We’ve been asking ourselves for years why festivals rarely prioritize women, even more, why they don’t prioritize women of colour. If you look at most of the major line-ups during festival season, sure, you’ll find women, but their position on festival cards has always been dependent on which music media outlets have deemed them buzz-worthy enough to share their art with the world. It’s these industry games that have always made it difficult to navigate the earnestness of the festival circuit’s attempts at doing better. Oftentimes, through intersectional programming and prioritizing the safety of bodies that are often compromised at major music festivals.
While major American festivals like Coachella have significantly increased the number of female acts on their lineups (one word: Beychella), many still manage to hide rising talent at the mid or low level tier of a festival booking. Take maximalist pop auteur Kelela: Despite her critically acclaimed debut album Take Me Apart nabbing a top spot on several “Album Of The Year” lists in 2017, in 2018, her name was barely visible on Coachella’s lineup poster.
Gender representation is a conversation that often shifts the blame before it even attempts to solve the problem. Controversial statements like the one made by Grammy president Neil Portnow, who claimed that women in music “need to step up,” are misguided narratives that don’t just impact Grammy nominations, but fuel most traditional music machines that decide when and where a woman is good enough to stand in front of the pack. Bearing all this in mind, it’s important to highlight the announcement of Chicago powerhouse rapper Cupcakke’s highly anticipated, sold-out showcase during the 36th annual Canadian Music Week coming to Toronto May 7th-13th.
Cupcakke, the 20-year-old rapper born Elizabeth Eden Harris, began garnering attention from critics early on the tracks “Deepthroat” and “Vagina,” two hits from her 2016 debut mixtape CumCake which went viral on WorldStar and Youtube. The acclaimed release was one of three releases she dropped that year (the others being her second mixtape S.T.D and her debut album Audacious) that introduced the music world to the underground rapper as a no holds barred lyricist, spitting x-rated bars often accompanied by hilarious music videos that showcase her sexuality as fun, freaky, and fearless.
Young women with Solange-level dreams walk among us everyday, beacons of light untapped because the industry refuses to let them shine.
Several releases into her career, Cupcakke continues to create space for women of colour and queer people with lyrics that not only promote wild, unabashed sexuality, but continuously remind us that self-love and body positivity are some of the most fundamental parts of your personhood. Her mixtapes and albums have received nods by every major music publication, most recently a “Best New Music” from Pitchfork for her latest studio album Ephorize.
Cupcakke’s steady rise and upcoming performance at CMW come at an important time for women of colour once operating on a small scale, now starting to get more visibility on festival bills often predominantly filled with white, male performers. Now more than ever, it’s become vital that female/female identifying figures like Cupcakke are not only the boldest bodies on stage, but the most exciting names on print when you look at any festival poster. Polaris-winner Lido Pimienta was one of the bigger names at last years Halifax Pop Explosion, a Canadian festival that’s giving black women like Bambii and Tasha The Amazon more than an 8pt font on their festival posters. Along with prioritizing these artists on their festival lineups, these events seem to be also prioritizing art and politics in a meaningful way.
If Pimienta’s “brown girls to the front” controversy from her performance at last years Halifax Pop Explosion is any indication, Canadian music festivals are working a bit harder to make sure that POC voices, especially those of women, aren’t being muffled on the grand stage by those who don’t understand their message. Halifax Pop Explosion’s official apology and statement was a rare occurrence in which a music festival or organization actually put the onus on themselves to defend a women of colour and not gaslight her. The support from the festival seemed like a genuine attempt of allyship in the wake of ridiculous claims of reverse racism made by white social media trolls attacking Pimienta online.
While there’s been some bumps in the road, it feels more and more like Canadian music festivals are being more considerate about how they make space for POC performers, which makes Cupcakke’s initial headline announcement at CMW feel like a sign of good faith that the industry might slowly be starting to get it. A female rapper as liberated as Cupcakke is not only a welcomed change from the aging indie rock veterans and mainstream pop key performersof years past, but her commanding presence and radical messages are the type of things festival goers need to empower them, especially those who’ve fallen victim to festival culture’s problematic ethos.
Among several other big shows that weekend, it’s likely that Cupcakke’s sold out CMW show at Mod Club will be one of the festival’s top attractions. These moments of “inclusivity” on festival lineups need to start feeling more organic and less like a fleeting wave of consciousness. Every woman deserves a shot at a top-tier Coachella moment, a stage that services their complete vision and artistry without pitting them against each other—Cupcakke’s name should be big and bold, performing top-level bookings worthy of her talent.
Young women with Solange-level dreams walk among us everyday, beacons of light untapped because the industry refuses to let them shine. For Cupcakke and artists like her, celebrating black love and liberation through their work, Canadian music festivals like CMW have a responsibility to continue to showcase them at a top level. It’s not enough to simply “get” sexism and institutionalized racism on a micro-level, we need to figure how to combat the cycles of abuse we inflict on black women told they can only aspire to the levels that white media and music figures have assigned for them.
Canadian music festivals have the potential to truly revolutionize the way we tackle intersectionality. It’s artists like Cupcakke that remind queer people of colour and women in all-white spaces the power that comes with standing strong, being queer, being free, and encouraging people to crowd the front of the stage and take up the space they want, not the space they’re given. Messages like these need to echo louder now on a big or small scale, so music festivals on both DIY or global scale can finally get the wakeup call.