Interviewers: Cécile Moroux & David Bola
Photo Credit: Hewan Aman
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Sarah Gamrani. I’m a DJ under the name Hawa Sarita. As I told you, my background is more in music, guitar and singing. I love to sing, so I’m also a singer in an electro-acid duo called Baraka, which we launched last March with my partner, Cristofeu. That’s the music side. As a DJ, I started mixing about two years ago. Great, right in the middle of a pandemic… (Laughs)
(Laughs) You picked the right time.
In fact, it was perfect to get the hang of the basics and to practice the technique, digging well, knowing where I want to go… In the end, for me, it was an awesome time, a period of reflection, of thinking about where I wanted to take my artistic project.
I’m also a poet. I write poetry. I self-published my first collection in 2019, called “Paris Furie Douce” (Paris Soft Fury). It was sort of about my experience as a woman in the urban spaces of Paris. I’m also a student in urban studies and feminist geography.
Rehabilitating public spaces
Speaking of public spaces, isn’t there a danger that, when we go back to “normal life”, the streets will once again become a hostile environment for women, just like before? Is that something we should anticipate before re-opening these spaces?
Yes. This is super important for me, and it’s very present in my reflections. Basically, every time I approach a public space, whether through my academic research or in my reading, I like to apply a gender perspective, a feminist perspective, to understand why these spaces are not experienced in the same way if you’re male, female, non-binary, trans, lesbian, bi, etc. Depending on your identity, your sexual orientation, your gender expression and how people view you, you are not equal in these spaces. Because these spaces are not neutral.
The problem also stems from how we design them. These public spaces are designed in a neutral way by town planners who are mostly men, mostly white and mostly older. The average age of town planners is 30 to 55. It’s a perspective on public spaces that is perpetually reproduced. What’s important now – in town planning in any case – is to have more female town planners for a start, but above all to take women’s perspectives into account.
How do you do that? You go into the field and you ask. You ask people: what are your experiences? What happened to you there? When you take this route, from here to here, how do you feel? What is it like for you? That’s really it, and there are plenty of feminist geographers who run “participatory workshops”.
When you design a project, you include the perspectives of those who are most concerned by it. There’s a lot of mapping involved. You take large maps, you trace them out with participants, basically asking: which path do you take? How do you move around the city? Where do you go in your day-to-day life? At what time? Do you feel safe here or not? How can we improve things? Is there anything that would make you feel safer? It’s super important to take this into account from the initial planning stage.
Then, when it comes to harassment, that’s something I’ve really felt irritated and outraged by… I have a lot of hatred towards it, because I experienced it a lot, especially in Toulouse. I was born in Toulouse and did all my studies in Toulouse, and at some point the penny dropped and I had the impression that when I was outside everyone was being aggressive towards me.
I mean, they’d comment on what I was wearing, ask for my number, follow me in their car and insult me if I didn’t answer them. I was outraged, thinking: “Why me when I asked for nothing? I’m not asking for your opinion. I’m not looking for a comment.”
So I think that’s something that needs to be considered in advance when it comes to urban planning. You can’t solve street harassment through urban planning, but I think we need quite a radical change of culture and mindset around the fact that “women are not female-objects”. That’s not a person who you can insult or approach like that when she didn’t ask for your opinion. What I’m saying is a bit mundane, but in reality, some people need to be told this.
In fact, I think it stems from a broader distinction. We have a very binary mindset, so for example, man/woman, public/private. It’s the same with spaces: public space/private space. And for a very, very long time, women were really confined to the private space, to the domestic, to the upkeep of the house, to the family sphere, to reproducing these tasks. It was made completely invisible and they had no place in the public sphere.
Whereas now, we realise that they have just as much a place in the private as in the public space, and this is where we must readjust things. For a very long time – in town planning anyway – a woman had no place in public spaces, unless it was to prostitute herself, because she was outside. It was the idea that “a woman is there at night because she is waiting for something, not because she’s simply moving around like any other person”.
Party places, political spaces
What were your main observations, reflections, but also perhaps solutions that could be applied if clubs reopen tomorrow and we can party again?
In your previous question, you made the link between public spaces and clubs, and that’s something I consider through my research: just as public spaces are contentious and political places, so are clubs. Maybe we think of them like that, but in fact, these nocturnal spaces are thought of as places of entertainment for now. And leisure. So we go to clubs to party. We go to clubs to drink, to have fun, to listen to music, and it’s something wonderful that we share.
Lots of different people, from different social backgrounds, come together in a space to party and have fun. Except that it’s not just a place of entertainment: of course it’s a political, contentious space, where different identities are expressed, and we find the same power relations and discrimination that exist in society. Simply put, the same patterns are reproduced: the harassment you find in public spaces, you also find in clubs. There’s always this kind of objectification of the female body, or the queer body, or the trans body.
It’s exactly the same in these spaces, and if you think of them as places of entertainment, you never address the real problems. So the observation was: “Well, we know that as a female audience member or artist you don’t have the same experiences as a non-binary or male artist. Everyone has their own reality, their experiences. How can we leave more room – in my case for the experiences of women artists – and how can we start off on the right track by taking their perspectives and experiences into account?”.
I thought: “Right, this pandemic is like a moment of fracture. There will be a before and an after. Something is changing in our relationships to partying, but also in the relationships between us, our social relationships: how can we redistribute the cards and rethink the future towards which we are heading, but based on the experiences of female artists?” Basically, that’s why, without making any initial assumptions, I said to myself: “I’m also a female artist and a female audience member, so I know that I’ve had experiences of harassment or sexist assault, or of being touched without my consent on the dance floor.”
In a club?
That’s right, in a club. But I didn’t tell myself that all the other artists had necessarily experienced the same thing. That’s why I started out without any assumptions, and why I tried to ask them to share their experiences through poetry. My idea was that I would use poetry to get close to them, to their emotions and their intimate experiences as artists. My assumption was that I would have better access to their true, personal emotions, because people write about what they know best.
I thought: “They’ll really be able to write about what they know best: their clubbing experience and what it’s like to be in their shoes”.
Poetry as a vector of emancipated speech
What’s the added value of poetry when dealing with these topics?
Great question. One of the added values of poetry… For me, it’s one of the results of my research: the added value is of course getting access to the project participants’ inner selves. I don’t think I could have done that through a simple interview, or a questionnaire, or something more statistical to find out how many people had been assaulted or experienced gender-based or sexual violence in a party environment. It was really a way of getting as close as possible to them and their experience.
And then, I think the added value of poetry is the power it has – and I personally find that it’s a very good weapon if you use it well – the power of words. That fits perfectly with the theme of this year’s European Lab: the struggle to tell stories and to present our own narrative, our story. Poems function like a written space where I start from my inner self, which is political, of course, but which is also subjective.
In feminist research, you always start from a position of subjectivity. You show the value of this subjectivity by saying: “You, what you personally experience, that’s super important. Come, share it with us. Come, let’s try to do something with it together”. For me, I think the best way to approach subjectivity and intimate experiences was to create poetry and produce writing that endures.
That’s the idea behind the book and its production through crowdfunding. I wanted to have these written words live on as a testimony: “In 2020-2021, when we went through this period of fracture that really turned our relationships upside down, our relationship to partying, to life, this is how women artists experienced the world of clubbing and their position within the club scene.”
So how did these workshops turn out? I imagine that coming together and sharing these things must have brought up strong emotions?
Yes, that’s true, it was surprising and emotional. I think those two words describe it well. For a start, all of these artists didn’t know each other. I threw out a call for participants across social media. I knew one of them, Ara, who I was directly in contact with, and I said: “Spread the word. I know you’re surrounded by DJs, so spread the word.”
Eight women took part: Ara, Hewan Aman, Mel C, Maelita, Mab’ish, Olympe4000, Rrose Sélavy and Tatyana Jane. That was it, those were all the participants in the poetry workshops and no one knew each other, or they knew each other by sight because we follow what others do on social media a bit. But we didn’t know much about each other’s positions, values or current work.
So what was beautiful about it was that without knowing each other beforehand, I saw them really open up over the workshops and feel complete trust to speak out. For instance, during the first workshop they might have found it a bit hard to read and share a poem. They were a little shy or saying things like, “ah, no, what I wrote sucks”, always putting themselves down a bit. But over the course of the workshops, I found that they gained confidence in their words, in the subjects they tackled and in the way they spoke to each other.
I had identified five themes that I considered “at stake” in the electronic music scene: “club culture and gender”, “spaces”, “distances” (social distancing in a party environment, all the stuff linked to the pandemic), “the meaning of partying in our societies” and “utopias”. And each time, for each theme, I came up with a brief approach to the writing to make their task easier, so they wouldn’t be starting from scratch but thinking: “Today, we’re doing a guided sonnet”. One sonnet, four stanzas, you start with four lines, then another four, three and three. Instead of telling them, “write a sonnet”, I asked questions, and for each line they had to answer the question.
That’s one example. I could see that the more they were guided in their approach, the easier it was for them to write, quite simply. I gave them the method and the theme I wanted to tackle, they had a week to write their poems at home – whenever they wanted or found the time -, and the week after we’d meet up online. This was during the second lockdown, from November to January. We’d meet online, each person would read their poem, and then I would always invite them to debate, to discuss, to see what we thought about it, whether other artists had experienced the same thing, if we could relate to a theme as a group, or if our experiences were totally different.
It was wonderful because they got to know each other as artists, and it’s quite rare to have the time to get to know what others are doing and then to work together on other projects. We’ve got access to many digital spaces, so we often check out what others are up to, but in the end it’s superficial, and we don’t take the time to get together and say to each other: “I really want to know what you’re doing”. It simply builds bridges between artists when you can say: “We could do this together”, “Ah, you produce, you’re also a producer? That’s awesome”, or “Do you wanna come and mix there?”.
It’s a kind of sorority, creating real affinities and really helping each other out. I think that’s something rare in these spheres, or at least between women, because we were never taught to do it, so it’s cool to work together to build this sorority. For example, Hewan Aman, who’s a participant but also a graphic designer, has now offered to do all the artistic direction for the book. A new synergy was created that helped develop the project, and it’s thanks to these workshops.
Tatyana Jane, for example, produced a track on Mab’ish‘s compilation, which just came out. It’s a compilation with eleven female producers, called “Sororité” (Sorority). Maybe they knew each other from before, but these bridges were still built, and now these women artists are continuing to work on other projects together. That’s part of what I was looking for too.
Activism post-lockdown, activism in the media. Who should we turn to?
As we mentioned earlier, this project was linked to the lockdown. Although it was a standstill and a depressing period, for many people it also represented the promise of post-lockdown activism and societal transition. We’re standing on that threshold right now. Do you have the impression that this is the direction we’re taking?
I find your question highly relevant and very important. I’m still convinced that we can’t go back to normal and not take away any lessons from this pandemic and the fracture we experienced. On my own small scale, yes, maybe. I’ve got the impression that we’re taking a more benevolent approach, at least with the collective “Au-delà du Club” (Beyond the Club). There’s more benevolence, more sharing, and so on. It’s clear that we’re at a threshold, but I also see a lot of old habits re-emerging.
You look at the programming for this summer and see that artists are coming from very far away just for one evening, that the same names are coming up again, etc. I hope that’s not the only direction we’re going in. But it’s cool, I think a space has also opened up for local scenes.
I saw that a lot of actors from the nocturnal ecosystem were saying: “Actually, we really discovered a local scene that we didn’t realise was so rich because we were always bringing people who generated the most money for the evening. We usually get a big name, a big line-up to make sure the evening is profitable”, since there are always financial stakes behind it. But in any case, I think it’s cool to think: “We learned something and discovered this super-rich local scene: how can we integrate it for real now?”.
I hope that’ll happen. I personally don’t organise events like that, but frankly, we have to take home lessons from this pandemic. Then, in relation to what we were talking about, gender-based and sexual violence in party circles, there’s a group I always mention because they do an insane job: Act Right. I don’t know if you know them?
Marion Delpech and Cindie le Disez run Act Right. They work precisely to create safer party spaces by providing training for security guards and staff who work in these venues. Their idea is to create a label. Once you’ve completed the training, you get your little label, not a “safe space” label exactly, but something like: “I completed the training provided by Act Right and the National Music Center“. They work with security guards on issues like: how do you host an electronic music audience? How do you deal with a situation if there’s a sexist or sexual assault? Support the victim, know where she can go to lodge a complaint, believe what she’s saying, quite simply.
Victims must also know that there are “safe” areas where you can go see a person and be sure that what’s just happened to you will be taken on board and that you won’t be told: “It’s okay, don’t worry, it happens all the time”.
I think there’s work to be done to change mindsets: we have to learn to respect the spaces we use. I went to an event on the banks of the Seine, and when I left, the site was a massacre. I was horrified to see people leaving all their cans, their plastics… We simply can’t treat the spaces offered to us as waste dumps anymore. We need radical change, both at the environmental level, but also in terms of benevolence and respect: respect for spaces, but also respect for all the bodies and the diversity present within these spaces.
Feminism and gender issues are often discussed on dedicated media platforms. How can we go about drawing these issues out of the specific platforms given over to them?
Yes, for example, you mean that if we want to talk about these things, it’s up to us to create this space for dialogue?
I was actually thinking about that because on the KissKissBankBank crowdfunding campaign, there’s a “feminism” category. But I think that ultimately, whether or not you’re a feminist, this book is relevant. There’s a lot of content like that in feminist magazines and feminist shows, but those are platforms that reach people who are already listening, who are already…
Convinced. That’s also it, in the end: it’s about not always creating content for those who are on board and who agree with you. But how do you find other ways to talk about it with people who don’t see the point, or simply don’t see the connection? I admit… It’s a very complicated question. Maybe choosing poetry doesn’t seem like the most accessible thing at first glance either. But my position when it comes to poetry is that I want it to be accessible, that’s why I’m never strict about it, not in terms of the form, the rhymes, respecting the right number of feet, etc.
I always said to the girls: “A poem is a poem when you decide that it is. Even if it’s really long, even if it doesn’t rhyme, and even if it’s not balanced – it’s not a problem.” In that sense, I find it accessible, but sure, at first you might say: “Yeah right, poetry. I don’t read” or “I don’t read poetry”. It’s a bit complicated. There’s this work of democratization to be done, the work of making these themes accessible. Maybe we need to talk about them with different words or in different spaces.
Hawa Sarita, looking for ambient
You’re also a DJ with the Hawa Sarita project. How do you integrate your activism into your sound work?
I have a monthly residency on a radio station called “Le Son De La Méduse” (Sound of Medusa), and each time it’s a selection of 100% female or non-binary artists. I really wanted to highlight these artists and talents, but it’s also a great exercise for me to simply go look elsewhere. I think it was a wonderful constraint, which turned out not to be one in the end. It forced me to make the effort and not just think: “Ah well, I simply didn’t find anything”. The constraint I chose for myself was 100% female and non-binary artists, and I discovered some incredible artists that way.
I imagined I’d only be playing electro music, I thought: “as a DJ, you have to do club stuff and all that…”. Not at all. In the end, I did ambient podcasts. I found some amazing female ambient artists. At the time, I lived in a shared house, and my housemate was a fan of ambient music, but all the artists he could mention were just guys. When I asked: “Would you have any suggestions for my residency this month? I’m doing an ambient special”, he only gave me the names of male artists. So I go: “Don’t you know any female artists?”. And he’s like: “Now that you mention it, no, not really”. But when you go looking, there’s plenty.
It’s great to make that effort in the music that we play as DJs too, as artists. I think it’s important to create this space and to make these artists known.
About Hawa Sarita
Hawa Sarita is a franco-morrocan artist based in Paris. She played guitar from a young age before taking up deejaying in 2019. “Au-delà du club”, her latest poetry project is available here. You can also listen to her latest musical project Baraka.