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.

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.

Fogel explained that booking artists at many different places in their careers was a huge part of the festival’s aim. “Obviously gender inclusion is a big part of the festival, as well as racial representation, and having a range of artists in different places in their careers,” she said. “Part of the challenge with bigger festivals is that there are a lot of really incredible bigger name artists playing, but it’s very hard for someone who’s getting their career going to bridge the gap between playing smaller shows to getting on bigger festival stages.”

And while the festival carefully checked each and every one of those boxes off, it was especially satisfying to see people on stage and in the room who have deep connections to the community. Musicians, promoters, journalists, friends and fans who weren’t directly involved with the festival did their part throughout the day as volunteers.

Then there was Ayo Leilani (aka the soulful powerhouse behind Witch Prophet) who has been at the helm of the 88 Days of Fortune collective for eight years now, and just marked the anniversary with the release of their Cosmic Melanin compilation; April Aliermo of the dance-y and dionysian Phèdre who has been a mobilizing force in the DIY scene, from calling out bands with racist names, to championing the value of DIY venues in the media and at city hall; along with sophisti-pop outfit DIANA, led by Carmen Elle, who just opened Less Bar, one of the few small venues to open in the city in a year when we’ve lost so many.

And the community represented at Venus Fest extended beyond the young group of players performing — it was intergenerational. No one performance stressed that importance more than Lido Pimienta’s set. For her first performance in Toronto since winning this year’s Polaris Music Prize back in September, the artist brought her son up with her to dance, and told a story about her mother who was standing right next to the stage.

Speaking to Pimienta after her set, she explained that she also sees the work that needs to be done in order to further feminism and gender equality in the industry as taking on generations of injustices. “I want to be in festivals where there are more female-led acts until we are level with the hundred-year generational and gender gap,” she said. “Let’s just get to that point, because lineups are always 2% or 5% female, but if it’s half it’s like “whaaaaaa??” — but it’s never half. I’ve never played a music festival like this.”

The latter quarter of the evening featured the only non-local acts on the bill, like Madame Gandhi’s motivational percussion pop, the somber and contemplative Grouper, and Emel Mathlouthi’s gothy take on traditional Tunisian music — the divide the felt like it was part of a completely different show. But, it also signaled a reminder that the problem Venus Fest is tackling exists well beyond Toronto’s borders. Mathlouthi, who traveled nearly 5,000 miles to Toronto from Tunis, where she’d built her career as the soundtrack to the Arab Spring, was the greatest reminder of this truth.

The risk with an inaugural female-inclusive festival is that because it’s at the beginning of its life, the community behind it is also perceived as being in its infancy. But Venus Fest would not have succeeded were it not for the already strong community of women and nonbinary people ready to take on the challenge and see their shared vision through. More than just a pipe dream, Venus Fest is the result of a community coming together, tired of asking for gender parity in their industry and building it for themselves.