Music

How Toronto’s ‘Venus Fest’ Is Amplifying Feminist Music To Build Strong Community

After Venus Fest founder Aerin Fogel told me that she’d only come up with the idea for a festival that exclusively books women and nonbinary performers this past April, walking into the Daniels Spectrum community hub for the inaugural event felt like a major victory. “My own personal desire to step forward in this role only started a few months ago,” she said. “But I think the need or desire for something like this has not just been mine, I’ve heard an expressed need for this from the community for a really long time.” Pulling it all together so quickly was really a testament to the idea itself — and the strength of the community Fogel had behind her.

To translate the all-day event into reality took a great deal of thought and work but when I showed up, it quickly became clear they’d thought of everything. Located in the redeveloped Regent Park neighborhood in Toronto’s east end, Daniels Spectrum’s is in a bit of a food desert, with not a lot of choices nearby, so various food vendors were brought in for the day. The building itself was chosen for its accessibility, and inside there were non-gendered bathrooms, a team of volunteers trained with naloxone kits, a “community card engagement” station where people could write down their info if they want to make fest friends, and so on. The whole thing seemed exhaustive, going above and beyond the usual of organization other large festivals undertake.

When I complimented her on how all-encompassing the festival was, Fogel laughed and said that was the goal. The entire experience ran smoothly from a spectator’s perspective, which is remarkable since it’s the first festival Fogel has ever thrown, but it also had to. As a living critique of the way most festivals have a structured gender imbalance in their lineups, there was a tremendous amount of pressure for Venus Fest’s argument to be airtight.

If something went wrong, if there weren’t enough attendees, if the sound wasn’t good or the lineup lagging, all of those issues become fodder for the majority of concert promoters who are disinterested in correcting the way that concert and festival lineups regularly skew male. Instead, throughout the day Venus Fest shone as a beacon of what could be.

“In a sense the bands are taking a chance on the festival because it’s the first time we’ve done this,” Fogel said. “All of the artists are working with feminism in their own artistic works already in some way, so they seemed to want to be a part of something that was representative of their work, or the larger message behind their work.”

With songs about female agency two-piece synth and guitar outfit Ice Cream f*ck up the male gaze on the regular, so they were not only a good fit for the festival but in their element as well. Playing a set of entirely new material didn’t hinder the band’s ability to win the crowd over either. Their bright neon Sign O The Times read “Fed Up,” and its light connected with everyone in the room.

Using the opportunity to preview their new record, Wide Open, Weaves’ performance was also politically and thematically relevant. The band’s new material explores a more vulnerable side of their music, as vocalist Jasmyn Burke incorporates messages of body positivity and strength in individuality, messages that were well received by the enthusiastic audience. The band capped off their set with a killer cover of The Who’s “My Generation,” a bold, noisy, rock-reclaiming statement.

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Beyond the content of their excellent performances, it was exciting to see young bands like rock trio Hex, recent graduates of Girls Rock Camp Toronto, take the same stage as seasoned players like Fogel’s own new dark dream pop project Queen of Swords and local barnburners The Highest Order.

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