Billie Walker

Working towards Safer Spaces.

On the 17th Jan in Fact Gallery a discussion was held with the focus on working towards safer spaces, in direct response to the incidents that took place at the Princess Nokia event at Invisible Wind Factory. The panel contained key members of the northern art and music scenes: Tayyab Amin (FACT magazine, Dazed Digital, Come Thru), Michelle Houlston (Grrrl Power) David Jones (Alec Tronik) Sumuyya Khader (Granby Workshop) Shona Paisley (Singer and promoter), and Saad Shaffi (24 Kitchen Street). All gathered with the intention and hope of defining and creating safer environments in cultural spaces in Liverpool.

Princess Nokia’s Liverpool gig, like all her events are created to be safe spaces as she outlines at the beginning of each and every one of her performances: “This is a Princess Nokia show… It is a safe space for women. It is a safe space for everyone from LGBT community… It is a safe space for people of colour.” At this event she particularly asked for women of colour to come to the front. While most of the audience complied with this request, one white woman refused to allow a black woman to safely be in the front. As Princess Nokia is a woman of colour herself it is understandable that she wants to share the space she’s performing in with those that share her experiences (which was put more poignantly by Michelle Houlston on the panel). Princess Nokia paused in her set twice due to the woman who wouldn’t allow the black woman in front of her. The first time she asked the woman being pushed if she wanted the other to be forced to leave saying “I saw her pushing you”. The second time Princess Nokia stopped she demanded security remove the offender – as I later found out this woman had spat in the victim’s face. Princess Nokia then handed a towel to the victim. I remember her saying to the rest of the audience “This is what happens! We are not crazy!” and demanding that women of colour be respected before carrying on with her set.

A silver lining in the horrible cloud that was this incident, was Princess Nokia’s awareness of her crowd, she understood that by being the star performer and requesting certain rules at her gig it was her job to insure that her fans were kept safe, much like the recently tweeted moment in which Loyle Carner kicked out a member of his crowd for making sexist comments. These artists are showing an awareness of the powerful position they hold in the music scene and are using it to enforce social justice.

Unfortunately the incident did not end there as the woman who was removed from the crowd and her friends were still in Invisible Wind Factory. This created further tension and members of the black community no longer felt that this was a safe space for them.

While Princess Nokia’s performance itself was empowering and as I have detailed in my review – other than the incident that occurred – a supportive and friendly crowd. Sumuyya Khader stated that “Invisible Wind Factory was not a safe place” and “we became vulnerable”. What was amiss, as Sumuyya Khader and Shona Paisley made clear in the panel discussion, was a lack of briefing as to the possible tension which could (and was) created by the political activism of the performing artists. In order to create safer spaces event organisers need to be aware of what could happen at an event and those attending should know there are people that they can come to with issues if incidents occur.

The second incident, which occurred later on, is one I feel some guilt over my ignorance towards. The last set of the night was DJ group called GlitterFuck, who entered with dancers who David Jones explained: “looked like Zulu warriors with music that coincided” with African tribal nature of the dress, all the members on stage were white. I always hope that my values are intersectional and always aim to be aware of cultural appropriation and I understand why people are offended behind it, however I am ashamed to admit that I was obliviously dancing with my friends to the set until a young lady tapped me on the shoulder and said “don’t you think this is a bit offensive?” At this point my peers and I actually properly looked at the dancing and costumes on the stage and where made aware of the discussion at the front in which black members of the audience were explaining their offence to some of the dancers on stage. I understand now that I was blind to this due to my own privilege as a white person and the offence didn’t have to occur to me. Just like those on stage I had not considered how others might feel about this act. I continued to talk to the woman who had talked to me. She apologised for ruining my fun, to which I responded that she had no way done so, she had no need to apologise and that I was extremely sorry for being so ignorant to cultural appropriation that was taking place. We talked for a while longer about how brilliantly empowering Princess Nokia’s performance was and why that made it even more shocking that a performance so racially insensitive came after, on the same bill.

While we parted amicably, the event as a whole did not end on such good terms, the music was abruptly changed, GlitterFuck left the stage and no explanation was made to the crowd as to why. On the whole it was badly handled. A statement has been issued since by Liverpool Music Week in which it is admitted that they “failed in their wider duty to be vigilant and active in our awareness of each component of the bill we helped curate”. Much like the recent H&M advertisement controversy the issue here is that due to the organisations lack of diversity, no question even arose over the nature of the group’s act. It comes back down to the responsibility of all involved to check their privilege. Michelle Houghton aptly said (I’m paraphrasing here) that at the beginning of any creative process you have to consider where your ideas are coming from, who your influences are and if you aren’t considering how you’re representing them you’re already failing.

There are many lessons still be learnt from these events and I am grateful that the FACT Gallery and panel chair Jon Davies took it upon themselves to create a discussion about safer spaces, as I believe this discussion was a great signifier that Liverpool’s creatives want to move towards creating safer spaces for all in the North West.

Personally I have learnt that if I wish to consider myself an ally to the black community, or any marginalised group, I need to recognise my own privilege and be more aware to situations. I think it is easy past a certain time off night to turn off from your awareness and I know now that in order to be intersectional in my behaviour it must be constant, not just in daylight hours.

The panel discussed how members of the public must be aware of the spaces they are going into and by going into these spaces must comply with these rules. Some of the people who attended this event, did not comply with rules of Princess Nokia’s event.  We all have a duty to check our privilege and be accepting of the space we are coming into.

It was also explained that those creating events must be accountable and aware of how they can make their events safer.  Tayyab Amin listed the ways in which he ensured his Leeds based events Come Thru create safe environments for their attendants. When buying tickets customers have to agree to an accountability agreement and this agreement is also posted online and on the walls on the night of the event. This insures that customers know what behaviour is expected of them and that they will be responsible if they do not comply.

As the panel drew to a close it had been clearly concluded that in order to create safer spaces personal egos must be put aside when dealing with offended, and that everyone must work to be aware of the different privileges they may hold in society. Those that create culture events are in a position to change our culture of whats socially acceptable, so that we can work towards creating safer spaces for everyone. Jon Davies ended the panel discussion by announcing that he would be writing up an accountability agreement which will be available for anyone putting on an event to use, with the hope that we can all work towards creating safer spaces in the North West.

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