Embracing Xenophilia – Approaching Diversity When Curating Events And Choosing Collaborators

We’ve all seen those late additions to event lineups that, until then, were exclusively male or Caucasian, and it’s pretty obvious why that happened. Once or twice a year, fellow organisers will contact me and ask me to recommend bands with female members or “people of colour” to help to add to their festival lineups, as they realise almost too late that they’ve once again, accidentally booked a lineup with no cultural diversity of any kind. I don’t blame them, I’m glad that they reach out and are trying to resolve the problem, but I do feel that this afterthought results in tokenism.

As an events curator, I have been taking a keen interest in accessibility for many years, but I must admit I hadn’t actively thought about diversity until 2020. Accessibility was always a huge concern for me. I worked in venues with capacities of 150-300, in London, a city where space is severely lacking. There is no way these venues could structurally accommodate lifts and stairlifts, and there was no way I could afford larger spaces dominating the ground floor that were accessible. If I wanted to work in venues that were vaguely central in London, I was confined to the basements and the attics, which was not fair to potential audience members, not fair to many musicians with mobility issues, and not fair to any musician who performed, as I was limiting their potential audience growth. I also needed to publicly declare that our spaces were safe, another thing that prevented many from taking the risk of going out to concerts in scenes they’re unfamiliar with, after too many (even one) bad experiences. So I started following the work of organisations like Attitude Is Everything and Good Night Out and was lucky enough to attend a workshop that both organisations delivered alongside Loud Women, Who Run The World and Decolonise Fest in DIY Space For London. The amount I learned about how to present information in a clear way about the specifics of each venue I worked with blew my mind, and I started implementing their recommendations immediately. By visiting each venue and noting down essential details to display in our event listings, it allowed people to make informed decisions about whether they could attend. We started to see more people with various mobility needs attending, realising that they wouldn’t be faced with eye-rolls and we would make time to get them a seat in a standing event if they needed, they could still take part (at least that’s what I’ve been told by audience members).

Regarding diversity, I have some lived experience of what inclusivity means in the UK: a cis hetero Indian-born male living almost all of my life in the UK, raised by an Indian family desperate to fit in and make a life for me here. Due to having the things mentioned below in this article pointed out to me about my own organisation Chaos Theory Music, I have realised that there may be some attitudes that are worth sharing to help fellow curators, event organisers and musicians avoid tokenism. Everyone who has been invited to take part in any kind of project would like to think that it’s because of their ability and hard work in mastering their craft, not because they are required to make the project pander to the finally-increasingly popular diversity banner (it is so great to live in a time and part of the world where this is actually popular instead of being publicly despised, don’t think that I’m saying it’s not). When you suspect that you haven’t been invited to a project because of your skills and talent, and are just there to effectively make the project look good, it hurts. On the receiving end, as someone of Indian ethnicity, despite never having comfortably fitted into either mainstream Indian or British society, it makes me feel less confident in my true abilities, as I feel that I’ve been chosen for my skin colour, something I’ll never have any control over. It’s confusing. I feel safer in that I might be more considered for inclusion (whether as a musician or an events manager), but also am never sure if it’s because of my achievements to date. I know musicians who’ve lost motivation because they aren’t sure what it is they’re being appreciated for. For me, this lack of clarity and integrity results in a desire to work harder and do better, to remove any shadow of a doubt in my mind as to why I’m being included. In fact, I was instructed by my father many times while growing up that “you’re already Indian, you have to speak more fluent English, achieve higher than anyone English would have to to be viewed on the same level, dress smarter” etc. Perhaps that rubbed off on me in different ways to push myself, rather than let the doubt drive me out of my involuntary passion and chosen industry, the arts. But no matter how much I try to remove that doubt from my mind, I’ll never be sure.

On 29th February 2020, Chaos Theory Festival: 10 Years Of Chaos took place. It was the biggest project I had ever taken on in my life and one that I’d been planning for years before in my mind. For the decade prior to this, the most common compliments I was used to receiving about my events were about the high standards of the performers, the high quality of music and the diversity of sounds and genres that audience members got to discover. But then a writer from The Progressive Aspect pointed out to me that the lineup had a much higher female representation than what Keychange considered average at the time, and that the lineup exceeded the Musician Union’s recommended balance of projects featuring or led by female-presenting musicians. I had never heard of Keychange and these diversity targets had never occurred to me before, as I had always curated events based on the music and by trying to spot sonic trends across bands from different genres and scenes.

Also in 2020, several touring musicians told me that they’d never encountered a team in a promotion anywhere in Europe as diverse as the individuals involved with Chaos Theory, in terms of age, musical tastes, gender identity, cultural background, sexuality and ethnicity. It may also be relevant that all of these people are Caucasian cis males, who I believe are desperately looking for ways to understand, grow and learn how to be inclusive, but don’t know how. I had always tried to share photos of diverse audiences when possible, to show people that all are welcome in some subtle way, but had never really considered curation or team-building/recruitment in such plain terms. So during the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time to think about why some people seemed to perceive Chaos Theory this way, and if this was the perception when I hadn’t consciously considered it, what could be done if I do?

Let me be clear in stating that I do not think there is a fair representation of the full spectrum of demographics that make up the creative community in Chaos Theory, and the fact that some people think that it’s still more diverse than most means that we all have a lot more work to do if we’re truly committed. This article is simply my first step in inviting more thought, discussion and ultimately, in educating myself and anyone else who’s interested in how we can achieve true representation without sacrificing quality in our creative goals.

As I have sung and performed in many rock, jazz, metal, prog, folk and contemporary acoustic bands in the UK and France, I am going to write about my experiences as a musician (or band member, more specifically), as a project manager and as an events curator, based on these perceptions that have been shared with me. The ones that worked best for me, and that created the most interesting sounds in my opinion, were the projects that were open to every member contributing their ideas, their personal tastes and musical experience, as well as having members with varied backgrounds. In any project when there was one sole member primarily writing and being protective about their music being altered in any way, the music and the experience grew stale and eventually fizzled out.

I ran my first event in February 2010 and used the banner of Chaos Theory. The principles were based on my own personal tastes and fascination with the astonishing and the unexpected. If I can guess the change in a piece of music which I have never heard before, I am disappointed to miss out on that flutter of surprise. This attitude has informed my approach to booking musicians from a diverse range of genres and scenes, including everything that I already loved, as well as sounds I’d never heard before and came to love.

Chaos Theory started out as a cause, as a response to lazy, careless pay-to-play promotion. This very quickly got me the support of underground musicians who wanted my nights to work, and they started to attend them and play as part of them. They saw that I hadn’t got it quite right, but could see what I was working towards and admired the quality of other musicians they were sharing the stage with. However, this approach made it harder to capture a wider audience of music fans, who don’t feel the struggles of DIY musicians and simply want to be inspired and entertained by a great gig. I saw other people promoting events based on musicians belonging to certain ethnic minorities or genders, some of which gained a lot of support, but didn’t deliver a consistent standard of quality music, as they were limiting themselves to a minority. I also started to question if this really is helpful in an artist’s image, or is it resulting in tokenism on a grander scale?

Over the years I tried to build up a team of people who could contribute towards promoting the musicians I booked, by working with and developing their own creative and technical talents. I wanted to have a core of people whose individual visions and goals I strongly believed in and supported. To this day, I believe that we achieve the best results for any project only when everyone’s personal and mutual goals are met.

Whenever meeting people to speak to and decide whether I think we could work together as part of Chaos Theory, I am most concerned with their passion for the music and the scene, their own craft, development, and work ethic. I also did not want to work with anyone like me, aside from the aforementioned attributes.

When I learnt about applying for jobs, I was taught to be as relatable as possible to the employer, as they would look for people who could do the job, but also who they felt that they could get on with. What I later realised, is that this approach can result in a team of people who have very similar backgrounds and life experiences, which often creates a team lacking in diversity. It’s not a deliberate choice, it’s a consequence of looking for relatability. 

What I wanted in Chaos Theory was a team of people who were dedicated, hard-working, talented and passionate, and as different from me as possible in every other way. I hoped that this would bring me fresh perspectives, new ideas. And it did. All of the people involved have recommended bands to me I might have missed, increasing the range of artists we worked with. It made attending our concerts a better experience for a wider range of attendees. It wasn’t just people who became my friends who looked forward to coming, there were people who were more likely to come because of some of the other personalities in the team. It meant that I was given ideas on how to improve the promotion and event management based on their lived experiences, not just my own. It made the entire experience better for everyone. The fact that Chaos Theory was viewed as especially diverse was an accident. Now it all makes sense, as I shied away from familiarity. Now my worldview is larger, thanks to a very diverse group of individuals. If we stop seeking familiarity, if we learn not to take comfort in it, then diversity is not an issue we even need to worry about. Embracing xenophilia in everything we approach, will create diversity without us even having to think about it.

It has taken time and it will take more time. But popular consciousness has been talking about this more and more over the decades and most experimental events organisers do wish to achieve more representation. It has been hard to select bands from a pool of predominantly Caucasian male musicians, but young people have been seeing themselves represented slightly more and more in musicians, making it realistic for them to do the same. And since I started in 2010, many of these people grew older and formed bands that we can now all work with. It is getting easier and it is moving in the right direction. The excuse of not having enough great musicians to choose from is dissolving. Now it is our responsibility to keep looking for the new and the unexpected, to shy away from tradition and familiarity, and we will find quality music of all kinds created by people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Kunal Singhal is a London-based musician and freelancer within the arts. He is best known for his brand of experimental events and promotion Chaos Theory Music, which brings audiences from various sub-cultures together. Cover photo by Jose Ramon Caamaño.

@ChaosTheoryMusic (Twitter – @Chaos_Theory_)

Kunal Singhal editorial