As a Black Woman in 2018, My Creative Expression Is Still a Political Act

Toronto DJ Kirsten Azan (a.k.a. Bambii) talks about why visibility without complexity still limits Black women’s full creative expression

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Kirsten Azan wears a gray blazer

(Photo: Courtesy of Kirsten Azan)

My Caribbean-Canadian mother grew up in an inner-city neighbourhood so I never really understood her proclivity for listening to classic rock. Dancehall lived in her heart, house and disco were constants and she also loved Cuban music. But on a Sunday morning, while we cleaned the house and prepared for a busy week, her inexplicable favourites were Bruce Springsteen and Simon & Garfunkel.

And it wasn’t just music: my mother has spent her life expressing herself in creative ways within and outside of cultural norms without asking for permission. She also worked in a lot of spaces where she was often the only woman or person of colour. I’m an only child so I listened to what she listened to and sometimes borrowed a piece of clothing from her wardrobe. I’ve watched her transition from being a provincial arts funder to an urbanist. She brought me almost everywhere, whether it was sitting in during one of her theatre rehearsals or watching her work as freelance journalist for CBC. For the most part, I was shielded from stereotypical ideas of what preferences I should have, or the limitations of how I could creatively express myself because I was Black.

It wasn’t until I went to a primarily white high school for the arts that I would really experience the ways in which Black creative expression was policed. Although there was growing representation of Black people in popular culture and media, there wasn’t a lot of nuance within those representations. While my white peers freely experimented with various aesthetics, music, hobbies and skills, I noticed that the few Black students in my school were expected to remain in a very narrow space that could only reflect images of popularized Black culture in American media. Whenever they ventured out of this space, they were questioned or made to feel like their creative interests and expression contradicted their racial identity. As a young girl, I felt pressured by my peers to find a place within those narrow margins, but I always had a sense because of my mother’s deep independence that creative expression was a kind of human right.

The Canadian charter of rights and freedom outlines that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” As someone who is both a woman and an artist I would expand this definition beyond a legal or political context to include the freedom to freely re-imagine yourself and your creative relationship to the world.

Kirsten Azan's headshot

(Photo: Courtesy of Kirsten Azan)

Historically, women’s expression has always been policed. The erasure and control of women in early politics, literature, science and the arts still influences us today. Whether it’s been the denial of our sexuality and reproductive rights or the patriarchal shaping of our beauty ideals, women have not been in charge of their own self image or been equally represented in the arts. Recently, a report by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative looked at the 100 top movies each year for 11 years and found that just 4.3 percent were directed by women. In 2016 the Guardian noted that in advertising, only 3.6 percent of the world’s creative directors were women. Closer to home, Bill 62, a clear violation of rights, was passed in Quebec banning Muslim women from wearing their religious garments while receiving public services. At first glance, these three things may seem like they have little in common, but they show the subtle ways our human right to visibility, leadership and free expression remains threatened.

This gendered control of expression has always been exacerbated for Black women. From slavery to minstrel shows, Black women have been erased, mocked, hyper-sexualized or masculinized. We are constantly struggling for the human right to express ourselves with full agency. But despite this, we are resilient. The ways we communicate who we are indicate power and a uniqueness that’s often appropriated. Feminism itself has been extraordinarily influenced by Black women thinkers like Audre Lorde and bell hooks. Regardless of the space, Black women bring perspectives, aesthetics, concepts and energy that could only have been gained from our lived experiences.

I started DJing after I dropped out of school and had no idea what I wanted to do. I only knew that I deeply loved music and the connections it created. Initially, I wasn’t thinking about the politics of representation—that came later—it was just purely a way to express myself. Within my field I’m happy and inspired to see so many more cis and trans women entering such a male-dominated medium. There are many critical conversations happening right now that challenge patriarchy and gendered ideas around music. Publications, independent labels, DIY events and so many amazing artists are working towards more inclusion. Platforms like Montreal-based Moonshine, or New York-based Fake Accent or GHE20G0TH1K are events that always have diverse bookings and create space for Black artists to have agency. Despite the additional barriers Black women face, talented rappers like Quay Dash, who speaks out against transphobia, or DJs like UNIIQU3 are changing the face of EDM. They are both so inspirational.

UNIIQU3 performs during the Chromat collection at New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Gallery 3, Skylight Clarkson Sq on February 10, 2017 in New York City

UNIIQU3 performs during the Chromat collection at New York Fashion Week (Photo: Getty)

Quay Dash performs during the Bread & Butter by Zalando at Badeschiff, arena Berlin on September 2, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.

Quay Dash at a recent performance in Berlin (Photo: Getty)

Though their presence and progress is to be celebrated, I remain aware of the ways Black female expression is still denied its inherent complexity. So many of us have existed and moved across class, subcultures, language and polarized communities, but who we are is often simplified to fit into a familiar Blackness. Shortly after I started DJing and working with corporate brands, I remember very assertively needing to stress how I wanted to be presented. It was almost a reflex for many to assume I was a hip-hop DJ or to stereotypically feminize me in photoshoots or on posters. Sometimes publications would incorrectly write about the music I played, or promoters would book me based on preconceived ideas rather than research. These assumptions were so frustrating, and it was clear that I would have to create my own platforms to really ensure that I was in control of my image—and not subject to lazy constructions. I also noticed a lot of my Black female peers had to spend so much time intentionally branding themselves to retain control over their images, while my white peers were granted much more fluidity. We had to clearly assert that our art, music or spaces were different or alternative if we wanted people to know that.

This industry, just like all others, would make swift conclusions—some obvious, some more subtle—about us based on our Blackness. The idea that people can freely move and express themselves through and with art is idealistic. In reality, racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and other types of oppression decide what images we see and how we see them. They greatly infringe on our creative agency.

Celebrating visibility, without acknowledging the barriers race creates to achieving it wholly, leaves so many of us out of the conversation. When I think about how Black women’s expression remains hindered, both politically and creatively, it becomes ironic considering our significant contributions. We are shaped very young both by examples in the world and a lack thereof. They dictate how we navigate and what we feel we have access too. Those examples will tell us what we can love and who, ultimately, we can be.

There isn’t a specific moment that I can point to as the thing that inspires me to confront the ever-present gaze cast upon my Blackness. However, it’s the daily choices I make, big and small, to reclaim myself that act as motivation in my life. Whether it’s getting on planes to go play for people in faraway places, or even dressing exactly how I please, every time I do something that used to be scary, I feel a deep sense of affirmation. I have big dreams and my own expectations for my career, but as a Black woman in 2018, it’s clear that even my sense of independence, my pursuit of joy, is still a political act. And, just like my mother with her bold career choice and eclectic taste in music, I’ll never ask for permission.

Related:

Why Being a Black Woman Is My Greatest Power
Why I Constantly Face the Question: How Black Can I Be Today?
Chika Stacy Oriuwa: “In My White Coat, I’m More Black than Ever”

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