Take a look at basically any 2017 festival bill and one thing should be apparent. Music, at least the mainstream ‘alternative’ music world, is dominated by straight white men. I am, for better or worse, in the position I’m in – editing Great Central – at least in part because I’m a straight white man. Or entirely, depending on how deep down the privilege rabbit hole you want to go.
So, here’s my observation. Almost every act doing anything genuinely exciting in Leicester’s music scene right now is not at all, or at the very least not entirely, straight white men. To an outsider at least, it feels that Queer art is undergoing something of a renaissance nationally, but in Leicester’s music scene it dominates. Sure, there are some great all-male bands in the city – many I love dearly – but in this moment, in this particular place and time in Leicester’s creative ebb and flow, the “scene” is defined by this real, tangible quality.
“I am a pansexual non-binary trans woman. Hello” opens Kermes and Anatomy guitarist Emily Rose Teece. “I’ve been thinking about this on and off for about a year now I reckon. While there isn’t exactly a dearth of cishet white men making music in this city, nearly all of the weird, unusual and really affecting stuff seems to be coming from queer people, women, and/or people of colour.”
“The most exciting projects in Leicester at the moment come from people of colour, women and the queer community – sometimes even from people who belong to more than one of these communities” confirms INTRSKTR co-founder and Glitterfest DIY Queer punk festival co-organiser, as well as Vocalist in Anatomy, Cynthia Rodriguez, who identifies as “Migrant hard femme fat queer latinx, not really attached to any gender but fine with female pronouns at the moment.”
“I don’t feel it’s specific to Leicester” notes political folk singer Grace Petrie, (who identifies as “gay as hell. And female.”) “but we do have some awesome queer and / or female artists making some really exciting stuff in the city at the moment and it definitely feels like a cohesive movement.”
“Despite variance in genre, I feel like there is a shared ideology” agrees Beth, front person in Jitterz, who in her own words is ‘Queerer than Christmas’.
“I think years of pent up emotions from LGBT+ people finally getting a platform is bound to create some amazing stuff”
“I think I’m biased, being part of the Punk queer music scene in Leicester, but it certainly feels like we’re stirring something there that hasn’t been disturbed in a long time” adds Stan – drummer and vocalist in Ash Mammal. “I really hate the idea of trapping myself in a self-constructed box, but generally, I identify as non-binary or ‘trans-masculine’. Overall, I have always felt a lot more comfortable on the male end of the spectrum, and so I use They/Them or He/Him pronouns.”
“We’ve seen the music scene change so, so much recently that it feels like some kind of flood gate has opened and all this talent and creativity and a need to express has been released” they continue. “I think years of pent up emotions from LGBT+ people finally getting a platform is bound to create some amazing stuff. Thats how it feels to me anyway. There’s a great photo that was taken when Ash Mammal were competing in Leicester’s Original band showcase featuring maybe thirty or forty musicians, and me and Jeeves (Ash Mammal’s bassist) were the only ones who weren’t white guys. At the time we kind of brushed it off as funny, but I guess looking back it is very disappointing and kind of weird. We just accepted it at the time, being the outsiders in that situation, I felt kind of awkward protesting, just because that’s not why we were playing. We showed up to play music and do what we love, not to be confronted with this reality of being a minority within our industry.”
But why now? “I’ve been in Leicester for nearly six years, but for the first three of those I thought it was all basically Kasabian and the occasional lad band from The Donkey or The Musician” recalls Cynthia. “It wasn’t until I started to become more involved in the spoken word / multidisciplinary performance scene that I noticed more exciting stuff happening and, coincidentally, a lot of these people making exciting stuff were desi, or black, or women, or trans, or just hella gay.”
“I feel like there are more queer acts lately, but to be honest that’s not true – it’s probably more that they are getting the gigs more than in previous eras” muses Grace. “I think the opportunities are starting to be there a bit more than they were.”
“I think increased visibility and public acceptance is definitely a huge factor” observes Emily. “People feel more able to be who they are publicly now, much more so than, say, a decade ago.”
“There are more platforms now” continues Cynthia. “More special nights like Anerki or House of Verse, where anything goes and people of all levels of experience are invited to participate and learn. This is how I started making music in the first place. Before that, I thought people like me were not welcome into the scene.”
“I can’t speak for everyone, but for me particularly, getting older and more comfortable with my identity means I’m a lot more likely to express that part of myself” says Stan. “Those feelings leak into the music I make, the way I perform, and the way I work with others.”
“I do feel like people in the main are slowly, slowly opening up to queer folks more and more” explains Grace “and even though we have a hugely long way to go, there are small pockets of places where it’s pretty well established that sexuality and gender expression are celebrated in all forms. The arts have always classically been on the front line of acceptance and celebration of difference and diversity; it’s hard to know whether that’s because historically so many artists have had lifestyles that don’t fit the conventional heteronormative mould; or if so many queer people have drifted to the arts because they felt welcomed there.”
“Maybe the gay god just shoved us all in one place and was like ‘it’s about time you sang about queer shit’” jokes Beth.
The community that this scene exists within is palpable in every conversation I have with them. The musicians are constantly singing each other’s praises and credit is endlessly heaped upon each other. That lack of any sense of a competition, of a desire for everyone involved to profit from this tidal wave of creativity, and the support networks that come along with such a positive atmosphere are surely integral to it’s success. “I feel such a sense of belonging from the music scene in Leicester” enthuses Beth. “As a queer artist it is so inspirational to see other queer musicians being such bad-asses. I used to gig acoustically when I was at Uni in Brighton, and it got quite lonely. I am so chuffed to now be playing gigs alongside, and making friends with musicians who are so on it with queer/feminist issues. It’s fucking great.”
“I was talking to Cassie from Ash Mammal a while back about this” continues Emily. “We realised we both had this mutual reinforcement thing going on with each other – seeing each other getting up on stage projecting femininity and queerness kind of inspired us both to keep pushing and be more open and honest, like a positive feedback loop.
“Seeing other queer musicians has been really personally empowering for me, and my feeling able to be more open about my own identities, so the larger and more visible the community becomes the better. I know for sure that I get a kind of creative push from seeing all the cool stuff the people in this community come up with – i’ll be watching a band and thinking, like, ‘holy shit, i need to write better songs, because this is fucking next-level’.”
“The community has been lifesaving” enthuses Cynthia. “It influences me all the time. I am genuinely inspired by colleagues, bandmates, promoters, and the people organising gigs and festivals. It’s all very non-judgemental and we can ask each other for help and support any time without being scared of looking ridiculous because they’ve experienced similar things or they are compassionate enough to respect you because they’ve been through their own ordeals.”
“Queer artists are very important to me and I think having this scene in Leicester – even if admittedly I operate in a very different genre and therefore don’t cross paths too much – is something I’m really proud of” observes Grace. “You still see so many gigs and festivals with line-ups that are totally male and I am so proud that Leicester is more diverse, more supporting and frankly more interesting than that.”
“An inspiring and healthy music scene is such a welcome break from what Leicester’s music scene used to be, which was all teenage white boys playing indie pop, blues or cod-ska. (or sometimes a fusion – I still have nightmares)” remembers Stan. “To be able to play with bands who share a sound and a mind-set, and feel comfortable around each other is the best thing you can have as a musician.”
“Cities with larger music scenes probably couldn’t lay claim to many of the most prominent local musicians being queer/women/people of colour, and that’s really cool”
Leicester has always been a melting pot for many reasons, and not just because of its well documented, wildly multi-cultural landscape. It’s by no means a small city, but it does always seem to feel like one creatively – something Emily observes. “Cities with larger music scenes probably couldn’t lay claim to many of the most prominent local musicians being queer/women/people of colour, and that’s really cool”
It’s not something those within the community see as unique to Leicester though. “Coventry, for example, has a very exciting and theatrical queer punk music scene and until recently their Pride event was the best in the Midlands” observes Cynthia. “In London you have festivals like Afropunk and Decolonise Fest, and a very strong QTIPOC music scene. Queers of all shapes, experiences and sizes are making music in Sheffield and Leeds. Basically, anywhere someone has said “let’s do this”, sooner or later, people follow. If you build it, they will come.”
“I don’t know if other cities have such a strong comradery” continues Beth “but we’ve played with some great queer bands not from Leicester – Pillow Queens, Jesus and his Judgemental Father for example – so other cities have their own DIY circles too.”
“It’s not remotely unique to Leicester, but it does seem to be a cohesive movement in the city and I don’t know how common that is” continues Grace. “Plenty of non straight acts who are working together and building each other up in awareness and expression of the solidarity that queer people often have. This summer’s Glitterfest being a great example.”
While it’s internally supportive, the same cannot always be said for interactions outside of the community. “It can be really hard to figure out whether a bad interaction is because of misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, or some combination of the three” observes Emily “but I came out as transgender a couple of months after starting Kermes, and I can tell you that I had a much easier time getting people to listen to me when I looked like a guy, even though we’d only existed for like 3 months and had basically no idea what we were doing.”
“When I was growing up in the north of Mexico, there was a huge noise and punk music scene and people would laugh at me because I wanted to join but I didn’t look hot enough” remembers Cynthia. “Later, the few women (some of them came out as non-binary tho) who managed to infiltrate the scene confessed they were victims of sexual harassment and abuse. Even now that the time and place to be in a band and make music has happened, I still encounter a bit of backlash. Mostly lads thinking I know nothing about music and mansplaining my own instruments to me.”
“I’ve played countless line-ups where I am the only woman” explains Beth “To be not only a woman fronting a band but a woman singing about other women – it can be very confusing for some people. I played a gig in Rugby and a guy came up to me and said how baffled him and his friend were when I mentioned my girlfriend. Apparently they discussed it for ages like ‘mate did I hear that right?’.”
“I also had a manager of a band come up to me after a gig and talk about how ‘pretty’ I am but that I need more ‘confidence’ to ever amount to anything. He then mansplained being in a band to me, telling me I should consider releasing my own music & making my own videos and told me to listen to ELVIS COSTELLO! I’ve been a DIY musician for years so his excellent advice wasn’t exactly news to me.”
“It’s hard to know if it’s because of my identity, or my politics” explains Grace, “especially because the two are deeply intertwined and those who have a problem with gay people very seldom share my wider politics either. I work a lot on the folk scene where the audiences tend to be of an older, whiter and much more middle class demographic and some of those people have really taken issue with me and found the things I say on stage to be really offensive – when they really aren’t. Well, to be honest I can see that being some underlying discomfort with what I represent and the way I look manifesting itself, and finding ‘I found you too abrasive’ to be easier to say than “’ found a woman, dressing too masculinely, and speaking about relationships with women publicly uncomfortable’.”
“As I present in a feminine way quite often, I do get the obligatory ‘oh really,’ when I tell people I play the drums, and usually people will assume I’m the singer which I find quite amusing” laughs Stan. “Although I do try my best to remove femininity in the way I express myself, I can’t always escape it, and to a lot of people, the combination of ‘femme’ and ‘drums’ creates quite a contradiction.”
“I see the future of Leicester’s music scene as a platform for any kind of performer that offers a positively challenging environment”
So where does this scene see its future? True to it’s supportive form, the confidence comes in spades. “I see Kermes on the front cover of every music magazine ever” enthuses Beth.
“I see the future of Leicester’s music scene as a platform for any kind of performer that offers a positively challenging environment” continues Stan. “That’s the kind of music scene I want to function within. As with all kinds of art scenes, things are constantly moving and evolving, so I’m just looking forward to the way the landscape will shift in years to come, and how I, as a musician, and the band, will interact with it.”
“We have some awesome young bands coming up out of Leicester, and with great promoters and venues the city is starting to get the attention it deserves” concludes Grace. “I’m sure that will lead to big things and I would love to see the next big band we’re famous for not being four straight white dudes. Mentioning no names.”