic and social media, you can really propagate yourself in a way that gets you out there. If you're good at the Internet, people are going to book you, so I think that's really cool.
Shaydakiss: [Women] are coming out of the shadows. They've always been there, but I think now they're feeling a little more accepted and appreciated. I think the more they see themselves in other artists, the more they're going to be like "Oh, wow I could do that too."
Misstress Barbara, Shaydakiss, and Bambii will be performing at Igloofest on January 16, 22, and 23, respectively. Tickets are available here.
All interviews were conducted separately by Rebecca Krauss.