By Jane York
On Feb 5th this year I posted in a private feminist group I belong to, the following:
“Random thought for all singers (everyone) in this group: If I was to start a casual Inner North FEMINIST CHOIR, who would be interested? Singing tunes by powerhouse women of pop and indie including Beyonce, Peaches, Meryl Bainbridge. Like if you would be keen to come along x”
The idea for a feminist choir had been rattling around in my head for a long time, nurtured through chats with lefty, femmo, artist friends about what our creative responses to this unique cultural moment in history might look like. I made a playlist entitled ‘Feminist Choir’ that may or may not have included the song Bitch by Meredith Brooks. So when I got 12 comments of support under my Facebook post I thought ‘fantastic, great, let’s do this right away…’
Right away turned out to be 5 months, and change. I booked the room, made a poster, created a Facebook event and – for lack of any better ideas – titled it BIG FEMINIST SING!, thinking this would do until I came up with a much more clever and witty title.
I then proceeded to completely overthink what we would sing: What is a feminist? What does a feminist song sound like? Am I even a good enough feminist? What if I forget how to feminist and I am never allowed to feminist again?!!!!
After this initial bout of imposter syndrome, I realised that I needed to focus on what I wanted from a Big Feminist Sing. What I wanted was to express a complex set of conflicting emotions around identity. To do more than argue with strangers on the internet. To make a physical space for catharsis. To express vulnerability, anger, humour; to be fierce, silly and soulful. I wanted to be unapologetically critical of our leaders, cultural values and institutions. I wanted to build community, and I didn’t need to have all the answers!
It was important to me that the Big Feminist Sing workshop was a welcoming and safe space for all non-binary, gender fluid, intersex and trans singers. There is a disturbing amount of discrimination in some pockets of the feminist community and I wanted it to be clear from the outset that everyone is welcome. I have tried to do that by stating explicitly on all our promotion that we are for everybody. I have also been conscious of this when making song choices and lyric changes in songs. Not just choosing songs with lyrics about Woman power and giving pronoun options on lyric sheets. I hope that this has made the space more welcoming and I will continue to listen to feedback around this.
As with my other projects I knew that selecting material would be crucial to the success of the initial workshop. I wanted it to be satisfying and surprising, so the first song in our first session was the children’s song There’s A Hole In My Bucket, which was my dry and humorous way of finding a song that accurately depicted the domestic mental load and the infantilisation of adult men. We then sung a mournful a capella lament on the destruction of Mother Earth by trans singer-songwriter, Anohni, and Radiohead’s Creep, with guitar accompaniment and the lyrics re-written to be about Trump.
Over 40 people showed up to the first workshop and many were not regular choristers or singers. For the second Big Feminist Sing over 80 people came through the door and I was excited and nervous in equal parts. I now had an unruly mob of lefty feminists to wrangle and lead. What did they want or expect? Luckily our venue had a stage and my accompanist had brought a headset mic for me to use so I had physical command of the room. With prior permission, I had arranged Tiddas’ My Sister in two parts and in just under an hour we had something glorious and powerful. The video of that session was shared nearly 4,000 times and, by her own admission, we had Sally Dastey in tears.
We travelled to Docklands Library for the third session, inspired by the big turnout for the previous workshop in Northcote, however I want Big Feminist Sing to be of no fixed address and to move around, allowing different groups of people to take part. Although the turnout for the Docklands workshop was smaller, a third of those who attended did so only because it was held in a central location.
Our fourth workshop was a collaboration with Reclaim the Night were we learnt Mylk’s Quiet, the anthem from the Women’s march. We were then invited to sing it at the conclusion of the RTN event the following week. I made an online resource of the song so that people who couldn’t attend the workshop could still be a part of the evening event and on the night we had around 40 voices leading the crowd in song.
I have a lot of ideas for the future of Big Feminist Sing and am in the process of putting together a committee to help put them into action. The main question in my mind right now is ‘what is our activism’? What will it look, sound and feel like? I look forward to answering these questions and making music with the incredible humans who make up the BFS community.
The next Big Feminist Sing is on 13 November, 7-9pm at Kindred Studios, 3 Harris St, Yarraville. Click here for info.
When she is not waving her hands around Jane is producing community music events including choir jams, a sold-out tribute to 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields, It’s Our Side Project and #Sing4equality.
Featured image: Photograph by recalcitrant