Bearcat On Performative Feminism And The Pervasiveness Of Casual Racism
Bearcat plays Afropunk this weekend
A master of all creative trades, Bearcat has worked as a professional makeup artist, DJ, producer, audio engineer, and event coordinator since 2005. As an industry veteran, she’s also had a front-row seat to the slow process of progress within spaces that fancy themselves as “cutting edge” and “progressive.”
As a queer black femme, Bearcat has frequently found herself at the receiving end of harassment within the industries she’s worked in—experiences that eventually led to her unapologetic activism and emphasis on remaining vocal, even when the course of the conversation is less than ideal. It’s an outlook that eventually led her to join forces with the likes of Discwoman, a New York-based collective and booking agency that aims to amplify femme talent in the notoriously white male-dominated world of electronic music.
Originally hailing from southeast London, Bearcat began her musical career in England playing in punk bands and performing as a backup vocalist for other musicians. However, in the years since, she’s made America home—a decision spurred in equal parts by practicality and self-preservation. But she also thinks of it as one of the best things she’s ever done, even if there’s still a ton of progress that needs to be made here. To Bearcat though, this just makes the practice of being authentically vocal even more important and essential.
Ahead of Bearcat’s DJ set at this year’s Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, we caught up with her to talk about everything from dance culture’s increased emphasis on femme visibility to the bullshit run-off of performative capitalization, and why there’s still so much work to be done in terms of both. Read our Q&A, below.
What compelled you to move Stateside?
I love London—obviously, that's my home—but it's a really tiny place. And, for someone like me, I can't be the only gay in the village, you know? I have to look around and see multiple people that look like me. And relate to people that are like me. I just found it hard to be heard, or understood, or even taken seriously in London.
But, this was like a while ago, and I've heard really good things about progress and awareness there. But, at the time, I just felt New York, specifically, kind of understood me. Saying that you do grunge, punk music as a black girl is just not taken seriously in England. Like, if you tell people you sing, it's like, "Oh, R&B," or it's like, "Oh, you rap." It just got on my nerves after a while. Europe, in general, has a long way to go in terms of [racism and racial sensitivity]. I mean, of course, America’s not perfect, but here I know when someone hates me. Like, it's very clear. It's on the surface. Whereas, in Europe, no one's ever going to tell you that they're racist, but they will act on it. It's all swept under the carpet, and that, to me, is very frustrating. I'd rather it just be in my face and know exactly what I'm dealing with, you know?
I can’t imagine constantly having to be around all these people that you can tell hate you and your existence.
Constantly. Like, I worked as a makeup artist for 10 years, and I was working with a German pop star on her tour. And, it was a two-month tour. The first day of the tour, I'm doing her makeup, and she asked me to contour her “nigger nose.”
Honestly, I went into shock, and then she turned blue and apologized to me profusely. The problem is, when you have these interactions, it's not just only having them. It's also taking the repercussions of it into account. Like, I literally just needed the money, and I'd rented my apartment to go on this tour. And I didn't speak German, and they would all, specifically, talk German around me. And, it was just a lot. From that kind of obvious aggression to microaggressions… there’s just an endless list of really gnarly experiences that I'm going to put in a book one day.
Not to say that can't happen here, but the racism... it's just different. I mean, I feel like if someone told me that in America, I would easily sue them. Do you know what I mean? Whereas, in Europe, they'd be like, "What's racism? That's over. That's finished."
I think what’s surprising to a lot of Americans in Europe is just how easily slurs and racist shit are thrown around. Like, when I lived in London, it was weird to see how many people would brazenly come up to me and, like, ask me how I could see.
As if it's cute too! As if you're meant to go like, "Thank you." Like, literally, I've been told by managers in jobs that I’m “really nice for a black girl."
It's really hard to articulate. Like, that experience of people just coming up to you and touching you and being in your space… it’s weird. I'm not denying that doesn't happen here, but it's like the norm [in Europe]. People are very overfamiliar and not politically correct. They don't even know what it is to be politically correct.
Yeah, the worst is when they do the complimenting thing. Like, “Why are you mad? It’s a compliment.”
Right. I know. I can't be fetishized, too. Don't do that to me.
What struck me about your previous statement though was the "You're pretty nice for a black girl" comment. Have you found code-switching bullshit to be a big part of your musical career as well?
Yeah, definitely. And, it happens anywhere from the soundcheck to the receptionist at the hotel. I just think, after a certain while, you just learn, as you said, to just code-switch and do the job at hand. But, honestly, conversations like this, where you reflect with a glass of wine, you're like, "What the fuck? That's crazy." You know what I mean? That's crazy. I wouldn't survive because it's really wild out here.
Let's talk a little bit about your involvement with Discwoman, how you got involved with them—because it’s all grown so exponentially in the past few years.
The Discwoman story actually starts in Berlin. I lived in Berlin, and there was a room opening in the apartment that I was staying in, and this really cool person called Jen ended up moving in. And, Jen is best friends with [Discwoman co-founder] Umfang… Me and Jen then ended up moving back to New York, where I met [Umfang].
So Discwoman was having this eight-hour streaming event—maybe like four years ago, at Stream Gallery [in Bushwick, Brooklyn]—so Emma invited me to play an hour. And, not to sound cheesy, but I kind of smashed the set, and the rest is history. After that, we've just grown together. The rest is just history, or, like, a lot of her-story.
That's so wild to me—the fact that you’re someone who has been there from the very beginning. How have you noticed things changing for the organization or the dance music in general?
I've noticed things, which are really progressive and important. I see [Discwoman founder Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson] do a workshop on inclusivity at somewhere like [industry-standard music production software company] Ableton, or these other spaces where it's all predominantly white males. DJ life is very bro-y, and these bros have so much to learn. So, [when we touch] establishments like Boiler Room, Ableton, these festivals… I'm thinking more beyond just the dance floor, just these really important panels and conversations are being had, which I think make a big difference way beyond just visibility.
[But there’s still a ton of work to be done,] like I was getting really frustrated the other day because I was just like, “Femme rappers do not hire other femme DJs for them.” But the optics of that is just fucked up. It's just disappointing to me always.
I've DJ'ed for a lot of rappers, like 21 Savage and stuff. And the fact that these men will want to put me on and then femme rappers won’t is... I don’t know, I feel like we as women sometimes mistakenly [internalize] a lot from patriarchy and power and that can sometimes blindside the bigger picture. I feel like those conversations, those workshops, all educate people on it. I feel like there are bigger conversations being had, which are really core and important. And I feel like Discwoman definitely started to shake that up a little bit.
It’s been interesting to see how that particular conversation has evolved over the past few years. That said, there is a lot of shit that happens that still feels like some of it’s all a show. Like, people will be like, "This is my all-femme night now, we’re so feminist. We’ve always been feminists." But then it's like, are you paying them an equal amount? Are you promoting them in the same way? Is there actual respect there? Is your endgame individual or actually in the service of greater change?
Yeah, a lot of it is just performative, which is so corny to me. I totally understand what you're saying. It's kind of cool that [Discwoman is] not like that. We're just really good DJs that happen to be... I mean, we have some people on the team who are nonbinary and we have trans women, but we're all femmes. But yeah, I do understand that there are a lot of people that want to tokenize the new language and use it as a way to bring attention to their own stuff, rather than doing the actual work and letting that speak for itself. But I also feel like if people wanna scream that they're feminists, go ahead.
I think what bothers me is when inclusivity is overtly the result of tokenization to capitalization. When you have these people who are like, "Oh, we're so inclusive. We're so in line with the ideals of the scene right now." Like, it may be good optics, but that’s just what it is to them. You’re seeing that a lot more now, especially outside of the underground, too—a lot of mainstreaming of feminism in the way that’s still pretty exclusionary. Like, why are there now $800 “feminist” shirts?
Right! Because capitalism is ruthless. It is really ruthless. All I can do is agree with you, to be honest. It's just bullshit. And a lot of the time, there'll be a man behind it.
But at the same time, I feel like there's a level of that idea is still being projected into someone's mind, which is sometimes more than anything else that you could do. Even if it is bullshit, you know? Sometimes that's how you have to reach people on that level. But at the same time, I'm anti-capitalist, it's hard for me. Like with Pride, how that [capitalization] happens around Pride. When you try to order a car service, there's a rainbow flag on the fucking app, and you're just like, "Wow." I honestly don't know what to say about it because it's just a monster that won't stop. We all know it's bullshit, but I still took the Uber because I don’t have a choice.
Speaking of performative allyship—on a more individual level, have you found yourself kind of getting irked by that? The people who are like, “God! I hate white people!” but don’t, actually, do anything in their everyday lives about it?
Yeah. We have a long way to go. But we're also the ones that are chipping away and paving a way so that in 50 years it will be less [burden] for the POC that are coming up behind us, you know? Not to say that it will ever go away, so maybe in a billion years, [we’ll reach some sort of stasis], but it also might not ever be gone, unfortunately. Like, I always refer to myself as a sacrificial lamb.
But yeah, people just love to be performative. So, as much as there's this surging wave of power, there's also always going to be the people who will capitalize on that and be performative with it to try and get brownie points. They look a certain way but aren’t actually really doing the work. It's easy to make a post, it's easy to say whatever on the internet, but to actually do the work is a completely different thing. And it's actual work! It's not just waking up and being like, "I'm gonna put this hat on today!" Like, not everyone is willing to do the work, but everyone wants to scream and shout about issues and such.