Revisiting women317

Elle Roberts

Issues regarding equality in Indiana have been making national headlines since Mike Pence signed RFRA into law last month. Among these concerns we must certainly consider the problem of gender inequity in the Hoosier state. According to recent statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau, women in Indiana earn 26 percent less money than their male counterparts. That figure places Indiana as the 44th worst state for gender pay equality in the U.S. 

Our local music scene has not been immune to disparities in gender equality as Hoosier women are underrepresented on concert bills. Fortunately there are several local individuals and organizations committed to confronting this issue, including the subject of this week's column, women317. 

Regular readers may recall I spoke with the group's cofounder Reese Maryam last year. As the group prepares for its fourth event installment, I caught up with the group's other cofounder (and NUVO contributor) Elle Roberts.

The group's May 1 event at Tin Comet Coffee features performers Rehema McNeil, Azieb Abraha, Sukie Conley and others. The diverse lineup covers everything from spoken word, and hip-hop to folk music, and while the event is primarily focused on women performers and women's issues, Roberts reminded me that women317 is "open to everybody."

NUVO: How did women317 develop?

Elle Roberts: My best friend Reese Maryam was working at the Boner Community Center on East 10th St. as part of Public Allies. She started coming to Tin Comet Coffee and found out the owner's were interested in starting a First Friday event there. So Reese and I decided to do an all women's show at Tin Comet in March of 2014 to celebrate Women's History Month. It was going to be a one and done kind of event, but it turned out to be so successful that we decided to keep it going. We did three women317 events last year.

I did most of the booking. I'm not a promoter, but I called up some of my favorite artists. All of them were women that I'd seen in performance at some point and their music really spoke to me. I wanted to create an opportunity to share that with others.

It was our first time doing anything of that magnitude in regard to organizing a show. We were frazzled running around trying to get everything ready from getting the P.A. set-up, to making sure we had snacks. But it was like the universe brought everything together and the show came together so perfectly.

NUVO: You mentioned that the initial women317 event was intended be a one-off. What kind of response did you get from the audience that inspired you to keep it going?

Roberts: The general consensus I got from the audience was that it's really a powerful thing when women are speaking their truths through their art. The event wasn't thematic or planned out at all. It was an eclectic narrative of women's stories and how the world affects us and how we fit in the world. There was an overabundance of emotion from the audience connecting to the spoken word, the music and the dancing. The event definitely impacted the audience.

NUVO: It sounds like the opportunity to create that first event came at you rather randomly. Had you considered developing an arts showcase for women prior to meeting the folks at Tin Comet?

Roberts: It's something that I'd been mulling over for awhile. The jobs I'd worked at had all been women-centered. It's very rewarding work. Some of the positions were more difficult than others. For example I worked for a domestic violence shelter for awhile. Seeing the gaps in service showed me there's a space for women that isn't being filled. But I wasn't sure how to go about trying to approach that. When the opportunity to do women317 came about it was the catalyst to do all the things I'd been thinking about.

I really wanted to fill that gap in space I'd observed. After doing some research I found that pretty much all programs for adult women had to do with careers and networking or very issue focused themes like domestic violence or health and wellness. There was really nothing for that eighteen to thirty-something group where you could just go and figure out what womanhood meant to you and to express that however you needed to. I figured that would be our lane so to speak and we used women317 to kick it off.

women317 is part of a larger organization I started called Shehive. Our mission with Shehive is to create safe spaces for people to confront, address and most importantly deconstruct gender inequity. That sounds really broad but we've narrowed it down to three initiatives that include performance art shows, workshops and intimate discussions geared specifically toward women. I see it as a place for women to rediscover what womanhood means and have a place to express those things.

NUVO: You're also a musician [Roberts' current project is called The MO]. How have your experiences as a performer shaped your thoughts on the role of women in the local music scene?

Roberts: In my experience I've found it's much easier to be a woman in the music scene when you're attached to a group of men. I say that as someone who hadn't branched out on a solo tip until recently.

It's heartbreaking to me to have seen all these different women perform and to have seen how wonderful they are and how well they interact with an audience - yet when I see bills for different shows around Indy, these are names I see missing all the time.

This issue is too big to talk through and unpack quickly and I think it's a conversation that needs to be had with promoters. Those are the folks who are plugging different artists into shows. What I'm hoping to see as a run-off from women317 is that more promoters will notice that there are incredible women here and that we're trying to cultivate more women in the arts. As we continue to cultivate that in girls and women there will be more women artists here that perform at a high caliber and can play bigger venues and draw bigger crowds. That's what I want to see happen.

NUVO: At the beginning of our conversation you specifically noted that you're not a promoter. I only know of a few women who consistently promote shows here. Is that a role you could see yourself stepping into?

Roberts: I could see women317 becoming that. The reason I say I'm not a promoter is that each of the artists we've worked with have donated their time and performances. If there was an exchange of money then I guess I would technically be a promoter.

A goal for me has been to find the funding to start paying the artists. When I go out and perform the highest thanks I can get is being able to share an exchange with an audience. But it's important to get paid. Paying artists shows that there is value in the arts, and that Indianapolis is a place where artists can make a career and feed themselves off their work.

NUVO: How would you like to see women317 develop in the future?

Roberts: A lot of our growth has happened organically and I think it will continue to expand in that way. We've enjoyed our first year at Tin Comet, but I could see it becoming bigger. It would be really cool to do a festival event. So far we've worked with around thirty women artists and we have eight more scheduled for this upcoming show on May 1. I can see us becoming a database for women artists in the same way the Arts Council is a resource for information on all sorts of artists in Indianapolis. That's already starting to happen where people come to me asking to be connected to an artist and I can go back and look though all the performers we've featured and I can personally vouch for all of them.

After the May 1 event we'll be able to say we've had 40 women perform for us. The proof is in the pudding and there are women here who are creators who really embody what it means to be an artist in Indianapolis. They deserve to be invested in.

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Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.