t’s hard to remember the last time the announcement of a new festival made so much of a splash as Risen. The one-day dance music extravaganza, set to land in Hackney Wick in April, has totally eschewed the male-dominated norms of the industry with a line-up “centred around the divine feminine” — in other words, it will run with a programme made up exclusively of women, trans and non-binary artists. Men can attend, but not perform. Tickets flew when they went on sale earlier this year, which begs the question: is this the festival London has been crying out for?
With many of the UK’s biggest music events making a return last summer, early-pandemic fears that the scene could collapse were more or less assuaged. But it also proved that it is still struggling with a chronic issue: a near-universal inability to book gender-balanced line-ups.
Some progress is being made — Cambridge festival Strawberries & Creem has marked itself as something of an outlier with a 60 per cent female line-up for 2022, and there will be a return for the annual, female-led Power of Women festival in Thanet, with Self Esteem as the headliner — but you only need to take a quick survey of the country’s biggest music events to see that things have more or less returned to their old, bloke-heavy ways.
It’s what made Risen, which will take over 10 indoor and outdoor venues in east London, stand out quite so spectacularly. It’s the idea of Kitty Bartlett, the festival’s head booker and co-creator who, along with fellow founder Alice Franklin and operations manager Maria Grzeszczyk, has cultivated a festival entirely at odds with the UK londonbusinessblog.
Bartlett made her name with the Manchester party she co-organises, B.L.O.O.M (Beautiful Ladies Organising Orgasmic Music), which is coming up to its five-year anniversary and regularly takes over two of the city’s best clubs, White Hotel and Soup, hosting top-tier DJs like Jayda G, Aurora Halal and Mafalda.
In some ways, B.L.O.O.M was a precursor to Risen, running with a policy of only booking women and non-binary DJs, but this new London event was catalysed by Bartlett’s own frustrations within the industry. Sick of dealing with a group of men who were “just horrible to work with”, Bartlett thought: “F*** this, let’s start our own event and just focus on women.”
And so came Risen, which, Bartlett says, has purposefully avoided splitting its line-up into tiers and naming certain acts as headliners. “The one thing I said [when launching the festival] was that I don’t want to just book the women who get booked loads and are fairly big,” says Bartlett. “I really want to use this as an opportunity to give people a bit of leg-up.”
One online commenter wondered whether the DJs ‘are going to match the BPMs to their menstrual cycles’
Bartlett reached out to “so many people” when formulating the line-up (“slimming it down to what it is now was really hard,” she admits) and ended up with artists she’d been following for some time “and just love what they’re doing”, and even those she had never seen live before, but had noticed during pandemic livestreams or had recommended to her by other DJs — Akiko Haruna and Giulia Tess, for example, were brought in by one of Bartlett’s regular collaborators, DJ and label boss Madam X.
It makes for a bracingly fresh programme. Bartlett reels off a few artists she’s particularly keen to see — Jade Seatle, who heads up the popular Night Moves parties with Jane Fitz; Amaliah, who recently made her debut at Fabric; Eliza Rose, widely tipped as one to watch in the UK scene — before admitting that she’s excited about every one of the artists she booked.
But Bartlett is also quick to point out that it’s not just about visibility on the line-up that counts.
“We can use this as a really good opportunity to shine a light not just on DJs and musicians, but actually on people like sound engineers, artist liaisons and set designers,” Bartlett says.
And while the behind-the-scenes crew won’t be entirely non-male, “we’re trying to make it, where possible, so that we can have as many women, trans and non-binary staff working in the venues”.
Risen’s sound company will offer shadowing opportunities to aspiring engineers who want to break into the industry, while the festival’s largest venue, Colour Factory, will operate with an 80 per cent women, trans and non-binary security team.
Such a radical approach — or rather, radical in the context of festival norms — has led to a depressingly predictable reaction from some people, Bartlett says. “There have been lots of negative comments, mostly from men,” Bartlett says. One particularly bone-headed online commenter wondered whether the DJs “are going to match the BPMs to their menstrual cycles”.
“It just makes you laugh,” says Bartlett, who seems to have taken it all in her stride (the Risen team even have a folder dedicated to storing those negative comments, which they hope to reclaim for a tongue-in-cheek display as part of the set design during some performances), and she sees the backlash as proof that they’re on the right track. “You get all of these people who are just like, ‘Oh [gender imbalance] is not an issue’, and you’re like, ‘Well, if it wasn’t an issue, you wouldn’t be offended by it… you wouldn’t be taking time out of your day to write nastycomments on our Facebook posts’.” She recalls: “My boss, Fred [Letts, of dance music events organiser Percolate], was like, ‘Do you think people will take [Risen] badly? And I said, ‘Fred, whatever you do, whatever you say nowadays, there’s always someone who’s going to have a different opinion.
“You just have to kind of ignore them and get on with it, because what we’re doing is a good thing. And if people don’t like it, they can f*** off’.”
Bartlett is keen to stress — as has the publicity surrounding the festival — that anyone is welcome to attend Risen, male or otherwise. “This is inclusive for everyone to come,” she says. “We just want to use it as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on people who don’t identify as male, but we’re not going to stop men from coming, because that would be wrong.”
Despite the pocket of disgruntled onlookers, Bartlett says she’s received nothing but positivity from her peers in the industry. “A lot of women agents are like, ‘Wow, I’m really happy to see something like this finally happening’.”
As such, there are tentative plans to turn Risen into an ongoing project, moving into club nights as well as festivals. And for Bartlett, the hope is that it spurs others into driving towards a more equal future for live music. “I do hope it makes some sort of change.”
Risen, April 9, tickets from £31.50, divinerisen.co.uk