Folk Alliance International Aims for Inclusivity, But the Artists Are Doing the Work, Too
There’s how you see yourself, and then there’s what other people see.
That’s the human condition in a nutshell, of course, but it’s a hard truth that the music industry overall has been faced with in the wake of 2016’s Time’s Up movement. While the music world is often characterized as liberal, a snapshot of those who hold the greatest power and wealth in the industry -- white men -- suggests that these attitudes are not always borne out in behavior.
Recently ousted Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan noted sharp disparities within country music in particular in a December interview with Billboard: "I don't know that labels are looking at their A&R departments and making sure that there's women representation, or Spotify looking at their playlists. And what's going on with radio in Nashville? It's something that's industry-wide, and so everybody should be [studying their diversity initiatives]," Dugan observed at the time. More and more data points to the virtual silencing of white women on country radio -- to say nothing of people of color, trans people and openly queer people.
So what’s being done to address the issue? Throughout 2020, The Boot will run a series of articles examining country and roots music’s largest trade organizations and how they are embracing -- or not -- their members’ calls to action.
Folk Alliance International (FAI), the year’s first major music conference, kicks off on Wednesday (Jan. 22) in New Orleans, La. Now in its 32nd year, the multi-day event, which runs in 2020 through Sunday (Jan. 26), hosts 2,900 artists and music industry professionals from across 48 countries. The organization advocates for folk music from around the world and provides professional development and networking events for artists and industry professionals.
"Decolonizing the music industry (and our own organization) is a priority for FAI." -- Aengus Finnan
FAI is confronting the difficult gap between how its members understand themselves and their mission and the realities of how they serve their members -- a study that, according to artists, has been a long time coming. “Our stated values around diversity, equity, and inclusion are an acknowledgment that these systemic issues exist in society, and naturally permeate the folk community also,” FAI Executive Director Aengus Finnan tells The Boot. "Decolonizing the music industry (and our own organization) is a priority for FAI."
This process is quite literal: “As an international body, we recognize that folk means very different things from community to community, region to region, country to country, but that ‘the music of the people’ should reflect all people, not just those organizing the events," Finnan adds.
Indeed, if folk music belongs to everyone, then FAI seeks to model and build ownership for everyone in the community. “We started five years ago by articulating our values, and working to diversify our board, and introduce board and staff training, and then various training and panels at our conference,” Finnan writes. The organization has begun a program of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training for its staff and board members; created programming at FAI to discuss these issues; and signed onto the international Keychange Initative, publicly committing to gender parity across conference programming.
In an effort to truly decolonize FAI’s work, the organization has stopped using the term “world music,” which Finnan believes marginalizes musicians working outside of the Western folk tradition. They have also created specific programming and showcases for indigenous artists.
Few of the artists who commented for this article were aware of these processes, but were excited to learn about them. Hopefully that will no longer be the case after this year's conference: At FAI 2020, the Cultural Equity Summit will begin a year-long process during which an advisory council will work alongside experts in cultural equity work to direct FAI.
“Naturally,” Finnan writes, “it is most important that any plan we develop comes from the community we serve, rather than us making assumptions and decisions for others.”
"'The music of the people’ should reflect all people, not just those organizing the events."
In conversations across Twitter and industry publications, many leaders state -- both directly and indirectly -- that diversity initiatives are simply favoritism or bending to a progressive political agenda. Responds Finnan, "Systemic oppression is the darkest form of favoritism ... Consequently, a dominant culture has defined what is the norm, and in our case ... what folk is. We see intentional outreach and allyship efforts as strategic priorities to correct a profound imbalance."
“Ultimately it is not about limiting one in favor of another," Finan continues, "but it is to ensure that we open all the doors and windows of the house of folk to invite all the family members in and ensure there is room at the table, not just those who know where the spare key is kept.”
How Musicians and Industry Members See Folk Alliance
No organization can have a uniformly positive imprint, however. Some music industry workers' off-the-record comments revealed dissonance between FAI’s self-declared alignment and actions: older hippies who don’t accept their own problematic behaviors, particularly toward women. One journalist tells The Boot they chose not to return to FAI after their first conference, which was a number of years ago.
In a recent tweet, Jason Hawk Harris observed that FAI, which he has played with his band Front Country, can, in effect, result in a pay-to-play scenario, in that the costs involved in attending and playing the conference can be prohibitive. Musicians who otherwise have access to wealth or a stable income -- usually, white and cisgender people -- are better-positioned to attend.
On the other hand, many musicians find Folk Alliance supportive. Bluegrass band Hawktail are playing their first FAI in support of their new album Formations in 2020. "What I'm doing is trying to continue to work with the men around me so that I can hopefully inspire some young girls to pursue music! It is hard being a girl in this scene, so I can only imagine what other people in other minorities or in the intersections of multiple minority groups feel," fiddler Brittany Haas reflects.
Fortunately, Haas feels optimistic: "There is a great trend now towards being more accepting and inclusive, which I think will help a lot over time," she says, and Hawktail are able to take advantage of some of FAI’s resources for their showcase. "I'm excited to go to the conference for the first time this year,” Haas adds, "and I’m grateful for the scholarships to help us get there."
Meanwhile, other musicians have found that FAI lives up to the “International” aspect of their mission. Norwegian band Darling West have obstacles as large as the Atlantic Ocean when it comes to touring in the States, but, "being a part of the Folk Alliance family, we have a connection that brings us closer," they share. "We have also reached out to people in the organization with questions regarding touring in the U.S., and were given the help we needed."
"It seems that FAI has curated a space in which humans who share a passion for one thing can mingle together and create connection in the name of that one thing. No VIP, no posturing, just music." -- Kirby Brown
“Personally, I feel supported by FAI primarily in what their conferences represent for me: a great equalizer,” muses folk singer Kirby Brown. “I like that FAI doesn't feel like a pageant, a 'who's who,' etc. In the same small hotel room, I have seen heads of major companies talking to songwriters who haven't recorded a single song.
"It seems that FAI has curated a space in which humans who share a passion for one thing can mingle together and create connection in the name of that one thing," Brown adds. "No VIP, no posturing, just music."
For a band such as Gangstagrass, who challenge the definition of folk music as many FAI attendees think of it, the conference has been an immense opportunity. "At first, we were clearly outliers, staking a claim on the folk scene by declaring and demonstrating that hip-hop is, in fact, folk music,” Dolio the Sleuth tells The Boot. “After our first exposure, it just became a fact. Shockingly, the acceptance was resounding."
“We are just at the beginning of the process,” Finnan observes. “And we are learning from others."
Folk Music Community Members Take Action
As important as FAI is for building networks, folk musicians aren't waiting around for the organization in order to diversify their local scenes. Darling West, for example, does this equity work through their songwriting.
"Being a part of a community that is growing, where people are welcomed and encouraged, we believe, is a good way, and something to build on," the band says. "And, to us, it also makes sense to write about the things we are seeing and thinking about, and so a lot of our songs touch on those subjects ... As long as artists keep writing about true things and touching hearts, and not making music only to be rich and famous, we believe we have a powerful equity maker through art and culture."
Similarly, Haas believes that Hawktail can lead by example. “Basically all that we can do is be nice and open to everyone, keep doing what we're doing, focusing on making good music and being good people," she says.
"As long as artists keep writing about true things and touching hearts, and not making music only to be rich and famous, we believe we have a powerful equity maker through art and culture." -- Darling West
As a straight white man, Brown exerts his influence onto his local music scene: "Whenever I can influence decision-making on lineups for shows I'm playing, I make a point to go for gender balance and diversity as possible," he shares.
"I recognize this isn't enough, so I'm always looking for ways to push harder," Brown adds -- for example, by intentionally using his financial resources to hire a queer-identifying director and drag actor and activist Queen Robert for his "Justine" music video. "My goal," says Brown, "is to be one of the good guys, an advocate, and I did my best to throw the idea to the team who made the video ... and then get out of the way."
For Gangstagrass, blending hip-hop and bluegrass is a political statement in and of itself. "Our Modus Operandi is pure disregard for the opposition," they say, "and brute force when necessary."
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