How Can Female Artists Identify Trendy Feminism?

Sasha Perera Elsewhere Salt Sass Cover
A veteran musician and a new label manager discuss an era where techno-feminism's increasing stylishness inspires labels to sign women to seem progressive.

Berlin was a very different place when Sasha Perera moved there from London in 2000. Over the past 16 years she’s witnessed the effects of immigration and gentrification and the rise of the city’s now-famous clubland and intertwining tech and electronic music industries. She’s interfaced with both businesses as a member of the BPitch Control-signed electronic trio Jahcoozi, which she formed with Robot Koch and Oren Gerlitz in the early 2000s, and her experience in the group eventually brought her to a label far away in Los Angeles: Friends Of Friends. Her 2013 solo debut Everlast was FoF’s first release by a female artist, a trend that label manager Jen Ferrer has aimed to develop over the last year. However, getting more women onboard has proven to be a bit of a challenge for Ferrer, because female artists tend to be wary of labels’ intentions in an era when feminism seems particularly trendyespecially in electronic music. At the latest edition of Salt + Sass, the Berlin-based series of public talks with women in the dance music business, she and Ferrer discuss how to navigate this politically charged landscape and the evolution of Berlin’s clubbing industry.

Elissa Stolman: Sasha, can you tell us about where you’re from and your formative musical experiences there?

Sasha Perera: I’m from London. I played instruments as a kid, but it felt very prescribed. For instance, when I played the Indian violin, I’d sit on the floor and sing raggas, and I could never do anything apart from what everyone else was doing. I feel like a lot of music education I had was a bit like that, and I’d always give stuff up and start again and was never really into it. It was only really with technology—through buying a sound card and a MIDI keyboard and getting a mic and having privacy to try stuff out with music—that I feel like I’ve grown as a musician. But you asked me about the kind of music that influenced me?

ES: I wanted to talk about growing up in London and how the city might have shaped you as an artist later in the 2000s.

SP: In ‘90s London you had this convergence of lots of different people making different forms of rave music. It started with acid house and quickly got into happy hardcore, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass. It was very multiracial thing, so it was the first time you’d see Asian MC’s and stuff. I went to school in Wimbledon, but I grew up by a strip of motorway between Putney and Kingston. My postcode was SW15. Maybe that has a lot to do with the fact that I’m not the biggest England fan. A lot of people say to me, “Yeah but if you hadn’t lived there, maybe you’d like it more.” When I did Erasmus in Cologne, people were very impressed to hear I was from London, and I think that actually made me want to leave the city.

ES: Were you still in high school or were you in college during your Erasmus year?

SP: I was in university. I studied European politics and German. Actually, I was the only British person in my course, which is so interesting after Brexit. There were no other British kids who wanted to study about Europe; they were just uninterested. It was all Croatians and Argentinians and different people. When I first moved to Berlin in 2000, people in London were like, “…what are you going there for?” It was only from like, 2006, with EasyJet and everyone having the ability to go everywhere, that people started to understand. I do feel like the whole Brexit atmosphere has been in Britain for a long time.

ES: If you studied abroad in Cologne, how did you end up in Berlin?

SP: People in Cologne were like, “There are clubs in Berlin where you don’t find the exit. You can’t leave. It’s a bunker and you can’t get out and there are skeletons.” I was impressed—exactly as people are now. I don’t think just because I did it 10 or 15 years earlier or later than anyone else that Berlin was any worse or better. The reaction was the same: I was like, “I want to go there.” And when I did, people were really nice, man. There was no Airbnb; people were just like, “Here, have my apartment. Just have it for months.”

ES: Where did you stay when you first moved to Berlin?

SP: The first place I lived was Friedrichshain. At that time it was really exciting in the east; there were bullet holes from World War II to be seen and it really felt special. But it doesn’t feel as special now; a lot of that hood feels gentrified. After 10 years of living in the east where there weren’t many visibly non-ethnic Germans at the time, I’m happy to live in Kreuzberg, where there are grannies with 20 kids blasting through the market—not just buying an apple and a bottle of Korn. I need them in my life.

ES: Do you remember the first time you went to a club in Berlin?

SP: I think it was EIMER, which was a squat on Rosenthaler Straße. I think it’s a shoe shop now, hah. The first time I went to the old Ostgut, somebody actually came up to me and asked me if I’d ever been to a club before. It was partly my fault because I was wearing a turban and a fucking belly chain, yeah, like a London raver pixie—but brown. So people were like, “Oh, man, she’s really straight from…” you know. People would actually come up to me and ask if I’d ever been to a club. I’d be like, “I’m from London…” It was a really different time.

ES: I’d imagine that Berlin was a lot less multicultural back then.

SP: It’s much nicer now in a lot of ways. There are really special things about back then, but one of the perks of gentrification is that you get better food. Seriously—back then, Asian food of any sort was “Asia Pfanne.” What is that? A nondescript Asian person and a couple of sauces. Asia is a big area! Now you can get all kinds of different stuff and they actually make distinctions between the countries and cultures there. Also, when I go to the swimming pool now I don’t get totally stared at anymore. So I’m happy about certain things.

ES: My guess is that Berlin’s music industry also looked very different back then. Of course, there was some music industry and corporate involvement in the arts from at least 1993, when cigarette companies and (a bit later) energy drink companies started investing in local zines, financing club tours and sponsoring the Love Parade. What kind of music industry jobs did people in Berlin have in the early 2000s? Or were they mostly creatively rather than commercially engaged in music, be it from the clubbing perspective or from making music?

SP: I don’t think I knew anyone with a job at that time, to be honest. Maybe call centers, flyering…As for myself, I worked at Club Der Visionaere in 2001.

ES: What were some of the earliest businesses that you remember launching here? Were they record labels like BPitch Control? There was a boom around the mid-2000s with labels like Poker Flat and Sender, right?

SP: Yeah. There were also club booms. Around ’97 and ’98, when the government moved here, Berlin became a very popular city for Germans from other parts of the country, so there was money coming here. I think there was a dot-com bubble here as well. There were lots of startups that also kind of died out after the year 2000.

ES: Maybe this is a cynical point of view, but I look at clubbing as an important industry here more than a spiritual or creative community, especially when it comes to tourism. The way you and others describe clubbing in the your first years in Berlin, it sounds like a creative experience rather than an engagement with capitalism. When did that clubbing-as-industry start to develop and when did you start to notice it?

SP: Club tourism has made Berlin a bigger magnet for more people. There were fewer clubs and fewer people going to them then, but there were also clubs that weren’t really chi-chi, but people with money went there. It’s not like all Berlin clubs were dark dungeons. Because I came in 2000, it’s easy for me to imagine that Berlin’s club scene was so pure before I came. But I’ve heard that in the ‘80s lots of people felt that way back then, too. They felt that people were gentrifying the club scene by following David Bowie here!

ES: Okay, I’m going to fast forward here so we can bring Jen in. How’d you end up at Friends Of Friends?

SP: I had done a track with my band Jahcoozi that sounded very different from our others, and Leeor, who runs FoF, was into it. So he was one of the first people I sent my solo stuff to. I had been on so many labels in Berlin, so it was nice to have someone in a completely different place—Los Angeles—be interested in it. And actually, I don’t know what Berlin label would have been into it. Maybe they’d be into it now, now that people have bothered to have the guts to do it and go with it.

ES: Alright Jen, so how’d you get involved in Friends Of Friends? Welcome to the conversation. We’re warmed up.

Jen Ferrer: Yeah, gotta get right in there. Well, I moved to LA from Miami to go to university. When it came time to find a job, I started working part time at a major label, at a Sony offshoot…and it was awful. Nobody listened to music. Nobody talked about music. Nobody liked music. It was really uncomfortable space, and I didn’t understand why I was there, so I made out a call to anyone I knew and said, “Please put me in touch with an independent label—someone who actually talks to their artists and A&Rs records because I’m so miserable here.” And that’s how I was put in touch with Leeor in early 2012.

ES: How long were you at Friends Of Friends before Sasha came into the picture?

JF: Probably about six or seven months, I would say. At that point it was just Leeor who owns it, and our in-house publicist at the time, and then myself.

SP: I met Jen a couple years ago when she was in Berlin, and I met Leeor for the first time in February when I was over there for a gig. I had a Skype relationship with them for years. I also really fucked it up by getting pregnant in the middle of the promo for my record. I was really worried about telling them because we’d just gotten everything lined up and just when I was supposed to go out and play, I’m like, “Oh, I’m pregnant.” Leeor had a kid about a year earlier, so he Skyped me for two hours and said, “It’s going to be really hard, but you’re going to get through it,” which I really appreciated. But I’m sure part of him was also like, “Aw, come on, Jesus!”

ES: Did you feel a lot of pressure because you had to consider your career as well as how it might affect others’ when you make a personal choice like that?

SP: I genuinely felt guilty, and I thought I was almost selling out as an artist. That’s what the world made me think.

ES: Did any of those anxieties subside after you had the baby?

SP: It was all fine, like Leeor said.

ES: Jen, how has your role at Friends Of Friends changed and developed?

JF: Early on it was more admin-based, and now it’s much more creative and A&R-based. Sasha is Leeor’s artist entirely, and she’s the first lady on the label. I wish there were many, of course.

ES: How important was it to diversify the roster and perhaps bring more women to it when you got a chance to be more involved in A&R?

JF: It was super important. The first signing I went after was a solo female who was turned off by the fact that there were very few other women on the label. After that, she kind of disappeared and we didn’t get the deal. That release is on another label now, which is understandable. But it’s hard to diversify when you’re being looked at as a reason there is no diversity, and you can’t really turn the page if there’s not someone leading that with you.

ES: I think that struggle faces every facet of the industry now. For instance, if a publication doesn’t have a history of representing diversity, but if you want to change that and start approaching female artists, they often feel alienated by the sense that they’re being used as tokens or just because they’re women. So although you and I are finally in positions where we can do something, we meet resistance with people we want to work with because they judge us on a legacy we didn’t create. That makes it hard to image how to change things. Sasha, would you think about not doing an article in a magazine because they don’t usually cover women or would you think about not signing to a label because they don’t usually sign women?

SP: It’s a really fine line with that stuff. You’ve got to look at the actual case, but I generally would try to remain in dialogue in some way and not to take too dogmatic a stance if it closes doors for other people. My own sister would be like, “You played in Israel.” And I’d be like, “Yes, and you went to America while Guantanamo Bay is still open.” You have to be careful not to fall into a hole of righteousness. I do understand what you’re saying in terms of exploiting that feminism now, and that people might be going after you for cynical reasons.

ES: It’s an interesting moment for that problem, because there’s a sense that feminism, especially as it relates to electronic music, is trendy. I do know of certain record labels that have purposefully and consciously changed their A&R policy, so that after 10 years of not signing a single woman, now they say they’re only going to sign women. That leaves a really bad taste in my mouth because it seems like a calculated move to appear progressive, but only when it will benefit them to do so. I’m not going to say which labels are doing this—but you guys, keep a look out because they’re out there. Still, sometimes it’s hard to identify tokenism versus an honest effort to change a tide.

SP: Try not to think too much about it, because otherwise you’ll get lost in a labyrinth of conspiracy theories. And not only for gender; it also happens with exoticism. How often is someone asking you ridiculous things that they wouldn’t ask a white artist? It’s problematic when the first line of a review or a bio in German reads , “Daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants to Britain…”  They don’t even mean it horribly, but it’s like, “Who cares, man?”  Does anyone care if Paul Kalkbrenner’s mum happens to be half Hungarian or not? Usually I’m trying to remain positive. Am I physically hurt from this stuff? No. There are bigger issues in the world.

Read the past Salt + Sass conversation with Avalon Emerson and PR agent Melissa Taylor here.

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