There’s no eye rolling nor dancefloor exodus as the recognizable first few deep bass notes of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” play at Dame, an all women and non-binary DJ event held at Vancouver’s Red Gate Art Society. By the time the chorus hits, the 100-person crowd has erupted into a sing-a-long. It’s difficult to think of a time that perhaps anyone had heard this song played at a hip, all-vinyl DJ night. (Compare that to that one Wire song that’s practically mandated at other vinyl nights.)
The recently-launched night Dame (held also at the Fox Cabaret’s Projection Room) is run by DJ Paisley Eva, who brings in established local DJs as well as women new to spinning. “What they play is so different, I feel like I’ve been hearing the same things for so long,” says Eva of the rotating women DJs. “It’s cool to have a girl playing Donna Summers and another girl playing post-punk, and they go really well together.”
The night is, in part, a response to the recent wave of sexual assault allegations within Vancouver’s nightlife community. Like so many other industries across the globe, Vancouver’s club and DJ scene has been exposed as perpetuating a culture of misogyny, abuse, and exclusion. The allegations, made predominantly through social media, included numerous accounts of sexual misconduct, assault, and rape perpetrated by event organizers and DJs of prominence in the city.
In the months since those accounts, Vancouver’s #MeToo rally (part of a movement originated 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke) brought together people in solidarity, and organizations like Good Night Out stepped up to protect vulnerable persons such as women of colour, non-binary folks, and the queer community. Though there’s disagreement on exactly how to confront the issue, most agree that the power structures that dominate Vancouver’s party scene are overwhelmingly white, cisgender, hetero, and male.
To better understand how the scene is changing, we talked to event organizers and DJs who focus on diversity and quality. They told VICE that dismantling the boy’s club will require more than a social media callout or women-run party or two. Vancouver nightlife is a small and delicate ecosystem where everybody knows each other, so callouts and criticism aren’t always taken well.
“I felt bad that this was all happening, but I also felt like I was always being told that I was this crazy bitch and then there were a bunch of people that had been told the same thing,” says Cherchez la Femme, a longtime local DJ and promoter in regards to the allegations last November. “I think just it’s been a long time coming. It's always been really male dominated in Vancouver and I felt personally that it was OK when you were working under men, but when you are in charge you’re crazy or you’re a bitch.”
Vancouver has long been referred to as No Fun City, a reputation not helped by the bylaws and province-wide restrictions surrounding liquor sales, nightclubs, and live music venues. Major nightlife corporations such as Live Nation and Blueprint Events run the biggest clubs, venues, and bars. However, the city boasts a small but robust league of after-hours organizations and venues like Interessions and Vancouver Art and Leisure that help to support alternative and queer events that focus on equality and visibility.
Cherchez la Femme, who previously worked as a DJ and promoter at Vancouver’s popular nightclub Fortune Sound Club, recognized a shift within the culture of the organization when it was purchased by Blueprint Events. With a stronger focus on growing mainstream audiences, she found it more difficult to develop new talent with stranger taste. “I felt this overbearing ‘we know what we're doing you don’t know what you’re doing.’ One of the owners of the big company told me, ‘I’m going to show you how to make money’ and I just had an anxiety attack like I know what I’m doing.”
Organizations such as Blueprint Events and their space Fortune Sound Club have, of recent, made changes to their lineups to address concerns of representation. Cherchez la Femme points to a recent queer event, Babes on Babes, held during a lucrative long weekend at Fortune Sound Club, as being an example of such necessary change. “Babes on Babes doing the long weekend at Fortune, that would have never happened before, the long weekend is when you make money,” she says.
Within these corporate structures, and the afterhours scene, educational policies and reform are starting to gain traction. Ensuring inclusive language on party posters and promotion, harm reduction services, and naloxone kits on-site are some of the early steps taken in the city. Daniyah Angel Sh, a social justice organizer, has long been bringing her political activism into the nightlife community as a way to mediate and encourage reform. “Vancouver is ground zero for the opioid crisis, we’re in a very distinct location for a lot of things to be emerging. It really just indicates what a bubble Vancouver’s nightlife community is in,” she explains. “Things like anti-oppression and gentrification are still relatively new concepts.”
Angel Sh, who has thrown events for Vancouver’s Davie Street Pride Festival and DJs gigs with Babes on Babes, has put together workshops ranging from technical knowhow shares with DJ programs like Ableton and CDJs, to classes on decolonization.
Working between politics and the nightlife scene, Angel Sh sees herself as building connections between two currently diserpate entities. Finding space to organize and education within the nightlife community becomes an issue of finding space, time, and resources to do so. As Angel Sh acknowledges, there isn’t yet a place for the work she is doing in traditional models. “I love music and I want to see this community thrive and succeed and it’s really just a matter of making a space for me to do my work,” she says. “Because what I do is such a threat to the status quo that it’s a really steep climb right off the bat.”
DJ Softie Shan, who is also part of organizations like Pep Talk and Intersessions focuses on holding the venues she plays for accountable for equality and diversity. Education, no matter where she is performing, is central to her involvement. “I play at a lot of DIY and mainstream places, as well, and I think that holds a lot of spaces I play at accountable,” she says. “Like, what are your safe space practices? If I’m going to DJ here I want to know what policy is being implemented. A lot of time venues need artists just as much as we need places to play in, and so [I can make a difference by] just letting the owners and the promoters know and taking into account peoples experiences.”
That education, Softie Shan emphasizes, has to be a community effort. “People don’t know what it’s like being a black woman making music, so sharing that I think more than ever people are wanting to listen and are wanting to be educated,” she says. “I also have a lot of supportive white friends who are willing to do some of the education for me. It’s hard and emotionally exhausting to engage with every person online who might not understand why we need spaces for people of colour. So there are a couple really great white friends with links on hand who will do that engaging, because part of educating is understanding that this work shouldn’t always fall on people in marginalized groups.”
However, there is relevant skepticism and concerns about tokenism surrounding the use of females, non-binary, and women of colour as marketing tools. Softie Shan shares these worries. “You just hope that genuinely when they get on board that they care and that they’re not just doing it now because it's trending and they could get called out or it’s bad for business.”
How these systems are integrated into larger, more structured nightlife organizations is still a question to be addressed. Implementing long-lasting and meaningful change within organizations built on ladies’ nights and objective imagery requires radical changes in leadership. To take down the boy’s club, it first needs to close.