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A Music Festival for the Underrepresented in Detroit

Primitiv Parts on the Mountain Stage, featuring a duo of female drummers.
‘Primitiv Parts’ on the Mountain Stage, featuring a duo of female drummers (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — Within media culture, male-dominated environments are presented as the norm, despite the fact that men only comprise roughly half the population. Perhaps this is why, as I sat in on an organizational meeting with the Seraphine Collective — a Detroit-based, all-female cooperative that promotes female-identified, LBGTQ, and racially diverse musicians — I could not help but speculate about the ways it was different from analogous male-driven ventures.

The meeting largely focused on last-minute details for BFF (Best Fest Forever) Fest, Seraphine’s second annual music festival and biggest fundraiser at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). I quietly congratulated myself on being in a room full of rocker girls — the satisfying payoff to a childhood spent curating awkward stylistic tributes to Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, and Cyndi Lauper. The rocker girls in question are at the core of the Seraphine Collective, founded in 2014 by Lauren Rossi, with the mission to act “primarily as a platform for underrepresented musicians.”

What constitutes underrepresented? Rossi provided me with a few disheartening statistics: Spin’s 2012 “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” included only nine women; Rolling Stone Magazine‘s “100 Greatest Vocalists of All Time” lists merely 20 women. Only 8.5% of people inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are women. Out of all the people producing and engineering audio, only 5% are women.

Since its inception in March of 2014, Seraphine Collective has presented 20 shows, hosted an annual music festival, and released three mixtapes collectively featuring more than 70 bands and 100 female musicians.

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Seraphine Collective

Even on a local level, the 2014 Metrotimes Blowout — one of Detroit’s major music festivals — included 86.9% male musicians and 13.1% female musicians. By contrast, BFF Fest 2014 had 63% female musicians and 37% male musicians, and this year’s BFF Fest raised the bar to 78% female musicians and 22% male musicians.

“We try to plan a festival that we are all excited about and want to attend,” said Rossi. The entire fest is, in her words, “a collaborative project,” and that spirit was reflected in the organizational meeting, with ladies dividing promotional tasks and stacks of posters to distribute, while exchanging contacts from their networks with fluid ease.

On the day of the festival, MOCAD hummed with Seraphine members in the midst of preparation and celebration. I snagged Jen David, a classically-trained, polymath musician and collective member who played at BFF Fest last year, and in the interest of fairness, relegated herself to an organizational role this year. She thinks that visibility is always a problem, and on top of the existing hierarchy that regularly dismisses female musicians, there is a problem of limitations that women place on themselves in the scene.“When I started playing music, I wanted to be tough and pretend like I didn’t know anything,” she said, “but it’s okay not to know things, and make connections that teach you things.”

Erin Norris, a Seraphine member who plays guitar in the band Casual Sweetheart with Lauren Rossi (bass) and Dina Bankole (drums), agreed. “The most important thing is to stay true to our mission, which is to inform and educate people about female-identified musicians and carry that with them after the festival.” In this way, BFF Fest is not just a show, but a connective hub for female performers in the area, and on a national level. Multiple collective members emphasize their pride in seeing bands that have met at Seraphine shows and subsequently go on tours together — a ripple effect that has an unlimited range.

BFF 2015’s line-up was tight, including experimental electronic musician Viki Victoria , the ethereal and cosmic River Spirit, the minimal bassist and singer Sneaks (visiting from Washington, D.C.), and Electric Wiccans, the plugged-in version of a popular Detroit acoustic duo. Everyone was collectively geeked about headliner R-Ring, from Dayton, Ohio, featuring The Breeders’s Kelley Deal. “We have a Deal! We have a Deal at our festival!” enthuses Norris, laughing.

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Rachel Thompson of Seraphine Collective

How does this measure up against male-dominated/organized music festivals? Collective member Shelley Salant, who plays bass in Detroit-favorite Rebel Kind, has a wealth of experience as an independent booker for a number of local venues. “I privately made the decision to have a woman in every show,” she said of her pre-Seraphine booking style. “I didn’t talk about it, because I didn’t want people to give me shit about it, but now I talk about it a lot more. Otherwise people just don’t think about it.” David, too, recounted surprising pushback when trying to be more inclusive from people she had previously considered allies.

Dina Bankole can relate to that, as well as the power of having trailblazers and role models. “It’s rare these days that I’m the only woman in a situation, but I still find myself being the only person of color,” she said. “Just seeing somebody doing the thing you’re interested in is encouraging. It makes me feel more comfortable.”

“This [BFF Fest] has a different feel because it exemplifies Seraphine,” said collective member and legal representative Linda Jordan. She’s been involved in the planning of Mittenfest for the last few years, pushing a female-inclusive agenda on that front, as well as drawing inspiration from her participation in Seraphine to start her own band, Best Exes.

Flushed, opening the BFF Fest.
‘Flushed,’ opening the BFF Fest

Musician, organizer, and MOCAD employee Augusta Morrison summed up the goal of BFF Fest thusly: “People hear new music, express themselves, meet new people — and see that a DIY music festival is possible, what it can be.” Certainly, BFF Fest has its own style, which this year included a series of rotating performances at the “Mountain Stage” and “Valley Stage” — with DIY graphics as backdrops suggestive of the female anatomy, which only occurred to the organizers on the day of the fest, triggering a full dissolve into giggles. Certainly, I’ve never been to a concert that featured a free clothing swap. “Clothes might seem insignificant,” says David, “but it’s a way to express yourself.” Additionally, there is an activism row, with organizations like My Sistahs Keeper, Alternatives for Girls (who received $1.00 from every $10.00 festival ticket sold), and Ladyparts Justice that tabled along the entryway. Seraphine member Rachel Thompson is the resident chair of activism, as the only non-musician in the group, and greeted me by chucking a package containing condoms, lube, and HIV-prevention info in my direction.

“When I was in grad school, all I did was write about how music and the arts can benefit people,” she said. “People are always trying to separate these two things [music and activism] that are the same.” She, too, embraces Seraphine’s power to bring people together through music and encourage them to organize events. “If you bring women together,” she said, “you will eventually connect to everyone.”

BFF (Best Fest Forever) Fest took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Ave, Detroit) on July 25. 

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