LEAF leads the charge for gender equality at music festivals

MUJERES FENOMENALES: The lineup for the spring edition of LEAF is intentionally packed with powerhouse, women-led acts. Included on the roster is Flor de Toloache, the first and only all-women mariachi group in New York City. The collective has been nominated for a Latin Grammy and can count QuestLove of The Roots among its fans. Photo courtesy of the band

The national campaign 2020 Women on Boards seeks to increase the percentage of women serving on U.S. company boards to 20 percent or greater within the next two years. But the gender gap doesn’t end with the corporate world, and similar initiatives have been launched in the U.K. — such as Festival Republic’s ReBalance — to address gender imbalance in the music industry.

Closer to home, LEAF Festival — long known for its ethnically diverse lineups — decided to accept the challenge in regard to female artist representation. But, asks performing arts director Ehren Cruz, why wait to 2020? The spring festival — held Thursday, May 10, to Sunday, May 13 — features more than 20 percent women-led acts, including its headliners and the entire Lakeside main stage schedule for Friday.

Acts include all-female mariachi band Flor de Toloache, blues guitarist Samantha Fish, indie-folk artists the Shook Twins and sometimes-Asheville-based world-soul collective Rising Appalachia. And, says Leah Song, who fronts the latter with her sister Chloe Smith and will also perform a solo set, “We’re excited to be featured with Ani DiFranco.”

DiFranco, a songwriter, poet and feminist activist, headlines LEAF on her first return trip to North Carolina following the enactment of HB2. DiFranco boycotted the state in response to the controversial legislation that sought to strip rights from transgender people. (The N.C. General Assembly approved a bill repealing HB2 last spring, though the repeal bill blocks cities and counties from enacting their own policies to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination.)

Anyone who’s worked in the music industry in any capacity knows that it’s dominated by white men. “Even when I’m looking to try to round out my lineup, I’d say 70 percent of bands are typically male-driven,” says Cruz. Pushing for female representation means extra legwork, fostering connections, researching who deserves attention and “taking some chances, putting people onstage [who] aren’t ‘proven’ but are awesome musicians.”

He adds, “At the end of the day, it feels right. … It feels like I’m not just taking the easy way out, and it will foster a much stronger lineup in the end.”

WOMEN WITH A MISSION: Rising Appalachia, fronted and run by sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith left, have been performing at LEAF since the band’s inception. Singer-songwriter and activist Ani DiFranco, right, returns to North Carolina for the first time since HB2. Photos courtesy of the artists
WOMEN WITH A MISSION: Rising Appalachia, fronted and run by sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith, left, have been performing at LEAF since the band’s inception. Singer-songwriter and activist Ani DiFranco, right, returns to North Carolina for the first time since HB2. Photos courtesy of the artists

While some festivalgoers might feel ostracized by the push for more female representation onstage and the conversations that come with that move, “others are like, ‘Well, good. Let’s talk about it,’” says Cruz. On Sunday, LEAF will host a Female Trailblazer Forum in Eden Hall, featuring DiFranco and Song with Haitian musician and writer Mimerose Beaubrun of Haitian roots band Boukman Eksperyans, and LEAF founder Jennifer Pickering.

“Let’s have artists like Ani DiFranco talk about why female rights are important,” says Cruz. “You don’t have to go there. You can go dance contra and you can go to healing arts. [There are] all these other places where you can feel safe. … However, if you want to dive deeper, we’re going to do that, too.”

Such initiatives as the panel might provide inspiration for up-and-coming artists. Song and her sister were strongly influenced by their fiddler mother and by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. “She loved our music and hired us for our first gigs where we were getting flown to places and taught us all about how to run a small business as women,” Song says of Gladstar. The Rising Appalachia song “Medicine” is dedicated to Gladstar and the herbalism community.

Even though Song and Smith run their musical project, “we’ll often arrive at a new venue that doesn’t know very much about the work that we do, and the assumption is that we’re just the drummer’s girlfriend or the singer,” says Song. But the sisters have made a concerted effort to staff their team with women.

“You have to dig — you have to work hard to find women in the music industry,” says Song. “We’re not only hiring women. We want to be sure we’re hiring the right people and bringing in the right musicians that fit the project. But we take a little bit of extra time to work with women-run companies.”

She adds, “I think it’s so exciting to see what’s happening when women are moving into places of leadership in all these realms.”

Other women of note at spring LEAF include Kam Franklin, who fronts Houston-based R&B band The Suffers, Ireland-born, Canada-based powerhouse singer-songwriter Irish Mythen, the performers of movement collectives Studio Zahiya and Trillium Dance Company, and The Change — an all-women funk band from Princeton, W.Va. That group, among others, will arrive in Western North Carolina early to serve as resident artists with area students.

Other artists leading residencies this season include Australian didgeridoo player Ganga Giri, Ugandan multi-instrumentalist Kinobe, and Nasheville-based duo Sally & George, the project of offstage sweethearts Shelby Means (Della Mae) and Joel Timmons (Sol Driven Train). Timmons and Sol Driven Train have previously worked with local students, creating the kind of memorable, community-based, kid-oriented performance that sums up why LEAFgoers love the biannual festival.

Such artists certainly fit the bill for trailblazer status (and, indeed, this season’s festival was organized around a trailblazing theme) and prove that not only the women of LEAF are leading the way. For example, “Supaman is creating a pathway for indigenous youth to hold true to their tribal and ceremonial traditions,” Cruz says of Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, the Apsáalooke rapper and fancy dancer known onstage by his heroic moniker. “Supaman utilizes various instruments, including the drum and the ute, all while beatboxing, rapping and remixing different native tracks,” according to the performer’s bio. He was a frequent visitor, performer and speaker at the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“I do feel like we have been more and more so recognizing that we have a platform to share more than the ideas of multiethnic unity,” says Cruz. “We can share values. We do stand by the LGBT community. … We do stand by having multiethnic representation not just [in the bands] but in finding ways, whether it’s through reduced tickets, whether it’s busing families in, whether it’s creating welcoming spaces on the grounds, so that people who aren’t used to festival environments feel welcome and people who are just dipping their toes into this realm think, ‘Hey, it’s for me.’”

WHAT: LEAF Festival
WHERE: Camp Rockmont, 377 Lake Eden Road, Black Mountain
WHEN: Thursday, May 10-Sunday, May 13. Tickets are available online only until May 10 or until sold out. Community passes for Buncombe County residents, good for Friday-Sunday (no camping) are $123 adults/$108 youths ages 10-17/free for children younger than 10. Day passes are $56/$46 for Friday and Sunday, $67/$61 for Saturday. Parking is $10.


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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One thought on “LEAF leads the charge for gender equality at music festivals

  1. boatrocker

    Funny how the last 3 Bele Cheres had far over 20% women fronted acts,
    but yeah, create an issue out of thin air (ie that women are under-represented in the live music biz)
    Queen Beyonnnnce
    Lady Gaga
    Taylor Swift
    vast multitudes of lady singers who use the top line of their computer keyboard for a name, etc.

    Ticket and album sales both locally and nationally kind of speak for themselves.
    Not to mention Mtn X’s Best of categories-
    Ladies, you ain’t being hated on, it is just a slow news day.

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