Art

Top image: photography by Alex Lambert

When, in 2015, London-based musician Elkka had “a little bit of a breakdown outside a concert”, she re-assessed everything. Having spent years writing music for other musicians, she’d had enough of feeling under-represented by the patriarchal music industry around her and decided to take matters into her own hands. Cue Femme Culture.

Initially founded as a record label to independently release her debut EP, the idea began to take on new meaning when Elkka met DJ – and now co-founder of Femme Culture – Ludo, and soon evolved into a community-based arts collective and label: holding hot and heady club nights where identity is top of the bill. Following recent closures to some of London’s most beloved safe space venues and LGBTQ+ hate crimes in the city having almost doubled since 2014, Femme Culture now stands at the vanguard of a progressive nightlife and arts movement in the city.

Formed around an ethos promoting visibility, readdressing the gender balance and tackling harassment, they’re breathing new life into a DIY scene that celebrates inclusivity outside the established mainstream. In conversation with each other here, Elkka and Ludo look back at how Femme Culture has evolved, where they see it going and why the dance floor can be the ultimate platform for equality.

Ludo: Let’s begin with you explaining how you started Femme Culture.
Elkka: I started my career as a singer-songwriter, writing for other people and doing a lot of bits in America for the likes of Mad Decent and OWSLA. I was doing quite well out there and happy in one respect, but quite frustrated in another because I spent my days and sessions with lots of different producers, and 99.9% were men. I found it really hard to get my own body of work together but everyone else was kind of doing well on the back of my work, so it came to a point where I felt so out of control I kind of had a little bit of a breakdown outside a concert with my girlfriend and I realised that my only option was to take control of my own work for the first time. So, in about 2015, I started teaching myself how to produce and then, maybe eighteen months later, I had an EP ready that I was super proud of and wanted to release through my own means, because once more I didn’t really want to wait for anybody else. So I contacted a distribution company and they were like, “We like your music, let’s put it out but you need a name for your record label,” and ‘Femme Culture’ just came to me. I can’t say I had the foresight there and then to see where it’s got to now, but I kind of knew that it would be something community-based, because I just really wanted to do something that brought people together, I wanted to champion women and give them control of their own creations. So Femme Culture was born and I put out the first EP and it did really well. I was just super proud of what I was able to do within a really short space of time.

Ludo: And it was worldwide wasn’t it, America, Japan…
Elkka: …Japan, Brazil, Sweden, you know, those classic markets that I was targeting [laughs]. It’s funny looking back now because my music has changed quite a lot since then but I’m really proud of that first thing I pulled together. So then I realised I needed to start interacting with real people and start moving Femme Culture into this community-based project, because music can be quite isolating and I think a lot of people experience that. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that Lu?

Ludo: Of course.
Elkka: It’s nice to be a part of something, to share something with people and come up together, because there is a misconception – and you do see it occasionally – that some people are a bit territorial. But what we do is really the complete opposite of that; it’s about inclusivity, meeting people and being a part of something, connecting with other musicians and the public. So I thought about starting a club night, and I had no idea what I was doing, but that’s kind of what we live by: walk into the shoes of the person you wanna be and you’ll figure it out as you go. We’ll have the idea and work out afterwards how we go about making it happen. That’s kind of how we run Femme Culture a lot of the time, a lot of our successes have come from that mentality too, just putting your mind to an idea and going for it…

BAD SISTA / Femme Culture

Ludo: Well no, wait, we are scared also but we do it anyway.
Elkka: Oh, definitely, but we feel, especially together…

Ludo: …It’s two of you being scared as opposed to one…
Elkka: Yeah, so if one is wavering, I feel like the other one props them up, and we keep pushing forward. I would really struggle to do this alone. So, to cut a long story short, I met you at the first Femme Culture club night because I was looking for some amazing female DJ’s and a mutual friend of ours introduced us. We just clicked, didn’t we? Like it was just an instant connection of, “I like what you do, you like what I do,” we didn’t even know what it was going to turn into, but our tastes were so aligned and I felt like our skill sets were too, so then you and I kind of started running it from then on. If we go further back, I obviously know your personal taste – even outside of DJ-ing – is quite hip-hop and beat-centric, but what did you grow up listening to?

Ludo: I was born in California so I grew up listening to a lot of American music, and things like Elton John and The Beach Boys and Michael Jackson because of my parents. To be fair, in Northern California as ten year olds we’d listen to very grown up hip-hop like Public Enemy and Mos Def. Then I moved to Italy and I had this weird phase of just straight up Italian rap. But then there was a tipping point where I turned sixteen and discovered techno, I was going raving all the time. But I definitely grew up on A Tribe Called Quest and D12 and stuff.
Elkka: Oh my god, D12?! I forgot about those guys! So I started with pop music and to this day I’m not ashamed to say that The Spice Girls were one of the biggest influences on me as a child. They really provided me with an example of how to be a strong women and being part of a sisterhood as well as having your own identity. Even though they’re kind of manufactured, it was a real message and it was this form of feminism that was a bit more pure than it is now via the media or pop stars of today. These women were sexy, but it wasn’t about selling sex, it was about female empowerment. I don’t feel it really exists in the same way today, it just seems far more sexualised now. Spice Girls were, for me, incredible pop music and an uplifting positive influence on me as a kid.

Ludo: Ah back in the days when pop was cool. But back to the present. As a female producer I’ve noticed you get asked a lot about ‘women in music’, or what it’s like to be a woman in this industry. Does that frustrate you or is it good to be able to speak about it?
Elkka: It’s a tricky thing. I hate that it’s even a topic because I’m sure every person wants to be looked at for their merits first and foremost. Recently my latest single was reviewed and they described me as a ‘queer producer’ and it really struck me. Not because I am not proud to be queer or be a woman but why is it necessary to say that? You don’t say ‘male producer’ or ‘straight singer’. Clearly we are not at a place yet where this is seen as ‘normal’ or even uninteresting!

+44 AVANT GARDE / Femme Culture

Ludo: So we’re kind of fighting towards normality.
Elkka: A balance, yeah. Balance is what should be normal, and I feel like that’s what we’re trying to achieve. I’m going to ask you this in a second, but for me, it’s about encouraging and elevating each other so we get to where we want to be and create our spaces ourselves, I think it’s about building platforms for each other. It’s not about, you know, the percentage. I think the percentage of female writers for PRS was about fifteen percent, which is terrible, but I think it’s up to us to fight and push on, and there’s a reason why I didn’t produce until this point in my career, because I didn’t feel like it was my place to. But now I feel like we’ve just got to disrupt that and allow everybody to have the chance, and we try to be proactive with that, with our events and our club nights. Sometimes I think people misunderstand and think that we’re trying to be anti something, anti-men, it’s not that at all, we’re just trying to rebalance what’s going on. But do you feel like the criticism we get sometimes is from having the name Femme Culture? This is a conversation we had at the beginning as well, like, is this limiting? The last thing we want to do is limit who we can collaborate with and who we can push.

Ludo: So, obviously there are double standards. If there was a record label called ‘The Guys’ Club, or whatever, we would sign to that. It would be fine. I’d definitely still DJ at an event promoted by GOLDEN BOYZ records. But it doesn’t work the other way around. I think the problem is, for instance, we put together a compilation for the UN Women to raise money for this campaign called HeForShe, which is all about equalising rights. So when we were gathering tracks for the campaign, we would sometimes have artists saying, “Oh, but you know I’m not queer? I may have a female artist name but I’m actually a straight man and I’m not sure I’m fit for this.” That is where the problem starts. Just because an issue isn’t your issue or you’re not affected by it, that doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility to proactively try and be a part of the solution. I guess that’s why the fight exists, and we are living in this historical moment where we’ve reached a breaking point and we’re in this moment of chaos…
Elkka: And change…

Ludo: …And change. Whenever there is change, the balance shifts too, so we’re trying to provide a stable lane within this imbalanced world. Sometimes it feels like to elevate you need to knock somebody else down, but what we’re trying to do is make sure that this is not the case. All communities and minorities need equal spotlight. It’s obviously very utopian as well, but I think our mission is now to elevate together at no one’s expense.
Elkka: That’s the thing with change, sometimes you don’t feel comfortable, but because so many people have felt uncomfortable for so long – for various different reasons – this is why we’re in this time at the moment, because it’s reached a breaking point where something had to happen. I went to the Trump march, the first one, before we started doing this properly, and it was so inspiring to see the turn-out, and it was everyone, you know, it wasn’t just women there fighting for women’s rights, it was really exciting. But what’s going to happen tomorrow? We will all go home. So I really wanted to start doing something tangible and proactive. That’s when I decided to take this really seriously and make things happen, and I think that’s what’s happening at the moment, people can really make a difference and create something themselves and for their communities. You’ve Discwoman in New York, an incredible female-led booking agency, there are collectives and club nights like Pxssy Palace, who are another collective who provide safe spaces for everybody to go on a night out, it’s very queer-friendly. For me personally, going there was kind of life-changing because I felt like I could express myself and allow myself to just be free, it’s actually quite hard to find places that are like that, even in London. We’re just a part of that, we’re just a very small part of trying to make a difference, which we’re really proud of. I think that good people want to make good things happen and so we only work with people that we feel have that kind of energy, otherwise it doesn’t work.

Ludo: What do you think about the ‘trend’ of feminism?
Elkka: I didn’t set this up to maximise on what’s perceived as a ‘trendy feminist movement’, and if anyone ever thought that of us I’d be really disappointed. The only way to prove that we’re not doing that is by being around for the next decade and doing what we do, which is our plan. The conversation where it is a trend is a difficult one. Yes there are companies capitalising on it being a topical subject at the moment, but if a ten-year-old ends up wearing a t-shirt from H&M with ‘feminist’ written on it and feels empowered or curious about what it is – I can’t help but think that is a good thing.

Ludo: Actually we saw this in Los Angeles, when we were at a speech there and a mom was holding a little girl who had the ‘feminist’ t-shirt on and we were just like, ”Yes, Mom.”
Elkka: The simple fact is that this isn’t going to change overnight. But for me, this isn’t a short-term thing, and even if tomorrow miraculously things changed, we’d still be putting our parties on and creating safe spaces for people, putting on exhibitions, raising money for charity, because there is always a need for a good party and a good cause, I feel like that’s never going to stop.

Ludo: I think the fact is, when people do refer to it as a trend it’s insulting, because you’re talking about real people and real situations, so there’s no expiration date. We are just fulfilling a need that we felt within our community. So this is not a trend, this is not a temporary conversation because this is talking about our lives, this is what we stand for, this is what we live for, this is our job, this is our passion, this is our love, our peer’s love, this is who we are.
Elkka: YES LUDO! Also, I think it’s great that women are starting to have a more balanced existence within the arts and other industries, there are many people that are underrepresented and overlooked, so, for us, it doesn’t just stop at balance for women.

Ludo: What do you think about London’s nightlife scene in terms of inclusivity and safe spaces?
Elkka: So for one of our last parties we brought over BADSISTA from São Paulo, Brazil, which was amazing. Her London debut was a crazy, sweaty party, it was beautiful and it was one of my favourite nights. It was at one of our favourite locations, Alibi in Dalston, which is having to close down sadly. You hear about a place closing and you’re not surprised but it does hurt because it feels like we’re going to run out of spaces to do these things and have places to go where we feel safe to express ourselves. Ludo, do you feel like we’re at risk of losing somewhere to put on events, champion people, places to go? You live in East London.

Ludo: It is really sad, Alibi closing broke my heart because I was there every single week and it’s like our spot in Dalston, so you could always go there any night and you knew that you’re going to bump into your friends and you can just have a drink or get absolutely hammered, it doesn’t matter because you have a spot where you can go. So I’m sad, but I am not worried that London’s nightlife or London’s cultural scene is going to die, its just going to change, it’s just evolution.
Elkka: But, with the new time restrictions the Council are putting on venues, it’s clear that it’s all about development and property and people making money. But I don’t really understand, for instance, why Sadiq Khan has allowed this to happen, I think it could be really damaging and it’s really frustrating because I think that scene brings so much to so many people. I think what comes from it is that we just find new spaces to go. But I do feel like there is an element of being pushed out.

Ludo: It’s just history repeating itself. Hip-hop went through every neighbourhood in New York because it kept getting pushed out, they make it a cool area to be, it becomes appealing, and then the powers want to capitalise on it. This has happened throughout history. It’s really sad and frustrating but it’s not going to stop us.
Elkka: We’ll just go rave in a field if necessary, we’re always going to find something [laughs]. London is a fucking great place to party.

Follow Femme Culture here

Interview originally published in HEROINE 9.