This Is What it's Like to Attend the Most Gender-Equal Music Festival in the World
For the second year in a row Iceland Airwaves music festival secured a 50/50 male/female split in representation among its acts. The fall indie festival in Reykjavík became first in the world to hit 50/50 in 2018 after organizers co-founded Keychange, an initiative calling for festivals to commit to gender-balanced lineups by 2022. While gender equality may have put the festival more on the map the past two years, powerful female voices have actually been drawn to this icy oasis for decades.
Launched first as a one-off concert held in an airline hangar, the four-day festival now expands across Iceland’s capital city, transforming churches, punk bars, restaurants, and even the local art museum into venues. Airwaves gives off more of an intimate documentary film-festival feel than any fringe-filled summer fest like Coachella or Bonnaroo (both of which struggle to support gender-balanced lineups). This community atmosphere has been attracting and supporting up-and-coming acts from the area and fresh faces from across the globe for the past 20 years. People in general are drawn to Iceland at least in part by the purity of the country’s mythical frozen landscape filled with natural sulfur hot spring pools, high peaks, and grand waterfalls, all of which have set the backdrop for various film and TV series from James Bond to Star Wars to Game of Thrones. It’s has become a vacation spot for the likes of Karlie Kloss, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z. But the festival in particular appears to draw acts and fans alike who are interested in the actual music. No Instagram-set-ups here filled with fake flowers and influencers. There’s a palpable excitement in the chilly Nordic air that stems from a genuine love of exploring unique talent and hearing some damn good tunes.
According to Icelandic musicians like 25-year-old Jófríður Ákadóttir of JFDR, who has been performing at Airwaves since she was just 15, music has always been at the heart of the country's culture. “It’s a tradition in Iceland. There's a choir in every little town in the countryside. And as a kid, you were offered cheap tuition to play in the school orchestra,” she says. “[Iceland] is a small place, which means it's also a spontaneous place. Things happen very organically, and people are supportive of each other. They enjoy creating together.”
This supportive energy was a major draw for first time Airwaves act Madame Gandhi (Kiran Gandhi), a former drummer for M.I.A. and Kehlani turned indie solo artist and activist from the U.S. “Every time I come to Nordic and Scandinavian parts of the world, I feel like the audience really receives my message in such a rich, deep way,” says the artist. “I've performed in Copenhagen so many times at this point, and Sweden, because the kind of feminism is very intellectual. It's integrated into politics, and the culture of equality is very prevalent in these countries. That’s why I wanted to bring my message to this festival, specifically.”
Gandhi made headlines in 2015 when she ran the London Marathon “free-bleeding” (without wearing a tampon). She says the marathon, and press that followed, in part, inspired her to go solo and focus on her feminist message. “I'm trying to take feminism and put it in a context that is not reactionary to toxic masculinity,” she explains. “My message is more, ‘Why are we even aspiring to what men are doing? Why don’t we just go and build our own utopia, and they will joyfully come knocking?’”
Other acts, like fellow-first timer, Alexandra Stréliski, are drawn to Iceland’s history of musical talent, which ranges from singular icons such as Björk (who, in 2002, actually became the first solo female act to ever headline Coachella) to more classical musicians such as Golden Globe-winning composer for The Theory of Everything Johann Johannsson to indie rock ensemble Of Monsters and Men (one of 2019’s headliners). “I'm in a modern classical sort of sphere. So, when you get invited to Iceland it's sort of like getting invited to Mecca,” Stréliski says. “I just landed, and I can hear Johannsson’s score, simply by looking at the landscape.”
The French-Canadian neoclassical composer and pianist, whose credits include award-winning films like Dallas Buyers Club and most recently HBO hit series Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, is currently on tour promoting her latest album Inscape. When asked about the festival’s 50/50 gender equality commitment, Stréliski was encouraged. “Naturally, culturally we've been inclined to favor men, in many domains. And I think now we just have an effort of consciousness to make. And I think it's great that this is happening in Iceland, because Iceland is also a country that seems to inspire a lot of people,” she says, adding that she’d like to see more festivals in general better support women and minorities. “Women have suffered a lot of injustice. And still do suffer a lot of violence, a lot of injustice, a lot of sexism,” she says. “But I also think, as per all equal human rights, we need to pay attention more to minorities, too.”
Gandhi would also like to see the festival continue to evolve as it looks to 2020 and beyond. “Yes, 50/50 is good, but the culture, and the whole conversation, is moving away from gender binary,” she says. “Even when I say, on my own album, I have 50/50 gender split, in terms of the producer credits, and then mixing engineer credits, so many of those folks are gender nonconforming. I’m trying to figure out, myself, how to say, ‘I just have a diverse array of gender identities represented on my project, or on my stage.’”
Perhaps the biggest criticism of this year’s festival in terms of the gender split was the lack of solo female representation among the headliners. But to be honest, headliners don’t tend to be the main draw. The emphasis is on originality, a cornerstone of Icelandic culture as well, according to Ákadóttir. “Our role models, like Björk, for example, one of the main things about her is that she's so unique, and people can respect that. You wouldn't ever copy it. You can't. It's impossible,” she explains. “But then at the same time, that encourages you to be unique, and to be yourself, and to celebrate that in a way like she does.”
Part of Airwaves’s charm stems from the array of musical genres represented, from indie pop to grunge to post-punk to neoclassical to, well, frankly indescribable blends of everything. On any given night, festivalgoers could bounce from the charming church where Stréliski sat down at her grand piano to a school gym where Of Monsters and Men showered the crowd with a tickertape finale to a small venue overlooking a tiny lake that housed acts like eccentric Icelandic pop group Grísalappalísa (a recommendation from Ákadóttir) whose lead singer lept into the tight audience to crowd surf at the end of their set.
Overall, Iceland Airwaves is an incredibly warm and welcoming festival, despite its subzero temperatures, with creativity virtually unmatched in all its eccentricities. Hitting 50/50 gender representation feels natural when you consider the breadth of originality and forward-thinking focus. And hopefully, the festival can be a model for organizers across the globe looking to champion fresh, unique voices, and the music they create.