Berklee Alum's Festival to Celebrate Women and Gender-Expansive Artists
Like many women and gender-minority musicians pursuing a career in music production, artist and educator Naomi Westwater M.M. ’18 had to make their own opportunities to flourish as an artist when discrimination and inequity stood in their way. Now, as managing director of the Boston chapter of Beats by Girlz, they are fulfilling their dream of providing that opportunity to women and gender-expansive individuals hoping to make a career in music production and performance. Those efforts have resulted in BBG Fest, an all-day event taking place on Saturday, July 8, at City Hall Plaza in Boston that will feature a lineup of entirely women and gender-expansive performers.
Sponsored by the Boston Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, BBG Fest invites the community to celebrate women and gender-expansive musicians, artists, and makers of the Greater Boston area at the free, one-day event. When creating this festival, Westwater envisioned an opportunity for artists to feel empowered, energized, and appreciated, an experience that she hopes audience members will take part in as well. The event is part of the larger mission of Beats by Girlz, founded by Erin Barra B.M. ’14, to break down barriers and create networks of support for women and gender-expansive people in music production and technology across the country.
Westwater, an active musician who is set to release a new album, Cycle & Change, in the spring of next year, will be performing at the festival alongside several Berklee alumni and faculty members. We caught up with Westwater to talk about the event, the significance of initiatives like Beats by Girlz, and the urgent work they and their colleagues are doing to close gender equity gaps in the music industry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you best describe what BBG Fest is about?
BBG Fest is an event that brings together Beats by Girlz musicians in Boston. One of the pillars of Beats by Girlz is a focus on community engagement and community building. We want to give opportunities to people that have historically been underrepresented or marginalized in the music production field through a network of resources and peer support, and, in part, that’s what BBG Fest is designed to do. When I was dreaming up this festival, I pictured a group of amazing musicians playing on a big stage in front of a big audience. I wanted them to have a great time but also to have an experience that will give them exposure and help them with their career. The secondary goal is for the audience to experience a whole festival that is all women and gender-expansive individuals.
Can you talk about the deep Berklee connection to the event?
I got my master's at Berklee Valencia in contemporary performance with a concentration in production, and then I followed up my master's with a fellowship year in Boston [at Berklee] in academic advising, and stayed on for another year after that. In addition to myself, we have many great performers in the lineup connected to Berklee. We have our headliner for the event, Bad Snacks [Jesse Hanson] who is a Berklee professor; dolltr!ck [Claire Lim], another faculty member; and Ximena, who is a recent Berklee grad from EPD [electronic production and design] and also works as a tech in their labs. We also hired two interns that were Berklee seniors this past spring to work on the festival. And then of course Beats by Girlz founder Erin Barra will be coming to the festival. We met during my fellowship year when I took her Ableton for songwriters course, and that’s how I eventually became involved with Beats by Girlz. Our organization’s global communications director Nan McMillan also went to Berklee Valencia and studied contemporary performance with me. She’s been really helpful with marketing and promoting the festival.
Why is the Beats by Girlz mission meaningful to you personally?
I’ve been playing music since I was 4 years old. For such a long time, especially with the tech and production side of things, it was expected that because of my gender, I wouldn’t understand it or shouldn’t be involved in it. That really blocked me from a level of agency and creativity in my artwork. It wasn’t until I went to Berklee for my master's and learned from Liz Teutsch about the production side that I felt empowered to do that stuff. I think in general, not just in the music industry but in any tech field, women and gender-expansive people are kept out of the tech and production side of things, are not given opportunities, and are not encouraged to pursue those opportunities. When they do start to learn those sorts of things, they're often discouraged from making it a career. I want us to live in an equitable world for all genders, so this is our part of making sure the music industry is more equitable.
In general, we know that the industry is cis-male–dominated, and it can be very difficult for gender minorities to succeed in the industry in an equitable way where they feel safe and valued and respected. It’s a huge cause for me because I felt all of those things personally. I’ve been in so many rooms where I felt my voice was not respected or I was ignored or just didn’t feel comfortable. It’s really exciting to be in a space where people feel empowered, and it’s even more amazing to see the work that people create when you empower them and give them that opportunity to be the full artist and musician that they truly are.
Do you feel like progress is being made in terms of representation and equitable opportunity for gender minorities in music production, engineering, and technology?
There is progress being made, but the gap is so big that we need to make so much more progress. We need to make it now. We need to get to equality today, not in 10 or 20 or 30 years. I think there’s an urgency to our work that we are all feeling and are excited about, and the communities want us to be doing this work, which is also really exciting. I’m seeing a lot of gender minorities saying, "Okay, you don’t want us in your space? Well, we’re just going to create our own space over here," which I admire. But the work is not done. Erin and I joke, hoping that at some point in our lives our work will be done. What would it look like if we don’t even need Beats by Girlz anymore because there really is gender equity in the music industry? But we’re really quite a long way from there.
What is your message to someone who wants to pursue a career in the music production and tech fields but maybe doesn’t see themselves reflected or represented in it?
Having and engaging in a community is the most important thing, whether that’s a Beats by Girlz chapter or starting your own thing at your school or college. Very often women and gender-expansive people come to this work alone and they don’t have a community, which can be very isolating. That’s one of the things we’re doing with Beats by Girlz; we’re creating a community where people can make art together, can support each other, can listen to each other, and can share resources with each other. We’re creating a community of peers to do the work together. That way, when these obstacles come up, people aren’t trying to fight them by themselves. That would be my biggest message to anyone in general looking to work in the music industry. I think we hear a lot about networking, but networking has that "I’m trying to gain something from you" aspect. We’re more interested in community-making, which is more about saying, "Here are my people; these are people I trust that I want to work with, and I’m bringing them along with me." There’s a community-making aspect that has to happen for us all to be successful and for us to keep making progress.