Anyone who is familiar with Toronto’s thriving alternative art-punk scene knows that some of the best our city has to offer not only self-identify as women and/or genderqueer, but as vocal feminists. In a society that, for as long as we could remember, appears to be seriously deprived of basic humanity and equality, feminism in our daily conversations and actions is crucial. Toronto’s inaugural Venus Fest, held at Daniels Spectrum last Saturday, placed intersectional feminism front and center as a point of discussion and celebration. Equipped with gender-neutral washrooms, accessible entrances, and sweet ice-breaker activities, Venus Fest had a kind of warmth that is hard to come by. It’s a warmth that comforts, heals, and is just what we need to see more of from today’s festivals and artistic spaces in general.
The festival’s single-day lineup consisted of largely Toronto-based bands, with several international artists wrapping up the festival later on in the evening. Girls Rock Camp alumni HEX ushered in a bold beginning for the festival. The up-and-coming group has already made waves in Toronto’s feminist punk scene– their fifteen year old lead vocalist and guitarist has a voice that can shake you to the core and leave you dumbfounded. Skipping their set was not an option, really, and if you did, then youmissed out. Queen of Swords, spearheaded by Venus Fest founder Aerin Fogel, followed with grace and empowerment. Electro-pop duo Ice Cream bounced and shimmered, effervescent in their melodies and minimalistic pulse.
Witch Prophet elevated with her soulful and sensual flow, backed by DJ SunSun. The duo was captivating, eventually owning one of the most memorable moments of the day when Ayo Leilani dedicated a love song to her partner in music and in life. The laidback vibe hovered in the air, right up to Phedre taking the stage. The glitched-out electronic stylings of April Aliermo and Daniel Lee pulsated with a frenetic energy, matched with twisted edits of early 2000s music videos projected behind them. With guest appearances from HanHan and Bonjay, the spirit of collaboration and celebration of women in music hit a fever pitch.
Simone Schmidt of bluesy psych-rockers The Highest Order has always been a vocal proponent for intersectional feminism, herself stepping outside of the boxes established by the gender binary through her music and in her presentation. Riding on the wave of their 2016 release Still Holding, the group exudes comfort and mastery as a unit, making them one of the most wildly underrated acts in Canadian music. DIANA’s 80s drenched synthpop had the audience dancing along with the band’s hefty lineup. The fullness of their studio sound, particularly from 2016’s Familiar Touch, sweetened and bounced off the space and off of our bodies. Fresh off of her incredible Polaris Prize victory, Lido Pimienta soared and basked in the celebratory glow of the festival’s themes and in her own identity as a powerful and successful racialized woman. With her to celebrate was her 9-year-old son, dancing alongside her onstage, and her mother beaming offstage. Pimienta has an incredible knack for commanding attention with her incredible presence, resilience, and fiery experimental electronic sound.
Weaves, one week shy of their highly anticipated sophomore release Wide Open, have built a reputation as a must-see live act in Toronto’s art-rock scene. The band mostly played songs off of the new album, featuring a more conventional and classic approach to their oddball brand of pop. While the new material is anthemic and, for all intents and purposes, seriously solid stuff, the live act has become somewhat tamer compared to the wildness of their older material. That is, until they ripped through a cover of The Who’s “My Generation”, which found Jasmyn Burke kneeling in the middle of the audience, witnesses sitting and circling around her. Having seen Weaves perform many times before, this became one of their most memorable moments.
The festival closed with a series of international artists, each of them critically lauded and feminist icons in their own right. Madame Gandhi, the ex-drummer for M.I.A., free-bleeding marathon runner, and mind behind “The Future is Female”, showed her technical prowess as a percussionist and performer. Her energy was bountiful and her words were motivational, although her set was cut short. Grouper had the audience sitting and laying on the ground before she even started, her ambient and atmospheric trance leaving everyone stunned, and unfortunately immobile at the tail end of the festival. As beautiful as the music was, with dedicated fans purchasing festival tickets just to see the one act, the decision to have Grouper second-last put a serious damper on the evening, as most festival goers had gone before Emel Mathlouthi could grace the stage. Mathlouthi is a less familiar face, which is a shame because she is a stunning model of feminism and activism in music, her music being banned in Tunisia as she revolted against dictatorship and censorship. The performance was compelling, singing in Arabic with dark and arresting electronics and percussion.
Venus Fest’s premiere last weekend shows promise for the future of feminism in music, a presence with the potential to make incredible change in Toronto’s musical landscape. It’s exciting, necessary even, for festivals such as Venus Fest to carve out spaces for some of music’s most important voices and to build spaces for those who do not fit in society’s neatly (and violently) laid out categorical boxes, ie. straight, white, cis-gendered, and mostly male. The future is intersectional, and it will be heard.
See all photos in the image gallery to the right