Estella Adeyeri: Women and Non-Binary Folk in Live Music
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
This series is an extension from our Instagram, with full Q&A's instead of the shorter Instagram bios. Here you can read the full in-depth interviews with musician & music activist volunteer Estella Adeyeri, & go direct to their provided donation link to show your support:
I’ve been playing in bands, mostly DIY bands, since 2013. At the moment I play bass in Big Joanie and lead guitar in Charmpit. I’ve done various other things like singing and playing drums as well in the past. I volunteer with Decolonise Fest, a music festival organised by punx of colour for punx of colour, and also Girls Rock London. Previously I was coaching young people in bands at our Girls Rock camps, and sometimes tutoring in guitar or bass. In the past year we’ve moved to a lot more online stuff. In March I also joined the board for the Good Night Out campaign, who do a lot of work for safer nightlife spaces and recently online safety. I used to do some live sound engineering as well.
I’ve always been really passionate about music. My parents played instruments when they were younger. My mum still plays the piano-accordion! One of my older sisters introduced me to guitar music as a kind of 'alternative' music (and XFM back in the day!) By 13 I’d decided I wanted a guitar instead of a saxophone, I always wanted to play in bands. When I was older I went to York University and worked in a music venue where there were always cool bands coming through, that’s where I met people in the local music scene. I joined a band and started playing locally, then from there started playing with more bands and picking up different instruments, including teaching myself drums. It was exciting to learn something new and there’s so many ways to put your own spin on what you’re doing, it’s so interesting to hear unique ways of drumming. I’m always interested to keep learning really.
There weren’t really many women in bands in York. I dunno if that was because it was a pretty small city, but within the scene it’s really supportive. I had lots of male friends in bands who would always lend me stuff and were really encouraging. I guess it just wasn’t really interrogated why there weren’t women in bands there. When I joined a riot grrl band with my friends in 2015, we were literally the only band that were all women in York. I thought that was a bit strange. It also felt like there was only really one other black woman who played guitar in the city. We never really played on the same bills, but I remember getting a taxi and the driver being like ‘I dropped you off for that gig’, at a venue I’d never played at. Nope, that’s the other woman with a guitar who looks nothing like me but is a black woman. It’s so ridiculous! I’d never really questioned the amount of POC in the music scene, but I played one gig with the most women I’d shared a bill with in York, mostly women of colour. I realised that I’d not played a gig with that many women, or women of colour in York. It was four.
Coming to London and getting involved in DIY spaces, seeing women and non-binary people actually being encouraged to start bands, felt really positive for me. I felt like you had a space to exist on stage and stuff, and had as much right to be there as everyone else. DIY space is where I learnt to do live sound, as they specifically encouraged women, non-binary people and POC to come and shadow those who already knew - kind of learning on the go, which was really important. They were specifically aware that this was a white male dominated industry, it can feel very intimidating if you’re not somebody that fits that. I’m not sure I experienced too many negative experiences within DIY spaces and the DIY scene, as I felt quite lucky to be surrounded by people who shared similar politics - in that anyone should be able to do these things. Outside of that, when I’ve done sound for heavier shows, the band, all white guys usually, maybe weren’t expecting me to show up, maybe they weren’t sure if I could manage the role. I would hope that’s less common now, as there’s lots of steps to get women into audio - like Omniicollective in London! It feels more normalised. The biggest challenge is challenging people’s perceptions really. Being in a black feminist punk band with three black cis women, I think people don’t always expect to see us with all our gear at a punk show. Walking into soundcheck sometimes you get security asking ‘you’re here for the gig?’, yes, to play. We’re on the poster next to you? A festival where we were headlining in Germany, I remember the guy who was ferrying us to and from the airport saying ‘oh when you turned up I thought, who are these girls? But actually it was quite good’ - like, that’s not actually a compliment. We wouldn’t be invited to headline a festival if we were a sh*t band. That’s quite annoying.
Playing with Big Joanie and Charmpit, our identity is quite tied into the band. Steph [Big Joanie band member] always said she started Big Joanie as a space to encompass all the things she’s interested in - particularly black feminism and punk. Previously you could exist in your punk space and then would go to black feminist meet ups, but they were distinct spaces. Big Joanie is about encompassing both. Same with Decolonise Fest, pointing out that people of colour have been active in punk scenes for a long time and it’s not unusual or difficult to find POC to fill bills for alternative artists. With both my bands, the lyrics are personal and really encompass who we are as individuals.
I think what we’ve found is, artists sometimes just enjoy being able to play to a really diverse audience. Decolonise Fest is organised by all people of colour, but anyone can attend. We’ve worked hard to ensure that it’s a really welcoming space, and that you’re not going to face some of those micro-aggressions that people of colour face in other gig scenarios. It’s felt good in that way, connecting with others who have had similar experiences growing up as a person of colour. Decolonise Fest just proves that these bands are out there. No festival can really say ‘oh we didn't book any POC because there aren’t any making this music’. We find loads of bands across the whole spectrum of music! POC don’t just make RnB or Pop or Rap, we’re influenced by a multitude of genres. It’s really important to show that we can book incredible POC artists, and showing the history as well. We’ve wanted to highlight the POC who get written out of history and showcase those people and the audiences willing to listen to them. There’s normally that question of which audience to market musicians of colour to, but there’s always an audience. We’ve never struggled to fill a room for the Decolonise Fest lineup. Similar to big festivals who are saying they couldn’t find any women at the level to headline, but you didn’t get Courtney Barnett? She’s such a prolific guitarist!?
Big Joanie had a lot of big plans for summer festivals, some of the biggest we would have played. We had quite a bit of momentum before COVID with our biggest sell out headline gig at MOTH Club in Hackney. We’re also trying to finish and record our second album but can’t get into the studio at the minute. It’s difficult. We haven’t really been able to play together much. Although, sometimes I enjoy the online stuff as I get to sit and watch and don’t have to do anything haha! Like - oh aren’t we good! It’s a shame not to be hanging out with each other though. The uncertainty is a big overhanging thing career wise. Like our tour with Idles in May, I don’t know if that’s gonna be able to happen. It’s that continuous disappointment of things being pushed back I suppose.
It’s hard not having that outlet of performance too, that always feels like a space to be free and let loose, lacking in judgement in a way. It’s a really good platform to highlight things that you think are important because you literally have a captive audience in front of you. Not being able to do that is a specific kind of loss. I really liked the interactive side of shows, like getting to meet and speak with your audience and see why different people have come, just have conversations in a space. Big Joanie has never had a bad crowd really, there were always super interesting conversations which felt like a big part of it. It’s a shame not to be able to perform for people live, I’m sure other artists feel similarly. Music does create a community, you know. You have those people you always see at shows and say hey to, even if you’re not super close.
One of the things that really drew me to Girls Rock London is the research they had to back it up. We focus on 11-16 year olds, as that’s the period of time that young women’s self esteem is at its lowest point. The idea of Girls Rock is to intervene at that pivotal moment, and build up young people’s realisation of confidence and value of themselves. It’s almost like the music is a vehicle for this encouragement. We talk about topics such as mental health, body positivity, race, sexuality and gender identity. Girls Rock can be a space for people to come and try different pronouns that they’ve been thinking about but not had the safe space to try it before, and to know it will be accepted and respected. I think all of those elements are just as important, if not more so, than the music. It’s so relevant to the music industry because if you’re just having an industry where you can’t see yourself represented, how can you expect young people to think - oh maybe I could go be a sound engineer? - when they’re not seeing it happen. At Girls Rock, every volunteer in every element is either a cis woman or trans woman, or non-binary. There’s that representation in every sphere. If you show people at that age that it is perfectly reasonable to expect that they can go off and do music in whatever format they want, I think it will have a trickle down effect, where young people can know that they have rights to be behind the sound desk and stuff. They hopefully won't have the experiences of older people who were either specifically being told that they couldn't do it, or implicitly being told that they can’t or shouldn’t be there. It’s so noticeable for those a few years down the line from Girls Rock, who are starting bands and just going for it, feeling they can do what they want to do. Those negative messages you receive at a young age can be so lasting and damaging, it’s really important to intervene and bombard them with positive messages! Also, I value how much we have to learn from young people as well. Making someone feel valid can have such purpose.
You don’t have to be a really experienced artist to be an artist. It’s not about being the best guitarist, it’s about having fun and working with other people. You only need to know a couple of notes to write a great song! With the older participants at Girls Rock, some women have been waiting decades to start a band, as they didn’t feel like they had enough of something to be able to do it. The point is, there’s no specific amount of ‘perceived’ skill that you have to have to go and do music if you’re passionate. You shouldn’t feel kept out of it because you didn’t have the opportunity to have lessons.
It’s cool to have grown up going to venues like Brixton Academy, and now getting to share a stage with bands that I saw live there! I think getting to tour in Europe and go outside the UK to play is a great achievement. It’s exciting to be signed and put actual albums out. We didn’t have major expectations with the band, when you start you don’t know what’s gonna happen or anything. We’re really passionate about what we do so we kept doing it. It’s nice to be signed by people we look up to, and who get what we’re doing as well. It’s a collaboration that makes sense. I feel like now’s a really good time to get involved with music. There’s so many collectives that are trying to encourage women, trans or non-binary people, and making sure there’s communities where you feel comfortable asking for help without judgement. Don’t be afraid to reach out to online communities, definitely use those platforms - they’re really welcoming and positive. Shadowing someone can be a really important way to develop skills too. Don't worry about putting yourself out there, if you’re creating music, create according to your own vision. Don’t feel you have to fit into a certain trend or whatever. Steph has a great quote, ‘there is always someone who has been waiting their whole life to hear your song’. No matter how weird you might think your music is, it’s always going to reach somebody. It’s worth being heard. Create the music you want to create, if there’s something you feel like you want to express, go ahead and express it!
Support Estella's work by donating to Girls Rock London here: https://donate.kindlink.com/girls-rock-london/764
Interview conducted by Bea Bennister