This no-nonsense DJ and radio host is dismantling the stereotype that women are only vocalists in bands, and throwing the best and most inclusive parties in Toronto. By Kristen Cochrane. Photo by Joel Lee.
For many, the word “DJ” conjures images of white dudes. Sure, if you’re plugged in, you’ll know about female DJs, but for now, the image of the DJ in the public imaginary is still a white masculine one.
People have started to notice this, including Cindy Li, a no-nonsense DJ, radio host, and promoter who isn’t afraid of calling people out when they’re being sexist, racist, or otherwise generally bigoted within the Toronto electronic music scene. And thank god, because it’s a huge issue.
In an interview with The Guardian, DJ Terre Thaemlitz echoed this sentiment. She points out that the current popularity of house, electronic, and dance music fosters a particular atmosphere. “If you’re in the US and it’s a straight, white club then it’s just a fucking nightmare,” Thaemlitz said. This current climate contrasts some of the roots of dance music, which was spearheaded by people of color and queer people. And today, some of the most coveted dance parties are queer (think Berghain in Berlin, who don’t let bro tourists in).
In the spring of 2015, Li started her residency at Bambi’s, which is arguably the most buzzworthy venue for house and techno in Toronto (the guy who owns the place is the former manager of Crystal Castles). Bambi’s has an impressive history of featuring up-and-coming female Toronto DJs—Serena Passion a.k.a. Peach, Internet Daughter, Sophie Jones, and Bambii (unrelated to the venue’s name). The latter has had her own Boiler Room set and boasts a large following.
Li then got her own radio show, called Work in Progress, a title which sounds a lot like progressive politics, where we often have to check ourselves and make sure that we’re being inclusive and non-discriminatory. For Li, inclusive practices are at the core of Work in Progress.
“I wanted to dismantle the stereotype that women are only vocalists in bands, that they’re not sound engineers, they’re not producers,” Li told me. “Many of the pioneers of early electronic music were women, but they’re written out of the narrative, for whatever reason.”
This also accounts for why women, POC and queer people have been written out of dominant history in general. The systemic discrimination and erasure extends onto the DJ decks and on the dancefloors.
It’s not just as producers and DJs that women have been marginalized in the club scene—they also face discrimination as spectators and attendees of events. Being female in a club often feels like an extra circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno—hands groping you, men who get angry when you say “no thank you,” etc. Thankfully, Li has been continuing the urgent conversation on sexual harassment and assault in clubs by providing practical measures to reduce harm.
Li co-runs the popular monthly summer party It’s Not U It’s Me at Toronto’s contemporary art gallery The Power Plant, which has a unique method for dealing with harassment and assault.
In an interview with THUMP, Li notes that volunteers wearing green bandanas roam the club during It’s Not U It’s Me, letting partygoers know that they have someone to reach out to if they are feeling unsafe. They will also intervene if they witness something problematic happening, even sharing a Facebook group chat with each other so that they can call for backup.
Li told THUMP that often large venues or institutions “employ people to protect the pockets of promoters, rather than the safety of attendees.” She continued: “A lot of guards seem more concerned about people smoking on the dance floor or bringing alcohol into the club, but they don’t take women seriously [when they report instances of violence]. It goes back to the fact that these clubs are run by men and only men.”
Li admits that when you’re running an event, you’re busy taking care of logistics, rather than noticing if people are accosting attendees. “I had no idea that people were getting harassed or felt uncomfortable,” Li told me, adding that this was why they were intent on having volunteers to not only hang out and enjoy the music, but to keep an eye on things. “It’s more preventative than anything,” she said. “Ultimately our goal is harm reduction.”
Going to a techno event or rave is where you should be able to lose yourself, Li reminded me. “I want to be feel free to lose myself in the music,” she said. “To not be able to do that is a huge bummer on the event.”
*Work in Progress, which was broadcast as part of the Toronto Radio Project, is currently on an indefinite hiatus, which occurred after our interview with Cindy Li. However past radio shows have been archived. She continues to make radio shows independently.
You can catch one of Cindy’s sets here :)
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.