BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND–It’s 2016, launch night of the first ever Women’s Work Festival in Belfast. I’m sitting in a taxi with Annie Nightingale, the pioneering female DJ of BBC Radio One, celebrating 50 years in the business. I’m in awe but trying to act cool, internally pinching myself. We’re en route to the venue, which is the Oh Yeah Music Centre where I work. She is opening the event with a conversation about her life followed by a DJ set. She doesn’t disappoint, the stories, the banter, the music is all brilliant and inspired.
The next day I’m collecting music journalist Jessica Hopper from the airport. She’s spent the last year talking about women’s experiences in music, feminism and promoting her book on the subject. She was one of the people to inspire the festival, after a Tweet she posted asking people who felt marginalised to share their music industry experiences. It set Twitter on fire and conversations opened up all over the world.
Later that day the room is full to capacity and her talk shoots from the hip, she tells girls how they care about music is real and relevant. To this day I’m still not sure how that all happened, but it was enough to generate a great deal of excitement about an ambitious idea to start a festival with the aim of raising the profile of women in music right here in Northern Ireland.
So now Women’s Work is now entering its third year (the name by the way is inspired by the Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work”). The aim is to celebrate the contribution that females make to music, by combining it with discussion, panels, talks, exhibitions, films and showcases.
However as the festival has developed and progressed it has become more than female-focussed, it is ultimately about celebrating diversity, with non-binary and gender-neutral artists and audiences getting involved and contributing greatly to the overall message.
In terms of impact, we can proudly say that over the last few years it has contributed to the shift in balance and representation on a local level. Either consciously or unconsciously it’s definitely influenced the way people think about how balanced an event, festival or conference is. Some might argue it’s tokenistic, or coincidence, but I disagree, what we are seeing is a shift in attitude and thinking, the message getting through.
What we are also seeing is an increased confidence, again be it conscious or not, the increased visibility of females/non-binary is having a knock-on effect on the various genres and scenes that exist here. The other thing to note here is that Women’s Work is about being part of a global movement and conversation across sectors, in solidarity with other campaigns and making an impact that contributes to the wider message for equality.
I have worked for the Oh Yeah Music Centre for exactly 10 years, for a long time there was only a handful of female talent holding their own in a male-dominated scene. Since Women’s Work began we have increased the number of female musicians using our facilities from around 15% to 40%. This is a result of the festival, but it’s also due to collaboration with other groups such as the locally based collective Go Girl, right through to our partners Help Musicians NI, and the PRS Foundation who are both committed to and campaigning for equality and diversity in music.
On the ground it doesn’t take much to change the landscape. Aside from the festival, one artist that really inspired me locally is SOAK, a young singer-songwriter from Derry who emerged at the age of 15, signed to Rough Trade and released an album that not only won the NI Music Prize but was also nominated for a Mercury. I believe that SOAK is responsible for the surge in exceptional female talent that has since come out of the city.
So this year the festival will take place from 5th – 10th June, to date it has showcased over 120 acts and welcomed over 60 guest speakers and industry. It has been programmed and is in acknowledgement of the centenary year of the Representation of The People Act 1918. The artwork which is by Belfast-based illustrator Fiona McDonnell incorporates the colors and tone of what became a milestone event in the in the fight for democratic equality, which is still being fought today around the world in different forms.
Charlotte Dryden is the chief executive of the award-winning Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast, a dedicated music hub for the city. She has been involved in the Northern Irish music community for more than 15 years and has a background in leadership, music and festival programming, venue and event management, music media, as well as working with key music industry bodies and not-for-profit organisations.
Photos courtesy of Charlotte Dryden: 1) Roe performing at last year’s festival; 2) Graphic of Women’s Work Festival; 3) Ms. Dryden