In Conversation with Ciel: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Ahead of her 4-city India tour organised by the Bleep crew - including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Kolkata - we have a chat with Ciel about creating intentionally inclusive spaces for women and non-binary people. Ciel, or Cindy Li, is doubly qualified to call out the hypocrisy often faced by women in the electronic music scene everywhere, having long since been involved in the Toronto scene as a promoter and an indefatigable advocate of social change within the community, and now as a musician lauded the world over for her keen musicianship.

This will be Cindy's first time in India and she's excited, and that's to be expected. She is quick to acknowledge how Europe acts as a sort of center for dance music and recognises the need to consciously make choices that go beyond the usual and invest in younger scenes in order to promote diversity in musical output. This, in part, has resulted in this summer tour that took her to Palestine (now postponed), India, and then Morocco.

While electronic music in India remains unable to find its way to 'tier 2' cities and beyond, the truth is that at least in its metro cities it has exploded in recent years. Among some promoters, a clear intention to book non-legacy artists that have something new and exciting to offer is noticeable. However, a unified endeavour towards developing electronic music culture holistically and to promote diversity remains to be seen. This approach of understanding the economic gains to be made through the scene, but not the more long-term, sustainable aspects of it - including putting considered effort in promoting Indian artists and developing venues outside of the cities we have come to expect - is one of the reasons why artists from India remain largely invisible when it comes to the global electronic music scene.

We are both struck by this again, as I ask Cindy about Indian electronic music artists that she admires from the scene and she admits with incredulity that nearly every single artist she knows of in this context is from the Indian diaspora. The road is long for Indian artists living in India who wish to break into the global scene, considerably more so for women and queer artists, who face a dire lack of opportunities within the country as it is. Cindy can rattle off a slew of artist names who are all of Indian descent including rapper and DJ Chippy Nonstop - a name that comes up again later in conversation in reference to Chippy's traveling DJ workshop series for femme and non-binary people named Intersessions.

This is a recurring pattern in Cindy's interactions with other artists or industry professionals. We all tend to find our ilk wherever we go, and that means finding a sense of community among artists who are also activists for this Discwoman affiliate. From her Ladyflash days, she has been laboriously focused on improving gender representation on the scene through her radio shows and parties, and her intrepid public questioning of the lack of female artists on event line ups. Going a step further, she is transforming fast into a community leader, campaigning for changes in local bylaws that negatively impact Toronto's nightlife.

Finding individuals and institutions that have similar goals on their mind and partnering with them is crucial to improving representation and consequently fostering an inclusive and diverse culture. As Cindy points out in reference to Intersessions, where classes are led by women or queer artists and how that contributes heavily to changing the perception of what kind of person you would see at the front teaching you about electronic music.

However, Cindy reiterates that the act of placing faith in femme and non-binary artists' capabilities is something we need to keep demanding, and venues and promoters need to keep displaying, if inclusivity is to progress from an exception to the norm. A common refrain offered in response to the conspicuous absence of women from the scene - in India and Canada, and everywhere else - is that women just aren't interested in electronic music. Cindy talks about instances where organisations or promoters promised her a gender-balanced line up in five years, but she calls this reluctance out for what it is: an excuse. She insists there is no need for time to elapse, as she has previously proven through a comprehensive list of female producers and DJs she compiled in 2017 in response to a Facebook thread where similar reasons were given to explain the lack of female artists on the bill.

This idea of women artists not existing on the landscape is obviously inaccurate, and all pushing it does is absolve promoters of any responsibility they have to create mindful line ups and proactively make women and non-binary artists or industry aspirants feel welcome and included. Not ever seeing someone like yourself on the line ups creates this exclusionary feedback loop, that perhaps this work is not for 'your kind', that somehow there are gender-specific requirements that you can fundamentally not fulfill, that they do not belong. Venues and promoters alike need to take risks, admit to mistakes, and learn from criticism. If they find themselves uninformed when it comes to available choices, they must overcome their limitations by seeking contributions from underrepresented groups.

As audience, the most radical form of support is putting your money where your mouth is but it does not begin or end there. Challenging your own personal unconscious biases by seeking out female artists and showing support for them and their work is just as important as paying and showing up for gigs. Affecting change you want to see is work. It is a lot of work. It is also very rewarding work. But most of all, if you are involved in the scene, whether as an artist or industry professional, do not shy away from self-promotion and send us a hello here.

Listen to 'Why Me', Ciel's third solo EP from May 2019 below. Not that the EP needs it, but here's a comment about it by Bandcamp user Cone for your perusal:

Is this Deep house? Uptempo House? Bleepy Techno? Introspective Breakbeats? Hi-tech Jazz? Broken Techno/Minimal Breakbeat Techno as I listed the genre metadata of these files in rekordbox? idk man. Also the perfect release to call "lit" after some git makes a crappy youtube comment about it. Yes the lit part is true. Remind me not to ever visit the comments section. Favorite track: Why Me?.

Photo credit: Joel Eel for RA
Interviewed conducted and written by Uvika Wahi