Despite everything that has happened in 2020, FemFest VII refuses to submit in their mission to advocate against domestic violence and sexual assault while raising funds for Family Services of Forsyth County.
“[This year] will look a little different to encourage staying home and staying safe,” said organizers, “as much as we’d love to see everyone shoulder-to-shoulder, soaking in all the incredible music and support, the most important thing to us is everyone’s health and safety.”
The annual event will shift online, with a day of streaming from 15 femme and female artists, starting on Nov. 21. In lieu of a cover, donations are being collected through a GoFundMe campaign. As always, 100% of donations go directly to Family Services of Forsyth County, which is a women’s shelter located in Winston-Salem. An online art auction and raffle runs through Nov. 28.
“If we gave ‘luck’ any credit this year, it’d be misleading,” said FemFest founder Bryn Fox on her seventh year organizing the festival, “full credit has to go to every person and business that donates to FemFest. In a year that has blindsided all of us, the extension of generosity has been so appreciated and noticed.”
“It was never an option to skip this year,” Fox said. “During the shutdown, domestic violence cases have been shown to increase, so it’s more important than ever to help keep the women’s shelter safe and dependable.”
The mission has been bolstered by the response from bands.
“More artists than ever reached out to us first this year,” Fox explained. “It was really humbling to be able to offer a platform for these musicians to help spread awareness on something that has been a pandemic long before coronavirus.”
As a result, FemFest VII features Winston bands and Triangle artists, sprinkled with a heavier dose of acts from around the country.
On the Winston-Salem hometeam, Spirit System is excited to finally participate, though bassist Laurie Ruroden has helped organize and host the festival in previous years. Spirit System’s tracks include a new single and a live favorite, and guitarist Eric Gilstrap has donated art to the auction.
For Damiyana, the Winston-based interactive artist who weaves natural elements into atmospheric musical performances, FemFest has become an annual activity.
“My heart has been invested in this event each year, as both an artist and audience member,” she said. “It’s been a safe zone to not only try out new material that expresses my journey of recovery from past trauma but also share intimate stories about the process of finding upliftment.”
Proxevita, the latest project from Laura Carisa Gardea, likewise sees FemFest as a haven for experimentation and empowerment. Performing at each year since the incarnation, FemFest VII will mark Gardea’s second time debuting a music video for the occasion.
“It’s a dream come true,” Gardea said about the festival. “A time for women to be supported in showing how amazing we are for our strength, creativity, beauty, resilience. So often, we’re undervalued, cast to the side, and in the worst cases, endangered— made to feel unsafe to exist and unworthy. At FemFest, women are celebrated, honored— there is a culture of safety and of trust that extends to everyone.”
Billie Feather, who’s also built a relationship with the festival since its early days at The Garage, echoed the culture of safety and trust.
“FemFest is a yearly form of therapy,” Feather said, recalling her years performing either solo or with the P-90s. “Every performance has been so uplifting.”
“As a domestic violence survivor myself, it’s an amazing feeling to look out from the stage and see a sea of allies,” she continued. “It’s a gift I wish I could give every person who has ever been affected by violence in a relationship— to look out and remember you’re never, ever alone, and you are a strong, beautiful, and wonderful person. You don’t deserve violence, you can find happiness, and there is a whole festival of people ready to support you.”
For triangle-rocker Reese McHenry, the space and support provide a great reason to play a rock show.
“Not only to raise money for domestic violence survivors but to normalize talking about things that are often allowed to fester and grow in dark silence.”
One of McHenry’s tracks, “White Bear Incident,” comes as a request from Fox, harkening a memory from FemFest V when McHenry and drummer Thomas McNeely first harmonized the bridge without practicing.
“The line ’and if you can’t be encouraging, shut your fucking mouth, you’re not helping’ wasn’t written with the F-word in it, but harmonizing that line was powerful.”
FemFest also holds fond memories for the triangle-bangers in Bangzz, who’ll boost tracks about ditching partners and resilience against depression.
“We were standing so close to each other just boppin’ to the music,” said Bangzz guitarist Erika Libero. “I think about that big, crowded room of smiles and positive energy at Monstercade nostalgically in the time of COVID.”
While digital shows have their drawbacks, the format has afforded FemFest VII with larger, national acts.
Returning regional bands include Virginia’s L.A. Dies (who played FemFests IV and VI;) and the Georgian fuzz-pyschers of CHEW (who played Femfest V). Fellow Atlantans, GuitarGabby, and the TxLips are among the fresh faces new to FemFest VII.
“I’m so excited to participate to further express that females of color are needed in this industry; and that representation matters,” said the powerhouse frontwoman Guitar Gabby (who’s also Board Chair of Girls Rock Asheville, Deputy Editor at Guitar Girl Magazine, and a contributing writer for SheShreds Magazine).
Her group, the TxLips, an international touring collective of Black women, embrace music as a mission to challenge the boundaries and “push the status quo of what the world says women can do.”
Other new south risers at FemFest VII include Sarah Shook, Birmingham’s Hollywood Horses, and the Tennessee wildcats in Thelma and the Sleaze.
“I’m always happy to support any grassroots cause to spread the message of empowering womxn,” noted T.A.T.S. bandleader Lauren “LG” Gilbert. “I’ve done several of these live stream shows, and it’s not the same, but I appreciate people doing the work to make things happen.”
Big city bands round the bill with Kairos Creature Club (Los Angeles), Waltzer (Chicago), and Thick (Brooklyn).
“When we saw it was going to be a virtual event this year, we were excited for a chance to be a part,“ said the punk-trio in Thick, who decided on fun, shout-along tracks for their videos.
Content comes from personal experiences they hope are relatable: societal expectations placed on women and unsolicited “advice” given by men.
“There’s so much male dominance in the music industry,” Thick added, “and it’s important to know that we don’t need these mansplainers to tell us how to plug in our instruments.”
Beyond the bands, the raffles and art auction will return with an online format running through Nov. 28.
“One major benefit to hosting the raffle and art auction online is the ability to include more items and offer the events for an extended period instead of just for one day,” said co-organizer Sarah Burns.
FemFest has also gotten into the merch game with stickers, buttons, and a T-shirt with the tagline, “Do Not Submit to Intimidation.”
“The design is from a drawing I doodled a few years ago, which I immediately got tattooed on my arm as a constant reminder,” Fox explained of the shirt. “The idea behind it came from frustration about all the situations in which women have become expected to adapt to dangerous situations. We’re programmed to have our keys between our fingers when walking to our cars in a parking lot and have one finger on our mace when walking our dogs around the neighborhood. I wanted to express that even though we have to take these extra measures, our lives shouldn’t be limited because of fear.”
For artists on the FemFest bill, the idea of not submitting resonates with power.
“It means do not concede your space— do not make yourself smaller for other people,” Libero said. “It’s the opposite of what we women have been taught and conditioned to do by society, and a big reminder that you don’t owe your space to anybody.”
For Spirit System, the notion knocks against complacency.
For Damiyana, “it’s about taking back your personal power, remaining true to the inner wisdom you can access through dedication to your own spiritual practice, in whatever form it may take.”
For Feather, it’s part of toolset endeavors like FemFest help to sharpen.
“Intimidation comes in so many forms,” Feather explained. “Some people may not have the tools yet to see intimidation when it comes at them. FemFest is a place to learn about your inner strength and find a support system so you can see it for what it is, and learn that you don’t have to be influenced or shaped by it. There’s a space for you in the world, and your sisters and allies at FemFest are here to help you craft a strong foundation.”
Proxevita sees the line as a call for “our better selves.”
“The violence we experience with each other, in ourselves, and the world at large heavily results from the economic, cultural output of the values driven in our society,” she explained, “which has created conditions that challenge and alienate us from ourselves and each other while destroying the environment. It’s not cute, it’s not sustainable, and we must find ways to stand back up again— to genuinely, and effectively support each other to heal from the traumas seen and unseen. It begins with compassion and it ends with love.”
The rockers from Thick take the stance against submission as a life lesson.
“It’s a work in progress; we felt it pretty acutely this year when we released our video for ‘Mansplain,’ and [neo-nazi men] on the internet decided to go buck in the comments,” they explained. “It takes a lot to ignore the bashing and to realize that we’re probably doing something right if we’re pissing those people off. We’ll keep making music and shouting about our experiences, no matter how many insults and slurs they throw our way.”
Bands and artists aside, the quiet star of the show is Family Services.
“They’ve been an absolute dream to work with,” Fox said. “Everyone at the facility responds eagerly and thoughtfully, just as they do for anyone calling in for help.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We couldn’t do what we do without more people like Bryn and her work with FemFest,” said Johnny Johnson, a representative for Family Services of Forsyth County.
“For nearly 40 years, Family Services has helped individuals who have experienced domestic abuse and family violence, sexual assault and child maltreatment obtain immediate and long-term safety, empowerment, dignity and hope. Our experienced, caring professionals offer comprehensive support and advocacy services and intervention programs for victims, survivors and their families to build a new, safe and healthier life.”
When the shelter opened in 1985, it was the first of its kind in North Carolina. These days, it’s poised to help victims of the more than 10,000 incidents of domestic violence reported in Forsyth County in 2019 alone.
For 2020, things have gotten more complicated. As the pandemic has shifted the festival, so has it affected operations at Family Services.
“With a statewide shelter-at-home order, we anticipated a substantial spike in referrals to our Domestic Violence Shelter,” Johnson explained. ”Strangely enough, however, that’s not what happened. Whether it was fear of coronavirus or simply the fact that more victims were trapped at home with their abuser and unable to make a call to our crisis line, our numbers at the shelter initially dropped.“
Fewer residents don’t indicate a lessened need, as “even in a worldwide pandemic, being at home is still the most dangerous health crisis faced by many women and children,” said Family Services Chief Development and Public Relations Officer Michelle Speas.
However, the shelter has allowed for proper social distancing and the development of COVID protocols; and calls are increasing, as are costs related to pandemic protocols.
“That’s why community partners like FemFest are so important to the work we do,” Johnson explained. “They’ve been big supporters of our efforts, and last year, they were able to make a $4,000 contribution, which pushed us past our deficit and helped us to keep the doors open during a pandemic.”
While FemFest celebrates music and art to serve as means of empowerment and fun while fundraising, organizers reinforce its mission most of all: while they invite folks to “attend” the online series and share donations, they— above everything— implore survivors to seek help.
“For anyone reading that’s experiencing domestic violence, or the aftermath of sexual assault, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Family Services’ crisis line at (336) 723-8125.”
FemFest VII goes online on Nov. 21, with the raffle and auction running through Nov. 28.