Paris Fawcett speaks to Ithaca frontwoman Djamila Azzouz about the importance of fighting for a space in the scene she loves.
by Paris Fawcett
It’s 2020 and it’s no longer good enough for metal bands to simply be angry. Fifty years after the genre was born, women shouldn’t fear sexual abuse at shows, venues should be accessible for all and everybody should feel welcome. Despite exponential change happening in recent years, it’s still fucking hard not being a white man in metal music. We complain, we highlight the problem and we talk about where we want to be, but who’s actually talking about how to get there? Well, Ithaca frontwoman Djamila Azzouz, for one. She’s furious, and coming from a genre that constantly finds new ways to express anger, she’s actually putting these emotions into action.
With their debut album The Language of Injury, Ithaca nod to their boundary-pushing hardcore and extreme influences while sounding somewhere between a ‘best of the decade’ metal compilation and the bright future of melodic hardcore. They don’t fit neatly into a music scene defined by a specific sound, but are one of several bands trying to push metal forward by defying genre restraints and striving to combine their influences into the sound of now. For Ithaca the politics isn’t explicit in their music, but in the way they hold themselves as a band.
“The fact of the matter is that we do have a political message as a band and I don’t think that we should be discounted from the discussion because we don’t write political punk songs,” says Azzouz. Bluntly, those attempting to discount Ithaca from the discussion are the ones threatened by the social change that the band are trying to secure. The same goes for anyone trying to imply that politics doesn’t belong in music; artists carry weight in their sound, and those benefiting from the imbalance should be terrified. Azzouz’s approach to these people is blunter and speaks to the level of intimidation that she holds, “I’ve always been a firm believer in ‘If you don’t like our music, that’s fine. If you don’t like our message then that’s also fine. Fucking log off, have a day off then. Don’t fucking listen to us. Don’t look at our Twitter. No one’s forcing you to do it, it’s not that deep. Just go away.’” Every single person this woman pisses off absolutely deserves it.
Throughout the conversation I have with Azzouz, the topic we consistently circle back to is what we can do to make a change in the music industry. That ‘we’ is the bands, the fans, the press, the promoters, the venue owners and the PR, everyone who has a stake in the community and everyone who deserves to be done right by in return. The end goal is a safe space for all: simply a community where everyone feels and is welcome. “People just need to do more,” Azzouz summarises, “It’s up to all of us regardless to make it work. At the end of the day it’s all about representation and being able to see yourself in the music you enjoy. That’s when people will feel welcome, just having that representation and being able to see yourself in it and being involved in it.”
Any solution to making the scene a safer space involves listening to others and representing them, but how we manifest this will cause the change. A big problem right now are the venue owners and gig promoters overseeing events that bring the community together. As a hub for metal activity, these gigs need to be made safe and accessible for everyone. “Venues are not up to standard with being made accessible right now. Even online – the number of venues that don’t even state whether they’re accessible or not is horrendous,” says Azzouz. It should be a prerequisite that promoters and venue owners put these measures into place and display them, but do bands have a responsibility to involve themselves in these matters too?
“Surely as a musician you would want all of your fans coming to watch you at a show?” questions Azzouz, “You want everyone to attend, whether that’s down to having gender inclusive toilets or accessible venues. That’s not always something a musician can help, we get booked to play these venues and it can be a struggle. We just have to keep putting pressure on the venues to make it happen.” She discusses the merits of DIY venues and how they’re being progressive in these fields, but poses the question of what happens when you begin to deal with bigger rooms?
Bands start to meet their limitations when dealing with academies and arenas: “With DIY venues the theory is more understood. But with bigger music venues, you’ll find that it trickles down and even the security staff have no fucking clue. They’re not trained in that, they don’t know how to respond. All they’re trained to do is stand there and make sure nobody punches each other’s lights out. They’re not trained to deal with these situations but they need to be. That’s something that needs to be made a priority.” The situations that Azzouz is referring to here is sexual abuse at gigs, specifically referring to a gig Ithaca played supporting Bleeding Through at The Underworld.
“It was one of the best nights of our lives but unfortunately afterwards we found out that someone who was at the show was sexually assaulted and touched inappropriately. They reported it to the venue and the venue refused to chuck that person out. That’s not good enough, it’s not fucking good enough. There are so many different ways that could have been dealt with, but the fact is it ruined that person’s night.” Zero tolerance for anything of this kind should be understood by venue staff, but part of this will come from us having discussions with them. “The more discussion we have about this, the better it will be, and the more big venues will realise that these are important issues that they need to address. This goes much wider than your local punk venue: it’s your O2 academies, your fucking Wembleys. They’re all included in the discussion. It’s getting better but we’re not there yet.”
Clearly, many underground bands are fighting for safer spaces, but Azzouz believes in the importance of more bands and bigger bands speaking out, booking more acts with women and minorities in their lineup. “It should be important to you. Why shouldn’t it be important to try and have more representation at your shows? If you’re a band that has never been vocal about these kinds of things and don’t view it as a priority, that’s fine, don’t. But I honestly think that if you’re a bigger band, you do have a responsibility to give your fans that, and show them that we are moving in the right direction. Nobody is telling you to book a shitty band.”
Another key feature of inciting this change is recognising toxic masculinity’s role in causing this imbalance. It’s no coincidence that we’ve lived through years of Revolver’s Hottest Chicks in Metal or yr favourite hard rock songs about doing drugs then fucking any woman in sight, and now we’re in a place where women aren’t respected. Men as a whole are absolutely not doing enough to absolve the damage that this has done. I ask Azzouz specifically what men can do, and her answers shine a horrifying light on the bleakness we’re trying to undo. “I think if we could start either not being murderers, not being rapists, not being abusers, not being sexual assaulters. That would be really fucking great. That would be a great place to start because you know, the majority of the time when women don’t feel safe in the music scene and the music industry, it’s because of those issues – and that’s without getting into the politics of allowing women to play music. It’s just about feeling safe at a show, feeling like you can attend a show without being assaulted or worse,” she says. It begs the question, how bad are things when the first requirement for turning things around is to not be a rapist? But there is hope, and there are constructive steps that can be taken.
“It’s so fucking hard because we can all do so much more,” starts Azzouz, “But in terms of men, just realising it doesn’t give you any sort of right, doesn’t make you better than anyone else. Going back to what I said about promoters – the majority of promoters I know are men – just book more women. There’s a difference between supporting women and tokenising them, this exists not just with women but trans people, non-binary people, people of all genders. Not just booking them because you want to seem inclusive but booking them because you’re listening to music that isn’t just made by straight white men. Book bands that include people of colour. Book bands that include disabled people. It’s just having that responsibility and knowing that you can help make those changes because you are in the larger percentile of people who have that privilege, it’s invaluable.”
Despite it often feeling pretty hopeless when we see another woman getting groped at a concert or festival lineup showcasing a ridiculous 95/5 men to women split, what we need is a community of people banding together to make a change. This means getting educated on how you can make a difference and encouraging bands and venues to do the same. “I don’t view the scene in five years’ time as this utopia because it’s not going to be like that,” says Azzouz. “You’ve got to be realistic about these things but I would really love a scene where I can feel comfortable at a show, I can feel comfortable playing a show and everyone else can too. I don’t want men to be the majority any more, I’m sick of them. I just want a scene where opportunities are there for everyone. Whether or not we get there in the next five years remains to be seen but we can keep working towards it, I guess.”
The original discussion I wanted to have with Azzouz was one about disco-fying metal, adding a layer of glitter to the genre and turning it into less of a beardy stomp fest and more of a party. There’s a strange wave of bands coming through, whether that’s Ithaca spraying glitter in their ‘Impulse Crush’ video, Pagan inventing their own brand of Death Disco, or Blood Command making party metal. These are bands with women tearing apart metal stereotypes and opening up the genre for people who don’t fit into traditional moulds. Whether this is their intention or not, every band messing with the status quo takes a leap towards progression within metal.
Truthfully there are ways every single one of us can work towards creating this safer space and we should all want people to feel welcome in this scene. People like Djamila Azzouz have used metal to discover themselves: it means just as much to her as any man with an instrument, Morbid Angel shirt or office in a venue. Everyone deserves access to the music they love, and everyone should be fighting to make this safer space a reality. If you’ve got privilege, use it; listen to those tell you how to make positive change; fight anyone who tries to stop you. We’re all fucking angry, but what are you going to do about it?