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How a New Festival for Female, Non-Binary, and Trans Artists Plans to Crush the Patriarchy (Eventually)

TUFFEST in Seattle is pushing marginalized communities into the spotlight—and asking cis, white men to step aside.

Amber Cortes

Amber Cortes

It was mid-afternoon on Saturday, July 9 and the music at TUFFEST—a new, two-day festival in Seattle's Judkins Park dedicated exclusively to female-identified, non-binary, and trans artists—had just begun. The sun peeked out, then skittered behind clouds, with a make-up-your-mind ambivalence typical to Seattle summers. The few people dancing to the textural, warped vinyl sounds of festival opener EOSIN were enough to fit under a small tent, and scattered groups of friends in the park laid around on blankets as a faint waft of weed drifted in the air.

In an age where lineups are still overwhelmingly dominated by white, cis men, TUFFEST's emphasis on uplifting, expanding and celebrating the female, non-binary, and trans electronic music community is much-needed. Its political undertones have also helped the inaugural festival stand out in the laid-back, indie label-driven scene that defines the Pacific Northwest (think K Records and Sub Pop).

During the day, the free and open-to-the-public portion of the festival included interactive visual art installations, musical performances, and workshops with women in creative industries. At night, the "TUFFEST 'till Dawn" afterparty took over an arts space in Seattle's industrial district for the night, feeding techno-hungry locals with the likes of 1080p-affiliated UMFANG and Cologne-based DJ Lena Willikens. A coding performance by custom synth builder Kaori Suzuki, downtempo ambient artist Patricia Hall of the Soft Metals, experimental hip-hop MC DoNormaal, and epic sound collagist Elysia Crampton were among the other highlights.

Photo by Joe Chase

The festival is an ambitious first for TUF, an electronic music and digital art collective in Seattle for intersectional and female-identified artists. TUF started online in 2015 as a private Facebook group—a place where women living in Seattle and the surrounding areas could share tracks and gear tips, talk about upcoming shows around town, and generally interact in a space free from the relentless whine of mansplainers.

After their first IRL meeting in the jam-packed Capitol Hill living room of TUF founder Katherine Humphreys, the group grew to include more than 80 members who bonded over a shared need to carve out their own musical turf in a male-dominated industry.

"I think it just didn't exist before," says Humphreys says of the community that TUF has built. "It's really disheartening to go to electronic shows and see all of these men hanging out with each other and feel like none of the women in the room know each other."

The TUF crew says this year's TUFFEST is just the beginning—they hope to put on the event every year, giving even more women, non-binary, queer and trans people a place at the (turn)table. Here are five reasons why the festival will crush the music industry patriarchy—eventually:

1. It's already shaking up Seattle's festival scene.

Photo by Valerie Calano

TUFFEST's goal of inciting social change through highlighting female electronic stars sets it apart from other festivals in the Northwest. (Just look at the guitar-driven and male-dominated lineups of Bumbershoot, Sasquatch, and Timber for example). Plus, with one of Seattle's best-known electronic festivals, Decibel, recently announcing its hiatus, there is a real chance for TUFFEST to fill the void while pushing its progressive social mission.

2. It asked cis white men to get in the back of the line.

Local performer Nightspace (Photo by Úna Blue)

TUFFEST organizer Cecilia Corsano-Leopizzi cut her teeth booking for Decibel, and said the experience helped her appreciate how educational workshops can be a platform to expose people to new technology. "I just want to take that one step further and make it more accessible," she told THUMP.

To that end, TUFFEST gave female-identified, non-binary and LGBTQAI people first access to sign-up forms for workshops on subjects like sound production and modular synthesis. At least one workshop, x=Synth with Kaori Suzuki, did not accept new applicants who were cis white men once it started to become full.

"What I found is that whenever there's a mixed gender class, women tend to step back, listen, and wait, and men tend to step forward, and jump right in," explained Natalie Bayne from Seattle Sound Girls, a nonprofit that teaches audio production skills to young women and girls in afterschool programs and summer camps. Bayne said she taught a workshop on how to set up sound-systems and PAs to counter the lack of opportunities for women to "tinker around with intimidating-looking gear."

Though you'd never know it from her fierce and vigorous techno set at the TUFFEST afterparty, Discwoman co-founder and DJ/producer UMFANG (AKA Emma Burgess-Olson) said she spent far too much time in the beginning of her career being timid. Olson taught an intro to drum machines workshop where she encouraged a curious group of young women to try their hands at recording sequences using a Boss Dr. Groove drum machine and a Roland TR-8.

"It's important to remember that we all have the same starting point," Olson told THUMP. "I had to ask the same questions that some famous man once had to ask, too. No one knows how a drum machine works when they're a baby. They learn."

3. It also made men think.

Photo by Valerie Calano

Many men at TUFFEST were supportive of the festival, and found the female-driven sets both impressive and refreshing."Techno is such a male-dominated industry," said one festival goer named Tim, "yet so much of it originally was a lot of women who were involved. It became this major dude-nerd thing, so it's nice to see people recognizing that this shouldn't have to be just a male-focused activity."

Another male festival-goer who came to the afternoon shows commendably checked his privilege, saying he held back on going to the workshops, even though he was curious about them, so that others could have a chance. "I didn't want to be that straight guy, you know, going in there and guying up the place with my guy vibes," he said.

4. It made racial diversity a priority in one of America's whitest cities.

Seattle is one of the whitest cities in the country, according to data released in 2015 by the Census Bureau. And white people in Seattle often don't have a very easy time talking about it.

"There's sort of this weird intellectual superiority that happens in the Pacific Northwest, where people feel like since the coffee's hella good, they couldn't possibly be racist or something," said Hollis Wong Wear, musician in The Flavr Blue and frequent Macklemore collaborator. TUFFEST took on the issue head-on, hosting Wear on a panel about dismantling institutional racism in the arts, and booking local performers-of-color like MC Sassyblack and Jenn Green, DoNormaal, and Jessica Duran of Succubass.

Renee Jarreau Greene, a panelist and DJ who started a queer and trans people of color dance party in Seattle called Darqness, said it's important to remember that "nightlife spaces have always been inherently political and radical... especially since we are all affected by white supremacy, and living in such a very white city."

"Marginalized people in this city have found that they have to build their own spaces here," Greene noted.

5. It gave politically engaged artists like Elysia Crampton headlining spots for the first time.

Photo by the author

Formerly producing as an epic collagist under the name E&E, Virginia-based Elysia Crampton started gaining traction from her high-concept first album American Drift, released last year. But TUFFEST was the first time the self-proclaimed "transevangelist" headlined a festival in the US.

It was past 9pm when she started weaving a fragmented tapestry of feral beats, live vocals and keys, and pop cultural references, all nightmarishly contorted and sonically rich. Coiled into her set were shards of words that were deeply political and personal: a quote from a Bolivian trans activist, a futuristic folktale about a trans justice movement from Latin America, and a poem about finding love amidst modern colonialism.

"The political context of my music just happened that way because it couldn't be otherwise," Crampton told THUMP over email. "Having to deal with the terms of living—stuff that I never had the language for, but which materially affected me—made me subject/target to family/civic/state violence, and separated me from my own history and from the kinship network I desperately needed in order to survive."

By giving Crampton a headlining spot, making education accessible to often-marginalized communities, and putting other female identified, trans and queer artists on center stage, TUFFEST mixed politics and music in a way that will open doors for others to follow.