Magazine Poland

Girls* to the Front: when women take center stage

The European Lab forum is heading to Budapest on Saturday for a one-day event dedicated to European youth and the future of activism. With Kafkadesk as its official media partner, the innovative forum will bring together climate activists, journalists, and other civil society actors from all over Europe for a series of debates and workshops.

Ahead of the event, we talked with Agata Wnuk, co-founder of Girls* to the Front and speaker at the European Lab Budapest, about how the Polish musical scene can strive to become more tolerant, diverse and vibrant.

What’s the origin story of G*TTF?

When I first started going to parties and concerts as a teenager, Ola was already part of the music scene in Warsaw, working as a DJ, and I already loved her aesthetic and vibe. Then one day, we connected over our shared passion for girls and women in music and decided to create a DJ collective. For some time, that’s what we were doing: playing music as damsels in distress DJs.

We quickly felt we wanted to do more and came up with the idea of organizing concerts together. The choice of inviting only women artists was a natural one. But we realized we only knew like two girl bands in Warsaw, and that it was a problem. Hopefully, we soon discovered that many girls and women are indeed making music at home but lack the space and courage to present it to an audience.

This is how our first goal was created: not only to invite experienced and known artists (we didn’t have the money anyway), but also to organize debut gigs for the emerging ones in Poland. We wanted to create a safer space in which there would be room for mistakes, experiments, and growth. Something that might come naturally to boys, but not to girls, often raised in the belief that if they don’t succeed instantly, they are not good enough and should stay quiet. And it worked. Soon enough we didn’t have to dig deep to find them, and they were reaching out to us themselves to play at our concerts.

The second step was the zine, which was also quite a natural choice. We noticed that our events and concerts started to gather a community, we started seeing more and more familiar faces in the crowd, and wanted to form a community that had even more in common, apart from music. A platform for people to share their art, stories, and experiences. A zine seemed like the perfect medium.

Everything that happened after was a result of a growing community through Girls* to the Front. We started organizing workshops, panel discussions, performances, and collaborated with many great initiatives and creatives. What I also love is how these collaborations went even further – some people who debuted at our concerts/zine are now active on their own and recognized for their art and music. This is a sign that what we aim for is working! These people were always talented and capable enough to do it all, but sometimes just lacked a little confidence boost. I believe that in a society that capitalizes on telling you that you are not good enough, it is brave and radical to show your creations to the public, even if you feel like you are imperfect.

A word or two about you and Ola’s background?

We are both from Warsaw and met as college students – my major was data analysis and Ola’s American Studies. My interests somewhat shifted and I’m now working as a yoga teacher. Ola, who recently finished her PhD, is teaching at the University of Warsaw. Everything we do as G*TTF in our so-called “free-time” is pretty much self-taught – we didn’t have much to do with art, music, publishing, or event production before.

What kind of obstacles do women face on the Polish musical scene?

First, years of upbringing girls in a conservative and sexist society make them less eager to even try to explore that field. Most of the time it’s not even someone telling them directly they can’t, but the extreme self-consciousness they grow up with.

If they do enter the music scene, there’s a full list of things they may hear, or face and it would be hard to name them all. Some are visible and straight-up stupid, like judging women for their looks instead of their music or telling them they should “stay in the kitchen”. But there are also more subtle things, like what we call “soft sexism” and “paper feminists” – very common, unfortunately also within the community – little comments and actions that often come from your friends, from men activists and other people who you know are “on your side” and “don’t mean anything bad”. But there are forms of sexism deeply rooted in men’s upbringings that they might not be aware of.

The “soft sexism” could look like “helping” you with your equipment on stage when you didn’t ask for it or mansplaining your job. And “paper feminists” are men who claim to be feminists – they speak up on women’s rights issues, go to protests with you, do their reading, etc. – but act differently in their daily life. To give a music-related example, men who would still book only men for their concerts. On the other hand, some might be very active and would book women DJs and musicians, only to capitalize on that and look good. It’s very hard to act on that without feeling like you’re fighting you own people, but that’s why it’s even more important. I know all that from my own experience and after all these years sometimes I’m still mad at myself for not reacting properly.

What made you want to expand G*TTF’s initial mission to include queer and non-binary people? How did you manage that transition?

I think it was a smooth transition. When we started, we were always saying that by “girl” we mean anyone who wants to identify as one, and that our initiative is open to anyone who would like to perform or publish under our name. We are both queer women and from personal experience we know what challenges the community faces. But after some time, we felt we weren’t hearing as many queer voices as we would like.

In 2018 we published the “All Queers to the Front!” zine which was fully focused on LGBTAQIP+ art and stories, to make a clear statement that the feminism we believe in is intersectional. Since then, we have always been trying to involve the whole spectrum of identities, genders, and sexualities in our public communication. It wasn’t forced in any way – we weren’t trying to shape the community, but rather to reflect how diverse it is.

We knew that staying with our original name wasn’t ideal and could be misleading. We decided on Girls* to the Front because our name was already known a bit and didn’t want to lose that, but still wanted it to reflect our Riot grrrl inspirations. That’s why we added the * that we hope says: “Hey, there’s something more!”

Can you tell us about the Riot grrrl movement, and how it inspired you?

It was a feminist punk movement that originated in the early 1990’s in the US, and a musical genre that included bands like Bikini Kill, L7 or Bratmobile. Their focus was to call out sexism in the punk scene and encourage women to take up space on stage and in the audience. They held meetings and support groups to talk about music and their experiences of discrimination, abuse, body image, eating disorders and more. They were artists, activists, and zine publishers, who didn’t rely on mainstream media and preferred a DIY way of sharing their ideas.

The lead singer of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, was one of the main figures of the movement and our biggest inspiration. During one of her concerts, where boys were pogo-dancing as they often do, not leaving room for anyone else, she stopped the gig to say: “All girls to the front. I’m not kidding. All girls to the front! All boys be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back. Back. Back.” This simple but powerful message was where the name of our initiative came from.

We were inspired by the way riot grrrls were organizing themselves, the DIY vibe, their unapologetic aesthetic, how they were playing with society’s standards of how a woman should look and act, and obviously their music and lyrics – raw, angry, extremely personal, and political. We didn’t have such a movement in Poland and wondered what it would look like here 25 years later.

Have you noticed any significant change in the place of women and non-binary people within Poland’s musical scene since 2015?

I did notice a positive change, even though I might be speaking from my own social bubble. There are now more women and non-binary musicians and DJs. I see these artists in line-ups more often and there are numerous new initiatives promoting equality and diversity in music. I think these changes have been accelerated by the challenges Polish society has had to face during these last years in our political environment.

More and more people began to actively fight for their rights, going out on the streets and there was a general increase in awareness. The musical scene reflected that. Now that more people with different experiences are involved in the dialogue, we can come up with new solutions, learn from each other and find new ways of doing things. And there’s still a lot to do. As long as we hear that initiatives like Girls* to the Front are discriminating against cis hetero men, as long as that soft sexism we talked about is still there, we’ll have our hands full.

Can you tell us more about the zine you publish?

In our zines, we collect texts and graphics created by women and queers, from Poland and abroad. Just like our events, our zines intend to feature works created both by those who are just getting started, as well as already published artists and writers. We publish them semi-regularly, and each one has a theme that we try to explore from a feminist-queer perspective. All the works are collected via an open-call and it’s always such a great experience. Even though we have a general idea of what the topics in each issue could be, the authors always amaze us with their knowledge and experience!

Publishing zines gave G*TTF the opportunity to gather people outside the events we host and build a space for creative exchange. We probably could have started with a blog or a website, but a paper medium was particularly important to us. For Riot grrrls, active before the era of social media, zines were a way of communication and organization. For us, it is a way of taking a break from the overabundance of information, of opinions, and often of hate. We want a safer space for our authors to publish their works without fearing the comments section will fill up with negativity.

It’s something that we find extremely important especially for those who just began their journey in art and writing – one unnecessarily negative comment could discourage them from publishing again. What’s more, we like the fact our zines come in physical copies, entails a greater involvement in its creation and sharing. Its tangibility makes me proud of all the work our community puts into it!

Are you looking forward to the European Lab Budapest this Saturday?

I am! I’m glad to have the opportunity to meet, listen and talk to other young people who are involved in important activities in their countries and communities – the programme looks great! Being involved in so many issues within my own country recently, especially during the pandemic, I sometimes forget the outside world exists. This will be a refreshing experience!

Be sure to follow Girls* to the Front on Facebook and Instagram. And if you’re in Budapest this week-end, join us and other young activists for an event you’re not going to want to miss!