Changing a community

Music workshops carve out safe spaces for excitement

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Instagram meme account @winnipegposers recently posted a screenshot from Royal Canoe’s “77-76” music video, which featured local fans of the band lip-syncing to the song. The caption reads, “when some dude compliments you and then has the audacity to say ‘for a girl.’” The image is of local performer Sophie Stevens and the subtitled song lyric: “IT HAUNTS YOU.”

Stages are elevated spaces, spaces of heightened visibility. @winnipegposers’ meme is about how the structural and cultural issues that perpetuate inequality within the music industry manifest on the profoundly intimate level. Passive-patriarchal personal interactions continue to be the norm, and who gets to be on stage – and what they will go through to even get there – is a problem.

The Equalizer audio production workshop series, Mama Cutsworth’s DJ Academy for All Women and Non-Binary Folks, and Girls Rock Winnipeg are three local endeavours changing that.


Joanne Pollock is a Winnipeg producer, performer and facilitator of Equalizer, a Manitoba Music workshop series for women and non-binary people that focuses on computer-based music-making.

Pollock says learning the technical skillset to create electronic music was a lengthy process for her.

“It’s always hard to be like, ‘I have this skillset to teach,’ because I always feel like there’s so much more I could grow, and there’s so much more to know all the time. But at a certain point it’s like, ‘okay, I’m answering a lot of questions for a lot of people. I think it would be nice to do this in a more formalized setting.’”

This led Pollock to found Equalizer, which is now entering its third year and will feature three workshops on recording, performing and mixing electronic music.

Pollock says that from early in her career, she experienced disbelief that she possessed the technical skillset to make electronic music.

“I was never able to not involve my identity in my music,” she says.

“I started to realize when I would say, ‘oh, I’m a musician,’ people would just assume that I was a singer all the time. I’m talking about festival bookers, female music promoters, people that you would think know better would assume that I couldn’t do anything technical because of my gender ... I think everything I do ... is a response to going into situations knowing that people are not going to expect very much from me.”

Pollock created Equalizer as a space where attendees and instructors alike could feel safe sharing and exploring the highly technical world of electronic music, a situation in which identity and knowledge are never assumed to be the same thing.

DJ Academy

Mama Cutsworth’s DJ Academy for All Women and Non-Binary Folks is the brainchild of local DJ, event producer and music educator Sarah Michaelson. Founded in 2012, the academy has graduated 125 students from its beginner program.

“It started because, as a woman-identified DJ, I was feeling overwhelmed in the community,” Michaelson says.

“I started DJing in 2004 and for many years felt like one of the very few women performing in town. So I was complaining about that to my partner, and he said, ‘You should try doing something about it instead of just feeling bummed out about it.’ I was like, ‘fair!’ So the first-ever class (I) offered was in the start of 2012. It was open to cis and trans women, and then over the years, it has evolved into an even more broad and inclusive space.”

The academy offers an introduction to the turntable technique.

“I start with the main foundation of ... technical skills,” Michaelson says.

“I always say to people, ‘I can teach you the fine details and technical craft of DJing, but the one thing I can’t teach you is how to be passionate about music.’ That’s the one part that everybody brings naturally to the space.”

For Michaelson, the academy is centrally about changing the face of the local DJ community.

“That’s where the revolution is – that we’re representing all people. I’ve had a lot of hard, weird experiences because I was a woman DJ, and I could go on for hours griping about it to the students, but I don’t want to focus on that, either. I want to focus on the joy and excitement and power you have in this role.”

Girls Rock Winnipeg

Jessee Havey is the community outreach co-ordinator at the WECC (West End Cultural Centre) and current vice-president of Girls Rock Winnipeg. In 2017, a chance water cooler conversation with the theatre’s then artistic director revealed they’d just been having the exact same thought: Winnipeg needed to have a girls rock camp, and it needed to happen at the WECC.

A Google search later, they discovered they weren’t alone. Local musician Brandi Olenick had booked the Park Theatre for a fundraiser to start a local girls rock camp. A partnership quickly formed. The founders attended the international Girls Rock Camp Alliance last April, and Girls Rock Winnipeg hosted their first week-long youth summer camp at the WECC. They are currently preparing to host their first camp for adults, with plans to have week-long camps take place throughout the year in the future.

Havey says the Girls Rock movement is about change.

“It’s empowerment through music,” she says.

“The movement as a whole is dedicated to building a community of girls, women, trans, gender nonconforming people through expression and artistic experimentation and collaboration, building up confidence and leadership ... to transform ourselves and our communities. Basically, we’re just trying to make a really safe space for people who are marginalized just to come and feel safe to express and learn and be strong together.”

Havey says her passion for Girls Rock Winnipeg is connected to her own experiences as a young female musician.

“I feel I’m in a really fortunate position to be able to share my experience of being a young woman in the music industry and just how to conduct yourself and stand up for yourself,” she says.

“That you deserve to take up just as much space as all the cis dudes do.”

“We’re taking the stage”

Equalizer, Mama Cutsworth’s DJ Academy for All Women and Non-Binary Folks, and Girls Rock Winnipeg are responses to experiences so common in Winnipeg as to have a dedicated local meme account. They are endeavours to create spaces that are less haunted.

“We’re taking the stage,” Havey says. “It’s ours, too. It’s time to balance the playing field.”

Published in Volume 73, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 7, 2019)