Venus Fest Founder Talks Shining a Spotlight on Female and Genderqueer Artists

Danielle Aphrodite
Aerin Fogel

As Viola Davis said during her speech for her historic 2015 Emmy win, when she became the first black woman to win a Best Lead Actress award in a drama, “The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.”

It’s this lack of opportunity for women and gender nonconforming people in the music industry that drove Toronto-based musician Aerin Fogel to launch Toronto's Venus Fest, a music and arts festival celebrating feminism.

“It’s not that we don’t have women artists, or genderqueer artists, in the industry; it’s just that they haven’t been placed front and center in the way that men have,” she says over coffee at her favorite neighborhood cafe. “This festival is in response to that—we need different levels of representation in the music community. Certainly there are a lot of women at Venus Fest, but there are also men in some of the bands, and there are genderqueer artists too, so it’s not even just women and men. Ultimately, Venus Fest is about tipping the balance of who is usually front and center at a music festival.”

Fogel’s own experiences in the music industry as part of a band called The Bitters, alongside a male musician, drove her to create Venus Fest. (She now has a solo career, under the moniker Queen of Swords, and self-released her debut album earlier this month.) “At the time, I was very young so I didn’t see what was happening with the level of awareness that I now have in retrospect. But just by virtue of playing with a successful male, I wasn’t taken seriously as a part of the collaborative process. Between us, things felt very equal but that didn’t seem to translate in the way that people were receiving the band. People would come up to me after a show and ask if I had written my own lyrics and my own vocal parts,” she laughs.

Across industries, women are often overlooked or undervalued for their work, which both Madame Gandhi and Emel Mathlouthi, two of the headliners at Venus Fest, believe can manifest in women not placing enough confidence in their own worth.

“As a woman in the music industry, you find that there’s always someone who tries to define you,” says Mathlouthi in a call from New York. “It should be your job to define yourself through your work and your music and your art and that should be sufficient. But women have a harder time convincing, a harder time being trusted… and sometimes that makes it harder to trust yourself in return.”

Spaces and projects like Venus Fest can go a long way toward combating that mentality.

“When you’re fighting oppression, and bringing a message of say, feminism or anti-racism, to communities that don’t get to talk about it too much, that’s really important,” says Gandhi, speaking over the phone while on tour through the American South. “But it’s also exhausting. You have to balance it out—you need time to heal and be with people who’ve experienced a similar set of oppressions. So that way, it’s healing for women to get together.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Fogel, who knows firsthand the difference such a space can make to one’s creativity and confidence. “I’ve been in a lot of spaces where I’m the only woman, and people don’t take me seriously; they don’t even ask my name or shake my hand,” she says. “It’s like not even having an opportunity to speak at the table. So it’s a completely different experience to be around like-minded people, because it feels more connected and more collaborative, and that can only benefit our work.”

Her “small but incredible” team—assembled entirely from people who reached out to her wanting to be involved after reading an early article about the festival in Toronto’s NOW Magazine—paid great attention to the lineup, taking care to ensure that they were representing a diverse range of artists with different backgrounds and experiences. Performers at the inaugural festival this year include L.A.-based Madame Gandhi, an Indian-American feminist activist and former drummer for M.I.A.; Tunisian vocalist Emel Mathlouthi, whose music was banned in her country when her songs became unofficial anthems of the country’s revolution; Grouper, the solo project of Portland, Oregon-based artist Liz Harris; Weaves, a Juno-nominated Canadian indie pop band; and Lido Pimienta, an Afro-Colombian musician and winner of the 2017 Polaris Music Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious awards.

“To be able to watch these incredible female artists for an entire day – that’s like my dream day,” says Gandhi, who released her first EP as a solo artist, Voices, in 2016. “I get most inspired when I see other women on a stage. Growing up, we mostly watched men onstage and had to imagine our own selves in that position. It’s way more inspiring when we see people who look like us on the stage.”

The outpouring of support and interest Venus Fest has received in its inaugural year has assured Fogel that she’s on to something, but what’s the bigger picture she has in mind?

“I hope that after a few years, it’s not unusual to have a festival with a lot of women and genderqueer artists,” she says. “I would hope that that becomes normalized in a way that it’s not a novelty and it’s not that special and rare. That’s my long-term hope.”