When the Fashion Meets Music Festival selected controversial R&B singer R. Kelly to headline its inaugural event, the Columbus music community mobilized.
Local bands Damn the Witch Siren and Saintseneca, both of which were slated to perform at the fest, removed themselves from the bill citing Kelly’s extensive history of legal trouble, which includes a 2008 acquittal on charges of making child pornography. Local radio station WCBE 90.5 FM soon followed suit, withdrawing its sponsorship. Simultaneously, a half-dozen musicians and well-connected insiders were hard at work behind the scenes assembling the framework of Femmefest, a competing music festival designed, in part, to celebrate the strong female presence helping fuel Columbus’ thriving scene.
“Raeghan [Buchanan of the Girls!] approached me after Fashion Meets Music announced R. Kelly as the headliner and said, ‘Ryan [Vile, also of the Girls!] and I want to do an alternate show that’s of the ladies, and assures survivors of sexual assault are not discounted,” said Laddan Shoar, who joined fellow organizer Buchanan for a late August interview at a North Campus bar. “They had booked some venues right away, but then we thought about it and it was like, ‘Why not make it bigger so we can really show it’s a full community initiative?’”
Beginning Friday, Aug. 29, Femmefest will take over a network of spaces ranging from concert venues (Ace of Cups, Café Bourbon Street and more) to brewpubs (Seventh Son Brewing Co.) to coffee houses (Kafe Kerouac) for three days of music-themed events. Proceeds raised will be donated to the Cleveland-based Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence.
Though initially motivated by the R. Kelly selection, Femmefest organizers never wavered when Kelly and FMMF parted ways in late July amid the public backlash. In a subsequent Facebook post, the group wrote, “We want to make sure that an important point doesn’t get lost in the rush of this victory: women still struggle to be valued and appreciated as much as their male counterparts, and still wish to be celebrated as equal.”
As if to hammer this point home, a number of troubling stories rooted in violence against women cropped up in the ensuing weeks. First Ray Rice, an NFL running back accused of assaulting his fiancée, received a two-game suspension from the league — a penalty that created a public uproar from critics who decried it as too lenient. Then in early August, news organization WTRF reported one of the Steubenville High School football players found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl in 2012 was back on the team for his senior season following a stint in a juvenile detention facility.
“Honestly, the more of that there is, the more you need things like [Femmefest] where the event stands for everybody,” Shoar said. “The more we normalize the discussion, the easier it becomes to foster a safe environment for survivors to come forward to seek resources and community. Creating dialogue around the issues is the first step in … changing the culture that makes violence acceptable.”
Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence Executive Director Katie Hanna echoed this point in a recent phone interview, noting events like Femmefest help create public awareness of an underreported issue, while also offering support to a community that too often feels overlooked.
“We’ll be on site [at Femmefest] … to let survivors know where to access support in Ohio, and to let them know they’re not alone,” Hanna said. “We often hear from survivors that they’re either silenced or no one believes them. I know community support for an event like this makes a huge statement to them.”
Femmefest’s lineup is nearly as eclectic as the diverse spaces hosting events, and participating artists range from hip-hoppers (Dominique Larue) to abrasive punks (Katherine) to buoyant power-pop collectives (The Girls!, making its first live appearance since the July death of guitarist Joey Blackheart). Also performing are former FMMF invites Damn the Witch Siren and Saintseneca, which headline crosstown events on Sunday, Aug. 31.
“We were just going to do our own show [after dropping off FMMF],” Saintseneca’s Zac Little said in an email. “Serendipitously, we shared a similar idea [with Femmefest] … to create an alternative event which would raise money for a positive cause. It seemed like there was so much energy circulating around FMMF, rather than just drop off, why not … channel that into a positive thing?”
Despite the numerous factors working against organizers — the entire event has been cobbled together in a matter of weeks on a shoestring budget — Femmefest appears poised to make a successful debut, a development Buchanan and Shoar both attributed in large part to the tightknit Columbus music community.
“It wasn’t hard to get people involved. They wanted to be involved,” Buchanan said. “Even the way the bands said yes wasn’t like, ‘Sure, whatever.’ It was: ‘Hell yes! What can I do?’ It felt like we had them in our corner and people would show up no matter what happened.”
Ace of Cups owner Marcy Mays praised this grassroots spirit in a recent email, writing, “[These events] are started by our friends and neighbors — people we know and see weekly or even daily — and their energy is contagious. And each person this event inspires creates one more opportunity to affect the future.”
At the moment, it’s uncertain if this future includes another Femmefest, though organizers would like to see the event continue to expand if community response demands it return for another go-round.
“I wouldn’t want to [scale it back]. I would like to see it grow … so it takes over the whole city,” Shoar said. “The most uplifting part for me is we are reaching a larger audience [outside our usual social circles]. That’s huge, and it says a lot more about Columbus on a whole to me than anything before this maybe had.”
Photos by Meghan Ralston