Flagstaff is a community that values its artistic outlets. Music, poetry, literature, fine art, performance art, photography. From Firecreek to Fourth Street there is art in alleyways and in professional studios. There is music on street corners and in the Orpheum Theater. A theatrical performance by seasoned veterans at Northern Arizona University or by up-and-coming children in a Theatrikids production. The arts keep community alive, showcasing the minds and talents of some of its citizens.
But even in Flagstaff, the Associated Students for Women’s Issues at Northern Arizona University feel more can be done to hear voices it feels are underrepresented in the arts community, which is what prompted the continuation of its Resisting Institutionalized Oppression Together Festival, or RIOT Fest.
The festival dates back to the ‘90s and aims to “showcase music and art by people from marginalized and underrepresented identities in the music and art scene,” according to a statement on the Facebook event page for this year’s RIOT Fest. While recent years have focused on music and art, the festival has seen some changes.
“When it started out, it used to be an all-day, on-campus thing,” said Vanessa Heras, ASWI director of finances. “[RIOT Fest] had booths, presentations and keynote speakers. More recently we’ve evolved it be more art based.”
A decision which ASWI director of administration, Sarah Lydford, finds works for the organization’s mission.
“A lot of what we focus on is education and action-based outreach, but [RIOT Fest] is a more social environment,” Lydford says. “It’s a way to promote gender equality in a different facet than what we normally do.”
Lydford, who plays in Fake Nails, one of the featured bands this year, argues that, even in Flagstaff, there is a homogenization of the arts and music scene. When Fake Nails was double-booked at a local venue, it was dropped from the bill while the other band, a “white-dude funk band,” played out the show. Though later that night Fake Nails was picked up by another venue, Lydford feels this is just a small example of how some identities and voices are privileged.
“I’ve been to other places where the lead singer will say something like, ‘women will go and break your heart’ and generalize these things about all women when it’s based on an individual experience he had with one woman, and that’s really detrimental in some ways,” says Lydford.
But is detrimental a harsh word? Is double-booking a band or making crude jokes and slights that harmful to society? Is that truly oppressive behavior, or is it perceived oppression?
According Dallas Diaz, it’s oppressive.
“I would question the notion of perceived oppression itself. I would ask then why Elvis and The Beatles are cultural icons while Sister Rosetta Tharpe was paid dust,” says Diaz.
As drummer for Fetal Pink, another featured band for RIOT Fest, Diaz feels there is a lack of representation for the band. Too often Diaz feels Fetal Pink is thought of as a “boy band” and conversations get wrapped up in how “diverse” the band is.
“What does that even mean?” Diaz asks. “Why not discuss our music with us? We are not some sort of token; we are a band. I get it pretty bad, personally. No one thinks a black femme person can be a drummer. I can't tell you how many times I have to tell venue owners that I'm not just some roadie for the band.”
These types of occurrences are common amongst the bands and artists present at this year’s festival. The ASWI director of special events, Kyley Romano, says to just look around if you can’t see the oppression.
“A lot of these people don’t get taken seriously. They don’t have the ability to have a space that is celebratory of them and their music, art or poetry. I don’t think it’s a perceived oppression if it continuously happens to people,” says Romano. “There is clearly a hierarchy of privilege.”
“Certain identities get to be seen as artists and other identities are chicks who happen to be musicians, like a side job,” adds Lydford. “Seeing them as different identities rather than what they’re there for, which is art.”
How we identify affects both how people perceive us and how we perceive the world, and the ASWI believes that sexism, however nuanced or subtle or unconscious, exists institutionally, ingrained in our perceptions of the world, of different people and different cultures. And RIOT Fest acts not necessarily as a platform solely for those who feel their identity is marginalized, but as a space where those identities and those individuals can safely present themselves as what they truly feel they are: artists. Not their gender. Not their race. Not their age.
Lydford further explains that those things all contribute to how we identify, but not one defines us as a whole, saying the argument here is that “white, cisgender males” aren’t necessarily defined by those identities but other races and other sexes are.
So what should we be celebrating? An individual for how they identify or for their art? Why not both?
“[Fake Nails] get asked all the time to play femme shows a lot. And you’ll see shows all the time where it’s all dudes in all the bands and they’re not called ‘masculine shows’ or ‘dude shows,’ because that’s the standard,” says Lydford. “But it’s a really tricky balance because we do identify with femme-punk. I think that the reason for RIOT Fest is that it’s optional. If that’s not something you want to focus on, then that’s fine. It’s more so a healing community space and an opportunity for people who don’t get opportunities elsewhere to showcase their artwork.”
Along with the Fetal Pink, Fake Nails and Rabbit Trap, RIOT Fest will feature Planet Vegeta, Alisa Garcia and Dakota Nelson, as well as open-mike time for poets and performance arts. For artists and painters, the walls of The Hive will be left open for their artwork. As the ASWI moves forward with RIOT Fest, it hopes to prop up and normalize artists from marginalized and underrepresented groups so their art is not prejudged or looked down upon for its gender or race, so that it’s just art.
Catch the RIOT Fest this Friday, Nov. 17, at The Hive, 2 S. Beaver St. Ste. 190. There is a recommended $3 donation, and all proceeds from the night will go toward the Northland Family Help Center of Flagstaff. Doors open at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.