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Discussing inclusion in music with Tusk festival

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Emily Jones, Senior Producer, Sage Gateshead

Back in October I had the pleasure of hosting a panel discussion at this year’s virtual edition of Tusk Festival. The internationally renowned festival explores ’head-melting sonic energy from all corners of the contemporary music sphere’ and is usually held at Sage Gateshead. One aspect of my role is convening discussions about creative diversity, and Tusk Festival has always impressed me with its diversity, in terms of both music and performers, so the festival felt like the perfect home for a discussion about diversity and inclusion in music.

We worked together to recruit a stellar panel of artists from the festival: US fiddle player, vocalist and disability rights activist Gaelynn Lea, turntablist and director of Newcastle’s The Old Police House Mariam Rezaei, and Guttersnipe guitarist Gretchen Aury.

I felt it was important to have a shared understanding of the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ before getting stuck in to the event. Activist Verna Myers is often quoted on this topic, making the distinction between representation and involvement:

‘Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.’

However, thinking has moved on since she first said this so perhaps a better metaphor would be ‘inclusion is being on the organising committee for the party’. This was an idea we returned to in the discussion, which was a wide-ranging chat based around the artists’ personal experiences of inclusion.

Gretchen shared some fascinating insights about autism-friendly music venues, her experience of finding a queer community through dance music and eventually a home in rock music as a trans artist. Gaelynn’s years of activism shone through in tales of performing from the floor in venues which had no wheelchair ramp, so the audience would understand the challenges she faced. Mariam spoke passionately about the socio-economic challenge facing a lot of new and established artists, particularly in the North East. There was much more, including a lively discussion from the 100+ audience members in the chat window, but I’ll leave you to watch the event to find out!

As we find ourselves adapting to a new and more digital way of life, it feels more important than ever to be considering whether everyone is truly included in music-making. With social media providing each of us with a content feed precisely tailored to our interests, it is also increasingly rare to hear about life experiences different from our own, so I’m delighted that we were able to bring together a set of artists with such wildly different backgrounds. We should always question what amazing music and perspectives we might be missing out on and what action we can each take to improve inclusion in music.

The panel discussion is now available to watch back along with other festival performances HERE. The event was live captioned by Stage Text.