Meet the Ottawa QTPOC Artist and Activist Collective Fighting for a New Scene
Babely Shades Collective: (from left) Thu Anh Nguyen, Hana Jama, Elsa Mirzaei, Willow Cioppa, Kelsey Egalite and Corrina Chow. Photo by Julie Oliver via Ottawa Citizen
Let’s imagine that if instead of fighting for riot grrrl and queercore to be more inclusive and intersectional, women of color and queer folks of color actually ran these movements. Let’s imagine that instead of people making criticisms of so called progressive white movements, POC (People of Color) punks made their own. Let’s imagine DIY scenes across the globe that actually cared more about making safer spaces. We’re creating some of that world in Ottawa, Canada through a QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) arts collective called Babely Shades. We’re doing the work and we’re pushing for space.
Babely Shades got its start in May of last year when member Elsa Mirzaei held a meeting for POC of marginalized genders from various arts communities in Ottawa. “This conversation especially started when an article came out in Ottawa arts site Apartment 613 about a white woman who was talking about how ‘women and queers’ were slowly becoming more accepted into the music scene,” says Elsa. “That definitely wasn’t the case for me. There was an underlying theme that we found in our first meetings – it was that we are all really ostracized and alienated in different ways from being able to participate in our respective art communities, that as much as white people liked to claim they were anti-racist, there was a LOT of work to be done.”
The scene before was “horrible,” says collective member Awar Obob. “The only time you got to see local artists of color on the stage was during the festival season. No one other than [Ottawa booking group] Debaser was widely booking non-cis/white/male bands until we came round.”
The issues with Ottawa’s bookers became clear when popular local venue House of Targ booked a psychedelic rock band from Portland, Oregon called Black Pussy to play on May 15, 2015. Babely Shades member Elsa Mirzaei put out a message online telling members that the collective would have their backs if they wanted to send letters to the venue calling for the band to be removed from the show, or to use the collective’s name to speak out with anonymity against the band. “A lot of us were on social media at the time trying to educate people on why the name Black Pussy was very objectifying, not safe for black women, and why it was a very hurtful band and why we were upset,” Elsa said.
People from all over the city put heat on House of Targ for hosting the show, and the collective began receiving a a strong backlash by masculine white male Ottawa punks who frequented the venue. These men eventually resorted to death and rape threats, and the collective members decided that the venue wasn’t a safe space anymore. Without a doubt, these men had previously contemplated such violent thoughts when at the same shows as Babely Shades members, but it came out as soon as the group started to stick up for themselves. House of Targ was dismissive of the collective’s concerns and put on the show anyway. Afterwards the club apologized and pledged to make some changes to make their space more inclusive, but collective members still see it as an unsafe venue.
The group wanted to bring the online conversation during the Black Pussy incident into real life organizing. The experience had made the members bond stronger, and they decided to hold a meeting to debrief and discuss creating their own spaces. Following the meeting, a pay what you can panel was organized called 1 Girl, 5 Babes: An Interactive Panel on Gender & Racism in Local Music to discuss the problematic issues in the Ottawa DIY scene and the possibility of a queer radical POC space. April Aliermo – of Toronto bands’ Phedre and Hooded Fang – was inspired by the panel and through a conversation with Elsa Mirzaei to create a similar panel in Toronto a few months later entitled Music, Racism, Power, & Privilege 101. The message was spreading, and racism was finally being seriously discussed in local Canadian music scenes.
After the panels, Babely Shades’ activities began accelerating. The collective’s first production was a zine called Babely Shades: Volume 1 Feelin’ Myself, which was centered around self love and respect and whose cover featured mirror images of Nicki Minaj. We organized shows around musicians such as Star Ahmerasu, who played the zine launch, and three different dance parties called Goth Jams (Midnight Goth Jam, Pastel Goth Jam, Glam Goth Jam) featuring Ottawa musicians who are collective members or good friends, such as DJ Audrey Lourdes and DJ Droid.
Even with all the momentum, no one could’ve expected the fight to come over our petition to cancel the performance of punk band The Queers at the Ottawa venue Maverick’s for February 21st, 2016. The petition arose out of several concerns with The Queers’ music and public stances. They’re a band entirely of white cis/het men who came out online in full support of Darren Wilson – the cop who shot dead Black unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson, MO, an incident that sparked the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement. The band’s singer, Joe Queer, has repeatedly defended his stance in support of Wilson. The band has also made made transmisogynist comments at shows, repeatedly referred to black people as “thugs,” and have a song sexualizing a preteen fan. They’re not a band you want playing in your city.
The online petition read, “By taking a passive stance and allowing them to play in Ottawa, we are consenting to this anti-Blackness and transmisogyny in our music scene … and we are actively supporting their financial success as a band so they can continue to perform and perpetuate these views in other cities without holding them accountable to their words.”
The petition began getting shared heavily on social media, and eventually onto the event page for the concert. After much discussion and argument, Queers fans turned to making violent threats again us, and Diamond Mine Agency took notice and said the show was now “cancelled,” citing concerns from the community and the collective.
It was a brief victory, however, as to our surprise the show was put back on after Joe Queer called up the Maverick’s manager to apologize. Of course, Joe’s insincere apology didn’t seriously address any concerns – he just said that he didn’t hate Blacks and Trans people. When the show was put back on, the collective knew that there was yet another Ottawa venue we couldn’t bring ourselves into due to the immense amount of misogynoiristic, misogynistic, and anti-black violence directed at us by Queer’s fans. The backlash eventually resulted in the stealing of members’ private Facebook photos, and my personal bank account getting doxxed with $300 stolen from it.
Member Awar Obob reminisces: “#Queersgate started when a friend of ours shared a post on their personal Facebook about how disgusting Joe Queer is & how they shouldn’t be playing in the city. We felt like the topic needed to addressed on a larger scale, so we made a petition to have them removed as the headliner at a Mavericks show they had booked. We had no idea it would reach the height it did (threats, doxxing, non-stop interviews, etc.), but looking back on it I’m grateful we spoke up.”
Taking More Space
Post #Queersgate, Babely Shades members knew that safer spaces needed to be created then more then ever, especially since the petitioning emotionally and mentally drained many of us engaging with those racist, sexist punks. Some of the white people who organized in the DIY scenes expressed interest in working with the collective, so a collaborative series of shows called Space Jam started up at the end of every month at a space called Pressed. The first one was put on March 25, 2016 and it continues each month, with our next one at the end of this month on July 23rd. We’ve had out of town acts such as Boston based South Asian punk band The Kominas and Montreal based QPOC rapper Hua Li (化力), as well as local Ottawa acts and members of Babely Shades, such as rapper/singer King Kimbit and DJ/rapper Seiizmikk.
In early April, the group organized a mini-fest called #DIYSPRING,with shoegaze legends The Veldt headlining alongside performances from artists like Indigenous viola player Melody Mckiver, indie rock band Scary Bear Soundtrack, and R&B singer AKI.
Progress & Future
After two years of organizing, articles, panels, zine launches, DJ parties, punk shows and shows, Babely Shades now has an undeniably strong presence in the Canadian scene. So much so that now whenever out of town queer people of color acts are booked by non-QTPOC booking agencies, the collective gets offered to at least co-present.
The collective has worked hard to make sure most of the openers were either collective members or queer people of color we appreciated in town to make sure they can get exposure and monetary benefits for their work, who otherwise don’t ever get booked.
Babely Shades aims to continue to book their own friends or heroes so that they get the chance to shine with their music just like the white bands. As well as continue to create safer spaces, and maybe one day own a record label promoting local QTPOC works. This kind of activism and push back against what has become the cultural norms in the subculture of DIY is necessary. In the word’s of Colombian art duo Juan & Diego, “Punk’s Not White” – and it’s not straight or cis, either. And Babely Shades is making sure more people know that.