As we gather with family at holiday parties and tune out some distant uncle’s right-wing rants, we plan our escape. Painting, writing and creating music are simple outlets that offer boundless horizons for expression. But we’re in the South, and the South isn’t the most hospitable environment for free thinkers. This region is all about tradition—often the type that should be confined to a museum that nobody visits. (Exhibit A: Confederate flags blithely adorn residences and mom-and-pop businesses throughout Northeast Florida, as if the hateful symbol is remotely acceptable.) These practices weigh down our arts community, which is nothing but a microcosm of society. It may be difficult for those within their own bubbles to see, but the “liberal” music industry—like most industries—is still white and male-dominated.
Thankfully, Underwire Collective is making sure marginalized communities have their voices, drums and guitars heard across Northeast Florida. Co-founded by Kensley Stewart and Bianca Dawson, this St. Augustine-based agency books and promotes femme-fronted, queer and POC bands. Its first musical showcase, Underwire Festival, was held June 16 and featured local legends such as Gainesville hardcore outfit Bite Marks, Miami garage rockers Las Nubes, St. Augustine favorites Dust Fuss and Duval hero Geexella.
When asked what prompted the formation of the collective, Stewart said, “It is no secret that the music industry is male-dominated. But what is a secret—that shouldn’t be—is how many talented female-identifying and gender non-conforming artists there are out there. These people are working hard at their craft and we want to highlight them and give them a place to shine. We think any DIY scene, including ours, certainly values inclusivity, but the point is that we want to push the envelope further by bringing in acts who might be looked over, by making diversity a priority and creating more opportunities for marginalized artists to take the lead.”
Make no mistake: collectives like Underwire are not attempting to create alternative, underground platforms with no mainstream relevance. They’re celebrating culture writ large, but inclusivity must be a part of the equation.
“We think for us to get to ‘everybody playing with everybody,’” Stewart said, “we have to first foster a thriving arts culture for marginalized communities. It is time for the pendulum to swing back, affording womxn, non-binary artists and POCs the opportunity to perform. It’s funny; when we slowly announced Underwire Festival this summer, we got questions from people asking if men were allowed to attend. Nowhere had we stated it was a womxn-only event; people assumed because all the performers were women. We asked ourselves, ‘Have we ever seen an all-male lineup and wondered if we were allowed to attend?’”
Diversity in artistic expression and audience participation is one of Underwire’s chief objectives; Stewart and Dawson have also partnered with—and work to benefit—numerous charities. “As of now, 100 percent of door money goes to bands and 100 percent of our merch sales go to the selected charity for the show,” Stewart said.
The roster of organizations that have been represented thus far includes Betty Griffin Center (protecting victims of domestic violence and assault), Girls Rock Jacksonville (promoting self-empowerment and positive identity development in girls, trans and gender non-conforming youth through music and DIY creativity), St. Augustine Boys & Girls Club and JASMYN. Underwire has also teamed up with The Rooted Initiative, an online public-health campaign focused on self-care and advocacy for young, black and brown, gender-diverse individuals in the South.
The next Underwire showcase takes place Saturday, Jan. 4 at Sarbez. The event features local femme-fronted punk outfit No PDA, Orlando bubble-grunge practitioners Expert Timing and Jacksonville indie-funk next-level-fusion Sugafoot.
“The artists on this showcase represent to us a new wave of DIY artists,” Stewart said. “If other cities see that we throw shows with diverse genres and diverse band members, they will be more inclined to play in St. Augustine and the surrounding areas. Having a Jacksonville band and an Orlando band on the bill signifies that we can have more collaboration across city boundaries in Florida. We also definitely want to bring Jacksonville and St. Augustine closer and help to foster connections between both scenes.”