The foyer of Thalia Hall in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago felt like a small slice of any nail salon. At the center sat a table covered in a variety of tools, colors, varnish, a UV light. Two virtual strangers — one an Instagram-lauded nail artist Ash Crowe (@astrowifey), the other receiving a manicure — sat on either side, exchanging animated stories and raucous laughter. It wasn’t a salon though, it was a Kali Uchis show and the ninth night of Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in Chicago.
Unlike other traditional music festivals, Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in Chicago isn’t a whiplash, jam-packed few days of running across a hot field to see the tail-end of the next band’s set. Instead, it takes the more-digestible form of a concert every night, spread across the 30 days in November, consisting of two openers and a headliner each night, as well as the occasional night of lectures or workshops.
Also unlike other music festivals, a sizeable portion of the bill consists of women. Last year, Huffington Post crunched the numbers on 10 festivals and found female groups or artists made up only 12% of acts, compared to 78% male performers. Out of the 30 headliners at 30 Days in Chicago, 11 (or 36%) are women — the vast majority of which are women of color. And that’s not even accounting for the amazing female openers on the bill.
That said, let’s get one thing clear: The women performing were not on the bill simply because they are “female artists.”
After spending three nights getting knocked on my ass from performances by Mitski, Syd, Kali Uchis and their predominantly female openers, it’s clear that they are far less “female artists” than they are artists that happen to be women. Let’s dispel the narrative that women are just now becoming key players in the music industry as a token product of a surface-level push for representation. While their platform into the mainstream is increasingly expanding, women earn — and have always earned — their keep as artists and central creative cultural figures, despite how music history is written. It’s about time they get theirs with lineups like that of 30 Days.
These artists are, however, on the bill — just like their male counterparts — because they are talented, hard-working, earth-shaking artists with something to say, that deserve to be on stage and have sold-out show stickers on their show flyers to prove it. Aside from these artists simply deserving their place onstage — if their womanhood is of less importance than their artistic merit — why is it so important women are on the bill in proportionally high numbers?
I could rattle off a million reasons, but none so powerful as the effervescence in that makeshift nail salon, or the tears every woman’s face when Mitski sang “A Burning Hill,” the impossible degree to which we all dropped it when Syd melted an entire audience with “Body,” or the way Kali Uchis belting her heart out covered in snakeskin made us feel.
In a time when it sometimes feels like each news notification pushes us into a deeper sadness, rage, or dissociation, these moments might seem trivial. And in comparison to the vast amount of work we have to do, they kind of are. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t essential. In Audre Lorde’s essential essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House she writes, “For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power I rediscovered. It is this real connection which is so feared by a patriarchal world. Only within a patriarchal structure is maternity the only social power open to women. Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative.” (In 2017, we can expand the term “woman” to include all non-cis-male genders.)
Lorde, of course, was talking about women’s collective ability for political and large-scale social mobilization, but she was also alluding to the many ways in which we care for each other and allow each other to have that agency in the first place. Similarly, female-first spaces like nail salons, hair salons, friend’s kitchens, restrooms, and other small places of togetherness are essential. Collective spaces in which the expression of non-cis-male genders is allowed and encouraged create weaponized joy and communion between non-cis-male people, and ultimately act as an act of self-care. And right now? That’s an increasingly scarce resource for so many people.
30 Days also succeeded in fostering a lineup of artists that create spaces that aren’t monofunctional from one show to another, or even one set to the next; they serve a multitude of populations and people far beyond those who fall under the “womanhood” and its related gender umbrella. Over the course of three nights alone, I experienced discussions and celebrations of queerness, a multitude of racial identities, mental health, what it means to be “American,” and sexuality. Again, this isn’t simply a product of their inclusion on the lineup, but these artist’s ability to express these concepts; but their inclusion on the lineup quite literally gave their expression a stage.
What happens when you pass the long-awaited mic to artists like Ibeyi or Noname or Charlotte Day Wilson or Miya Folick or Lizzo or Syd or Kali Uchis or Mitski and let them run a show they deserve to run? You form of a space where weaponized expression, joy, softness, and communion can happen in a way that only the common, shared experience of music and art can allow. Other festivals take note.
30 Days In Chicago is running through the end of November, check out the full lineup here.