By Dan Darrah
“People who used to call me a freak are a lot more tame now.”
Raeanna Rees was initiated into the Toronto hardcore-punk scene at the now-defunct Siesta-Nouveaux, which she felt was – at one time – a “punk utopia.” But the fervent 23-year-old concedes that it didn’t end up shedding the “big bro party” she had come to know at her home scene of St. Catharines.
“You enter a room for a couple hours to try to get away from that, and somehow there’s still men pulling you out of the pit, slurs are being used, and again, there’s some sort of power struggle.”
But the Toronto scene is in a state of transition, she says, noting that people are increasingly watching the language they use. “Maybe they don’t want their bands to get on,” she says, “or maybe they actually understand how problematic their language can be.”
The Toronto scene stretches across the megacity’s east and west ends as well as the downtown core – from Queen Street West, to Davenport, to the Annex and beyond – and encapsulates an organic mix of young punk bands like VCR, traditional-style hardcore like Ancient Heads and more aggressive groups like Ransom. Though very different in their approaches to alternative music, the overlap between the three types of groups denotes a diverse space for those espousing an “against-the-grain” ethos.
Rees says she feels represented within the scene through the women and queer people “making their presence known,” which she contends is difficult for her to do being timid and quiet. “Being strong must be exhausting,” she says.
But her timidness should not be interpreted as apathy: as the scene reaches a point of greater inclusion and begins to own its title as a safe space, Rees has recommendations on how it can do better. She comments that privilege – especially of “people we know and love” – is a catalyst. Addressing it means correcting the behaviour and language usage of showgoers, and doing so is simply a “responsibility” to help them “grow and become stronger.” She suggests reaching out to people of colour, women, and non-binary peoples and encouraging them to start or join bands, aiding them as well by sharing equipment.
The normal world has “hegemonic” traits that are projected in the scene, which bring things “to be learned and to be unlearned.” Of the things to be learned, she says, is that low-wage work, capitalism, and mainstream society at-large all, “effect people in different ways,” noting that she “thinks a lot of people forget that.” Remembering this is important when entering a place where people go to “escape” these experiences for a few hours out of a night.
Many of those hours in the last year have been spent at S.H.I.B.G.B’s, a small basement venue in Davenport, Toronto that has housed much of the changes described by Rees. Though only in its infancy, “Sheeb’s” – as it was often called – shut its doors for the last time last month despite its popularity and accolade as a progressive punk force. It was here that young bands with safe-space and positive stances, such as Toronto-based Triage and Mollot, cut their teeth.
Erin Bond, another veteran of the St. Catharines hardcore scene, says that, “women are starting to take back punk and hardcore. It’s such an amazing feeling.”
Bond reiterates Rees’ comments in saying that there are still discriminatory sentiments at Toronto shows. Being a cisgendered woman, she says, means that she hasn’t had a hard time feeling represented, but feels underrepresented “as a fat woman.”
“I know of a few big femmes in my community and I love them and their existence,” she says, “but it’s very rare that you see us in bands or taking up space on stages.”
Even hostility between women in the scene existed up until recently, which Bond attributes to “internalized misogyny.” But it has gradually shifted into a “huge community of people that love and support each other.”
Bond agrees with Rees that recognizing privilege is key. One of the most important things is being able to “sit down and listen” to those underrepresented and even help brainstorm ideas to deal with issues as they arise. She also recommends that promoters make an effort to book shows at venues with safe-space policies in order because, “making sure that the people going to your shows feel comfortable is a pretty big thing.”
Another voice discussing the feminist voice in Toronto hardcore is Karla Gonzalez, who grew up in Kansas City, moved to Victoria, B.C. in her mid-teens, and has recently settled in Toronto. In line with the scenes in other cities she’s lived, she says that women still lack representation on stage, despite oftentimes making up a huge portion of the crowd.
As well, she has felt uncomfortable and “on guard” when bands have espoused macho-aggression or dropped the “p-slur” while performing. Gonzalez argues that with, “effort and thoughtfulness”, bands and audiences alike can shed these macho tendencies and create a safe space.
In spite of this, she adds that there is still “camaraderie in every facet of the scene that stems from exclusion from social circles.”
“When I was first coming into the scene, I felt an inclusion I never felt before,” she says.
Although there is a prominent and growing “minority presence” in Toronto hardcore, Gonzalez hasn’t personally met many who are also Hispanic, denoting a personal “disconnect” for her.
Speaking to the resurgence of women and feminist issues in the scene, Gonzalez urges that it’s not trivial and, “more importantly, not leaving.”
“It’s no longer – and never was – okay to use sexist slurs or to write off sexual harassment as “boys will be boys,” she says.
Progression is “fluid,” Gonzalez concludes, noting that the newer social consciousness in the scene is not at a “peak” or stopping anytime soon. “We are going to be climbing this mountain forever,” she says. “But what that climb meant in 1994, 2006 and 2015 has varied.”