In the past year as I stood around at a house show, engaged in my normal Saturday night rituals of alternating between watching whatever band was playing and socializing, I heard a statement that disturbed me deeply. Among the casual chatter it was delivered as a light hearted quip, one not meant to shock but rather to gently tease. It came as someone recognized my friend but could not put a name to the face. My friend, casually joking with the stranger, said “just remember me as the one black guy who goes to shows.” They both laughed and I did as well at the time but something about that statement rubbed me in the completely wrong way.
It was not that the joke was made but rather that it was, in fact, a true statement as well. I had initially become attracted to punk and metal music, and later DIY music as a whole, because I believed it represented an inclusivity I could not find elsewhere in life. To me it had always been directly linked with people of all backgrounds coming together and supporting one another. After all my time in the DIY music scene had been in the time of the internet. There I saw long, ranting posts about the importance of inclusivity. How no matter, no one belonged. How abusers, bigots, and more would not be tolerated. I saw images of bands playing in front of banners made on sheets proudly proclaiming “No Sexism, No Racism, No Homophobia, No Transphobia, No Bigots.”
However as I became more and more involved in the DIY music scene it quickly became apparent to me that this was largely performative. Shows often labelled as “safe spaces” still featured line ups cisgendered, heterosexual white men (which I am one of myself, calm down). At first this honestly seemed normal enough at first to me. Then I realized that the very idea of the “safe space” here was being challenged as there was no further representation. How was anyone outside of that majority group supposed to find a wider feeling of acceptance or “safety” if they never saw anybody representing them? These shows were not actually being thrown to provide a voice for the voiceless, but to profit off the image of doing so. It was a lazy way for 20-something art school kids whose parent paid for their house to get laid. There was no subversion of wider cultural trends here, as was DIY’s intentions, but rather a gross continuation of it disguised in a pair of thick rim glasses.
In of itself this was both threatening to everything DIY stands for, and largely insulting to those who it claimed to be representing. If the “safe space” was used to advertise the show but not actually be represented by some sort of diversity it turns the phrase to a rather meaningless and hollow concept. It becomes an easy slogan that anyone can attach to anything, losing its power as a former mean to try and push a more accepting scene. Furthermore by using the “safe space” as a simple marketing technique it pushes all of those who it might actually benefit, such as minority groups looking for further representation, to props at best. It’s insulting, but also dangerous.
While dangerous may seem like an overstatement, it also feels accurate. Punk, and by extension DIY as a movement of punk, started as a form of cultural subversion. For many this was against the cultural norms, those that promoted intolerance or bigotry, the abuse of a fellow human. These are important lessons and ones that are spread through music, a medium most accessible to anyone. But most anyone will tell you that’s easy enough to hear someone say something while still doing very little to back it up. Such is the case when “safe space” is thrown around without substance. A show labelled “safe space” but played entirely by cisgender, heterosexual white dudes is not culturally subversive. It is an every day norm except maybe this time these ones have shittier mustaches and an acoustic guitar.
Furthermore, it undermines the entire message of inclusivity. No one who’s not a cisgender heterosexual white guy is going to feel included when there’s no one like them up there playing. They are going to, once again, feel excluded from a community that promised different and that promised to do better by them. Which, once again, is not culturally subversive but rather just pretty in line with exactly what goes on already.
DIY, above all else, is supposed to be a place where anyone and everyone can carve out a name for themselves. This stands regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or any other factor that might otherwise inhibit someone in every day life. But if that’s the case, why do we continually hollow out valuable techniques, such as the “safe space” approach, just to appear socially aware? No one is being helped when the words are not followed through with actions, and no statement is being made, and is a core tenet of DIY music. DIY music in of itself is a form of protest, a failure to fit into the standard guidelines of the industry. It is meant as an arena of free-expression and opportunity for all, and it is up to all of us to support that. The next time you or anyone you know aims to book a show or fest, write a zine, or organize a comp, take a critical look at all that you’ve done in your power to try and include as many people from diverse of a background as possible. If you have not it’s time to put your money where your mouth is and start over.