How The DIY Scene Is Different When You’re Black

Do-it-yourself culture is rooted in idealized inclusion, but what happens when young people on the margins try to break the mold?

How The DIY Scene Is Different When You’re Black Jordan Lee

When multi-disciplinary arts collective Lucid Dream decided to throw a launch party, its founders knew this would be a process of trial by fire. Based in the Toronto suburbs of Ajax and Vaughan and founded by Gloria Asse, Chelsea Attong, and Desiree Green, Lucid Dream was dreamed up to offer emerging artists a platform to bring their artistic visions to life, bridging the gap between ideas and reality. And after hours of research and phone calls in search of venues in the city, the DIY collective discovered an ‘intimidating’ average price range of anywhere from $5,000 to $8,500.

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“It was really nerve wracking because this was all coming from our own pockets,” said Attong, 19. “I wondered if [venue managers] were going to think less of me. [In one situation] I could just tell the gallery owner felt like he had more power over me.” Despite the cost, the women knew that launching Lucid Dream in their respective suburban hometowns wasn’t an option. There is evidence that affirms Toronto as creative epicenter in a way that its boroughs cannot compete with.

Toronto is solidifying its global position as a music and arts center, but there is a serious lack of resources to support racialized youth living within city borders and the closely-linked outer suburbs. These are young people overflowing with ambition and seeking structure to give them a competitive edge alongside established groups. The City of Toronto offers an exhaustive, but vague, event planning guide that caters largely to groups operating on the scale of booking a massive venue, like Toronto’s central, tourist-friendly Yonge & Dundas Square. But it fails to mention specific challenges young artists without capital — social or otherwise — face, like how to navigate the complexities of artist compensation when you’re barely breaking even, or what to do when heavy drinking and violence compromise the safety of all-ages environments. In the suburbs, DIY venues are almost exclusively limited to the ‘borrowed space’ of rental venues and public institutions.

For Asse, 18, who sees a distinction between “a city and suburban mentality,” the ability to experiment without judgement from peers was enough to justify the cost of a launch party for Lucid Dream. That and the fact that a cheaper venue fitting their needs simply did not exist in the suburbs. Lucid Dream’s first major showcase was held at the Superwonder Gallery in Toronto’s west end, at a cost of $1,500. “A lot of what we’re doing is just asking because we want to do this, but we’re still new to the culture,” she said. So how do young adults who live in suburbs lacking a strong arts infrastructure become a little less new in a city often entangled in hierarchies of of ‘who you know?’

A do-it-yourself ethos in a hip-hop context requires, to some extent, rejecting the physical realm as the only means of collectivizing.

The large majority of DIY venue spaces catering to youth in the Greater Toronto Area replicate notions of racial and gendered superiority found in the city. Further barriers include the reality of being a first generation artist, and little oversight over discriminatory landlord practices (Canadian cities held explicitly racist real estate laws until the 1950s). And all of this is compounded by the fact that, across scenes, DIY spaces have teetered on the legal margins, making it doubly restrictive for non-white artists to both own, and operate, physical, autonomous arts spaces.

Toronto groups such as LAL and 88 Days of Fortune have played an integral role in filling that void for young creatives of color, but true representation still leaves much to be desired. Babely Shades is an Ottawa collective with about 60 members, and has quickly set the national standard for what it means to differentiate between borrowing and reclaiming space. They were founded as a way for marginalized artists to find and support each other, both practically or through advocacy. Babely Shades is the reason why Portland band Black Pussy did not perform in Ottawa in the spring of 2015, and why this year’s Arboretum Music Festival featured artists like Melody McKiver and DJ Audrey Lorde. “I would describe DIY as a self-affirming concept,” said Awar Obob, 21, a Babely Shades member. “The DIY punk scene being inherently black serves as a positive affirmation that we have the right to take up as much space as any white person does. Though this does sometimes get clouded by the overpowering whiteness of the artists currently popular in the scene.”

It’s an open secret that established DIY spaces in the Greater Toronto Area rarely book artists outside of affiliated genres, as a thinly veiled an act of scene gatekeeping. Sure, opening spaces in order to serve fringe communities means owners reserve the right to run things however they see fit. “As a white person in a position of privilege, I might not be able to see the intricacies of power dynamics that may appear to me to be run-of-the-mill behaviors,” said G.B. Jones, a member of Toronto hardcore bands The Brain and Dilettantes. Jones also operates the residential venue Ozzy’s Palace.

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However, these ‘ordinary’ patterns materialize in a variety of ways; prioritizing an individual vision versus confronting a blatant lack of diversity is the reason bills and line-ups will often predominantly feature friends and artists that draw a familiar crowd. “Often when I contact venue owners, they ask to see evidence — such as photos and video footage — of previous shows I’ve organized,” said Abel Lulseged, who is part of the Toronto rap duo Stretch with Simon Yohannes. “It’s been difficult booking shows in larger venues, due to the lack of confidence the owner has in our ability to pack the venue with people.”

After attending hardcore shows in Toronto at repurposed industrial warehouses, like the now defunct S.H.I.B.G.B.S, or the middle of an indoor halfpipe at Soybomb, I can’t ignore the inherent privilege of being able to organize an event in the middle of the city’s core with no penalty if only 15 people show up. I’ve often wondered what would happen if you swapped a mostly white audience with black and brown bodies: how long could a DIY event survive before attracting the attention of police?

I’ve often wondered what would happen if you swapped a mostly white audience with black and brown bodies: how long could a DIY event survive before attracting the attention of police?

This is why publicly-funded community spaces like recreation centers, libraries, and places of worship have become essential for Toronto’s nested hip-hop community. The S.P.O.T (Success, Power, Opportunity and Teamwork), located in the Malvern Public Library in Toronto’s east end, is a daring example of artists sculpting public venues they occupy to fit the needs of their community. Following extensive youth consultation, the 3,770-square-foot center opened in January 2013 and boasts a recording studio, performance space, and media lab. “Looking at the initiatives we created or fostered with such a young team was unheard of,” said Ikeno Keyz Issacs, who worked at the S.P.OT. until 2014. “It wasn’t hard for us to communicate with teens and young adults [of color] because we were them.” In 2015, the S.P.O.T was forced to layoff some of its staff after running out of operating funds allocated by Toronto Public Library, the United Way, and the City of Toronto. It’s still functional, but the long term future is uncertain.

Perhaps it’s the unknowing of what comes after the end of a physical space that’s caused the sharpest cleavage in understanding how DIY functions along both genre and racial lines in the Greater Toronto Area. In the white punk world, when one space closes another one will inevitably open. Alternatively, a do-it-yourself ethos in a hip-hop context requires, to some extent, rejecting the physical realm as the only means of collectivizing. The universal appeal of online spaces has provided accessibility in ways that both robust public transport and aggressive postering can never. If you look at it another way: the interplay of commentary, admiration, and critique that occurs within regional Soundcloud and Twitter networks can indicate the health of a scene as much as a high-traffic concert space. Still, for most people, DIY isn’t just about the desire to subvert but having a place to do so, which ultimately — intentionally, and unintentionally — validates scenes with access while delegitimizing those without.

June 30, 2016
How The DIY Scene Is Different When You’re Black