Local Hero: Cindy Li is making Toronto’s electronic music scene a better place

The DJ/producer/promoter has had it with all-male lineups. Here's what she's doing about it

DJ and promoter Cindy Li (aka Ciel) has never shied away from calling out sexism in Toronto’s dance music scene, whether it’s lambasting promoters who continually only book male DJs or the insidious misogynistic culture that makes parties unsafe for women and the LGBTQ community. 

In her own work, Li strives toward making the scene more inclusive, too: With Work In Progress (WIP), which was born out of her monthly all-women-produced music radio show of the same name, Li books mostly female-identifying DJs, and with the It’s Not U It’s Me (INUIM) collective, she’s helped establish a safer spaces policy.

Last month, after publicly criticizing a popular promoter for booking another in a long line of all-male lineups, Li created a shareable Google doc listing active women, femme and non-binary electronic DJs in the city. It may have been a not so subtle jab, but it’s also a deep resource for organizers. There are now more than 300 DJs on the list, spanning genres from house and hip-hop to Afrobeat and disco. 

With her debut EP on the horizon in October, we spoke to Li about all she’s doing to make Toronto’s electronic scene better for herself and others.

Did you get your start as a DJ or a promoter?

I started DJing in Toronto in 2011. I didn’t take it too seriously [at first]. I was very much a hobby DJ. Then in 2015, I started my show, Work In Progress, with the [now defunct] Toronto Radio Project, and started playing every Sunday at Bambi’s. That summer I threw my first party. After that, I thought, ‘Hey, I could really do this.’ 

What do you see as the differences between INUIM and WIP? 

WIP is my baby. I live and breathe it 24/7. I started it with my friend Nancy Chen [aka Nancy Mansion]. For me, a WIP party needs to have a majority women lineup. 

INUIM was started by my friend and mentor Brian Wong. We didn’t have any aspirations for total gender-equal lineups (although we do book more women than other groups). We’re just trying to throw parties that make everyone feel welcome. 

Last summer INUIM organized a series of parties at the Power Plant. Because of the number of people we were expecting, we put together a safer spaces policy and a “rave safe” program – a team of volunteers to be our eyes and ears on the dance floor. 

I know so many women who don’t go to certain parties because they’re too bro-infested. You want to lose yourself to the music, but you can’t when there are dudes leering at you who are so wasted, knocking into you constantly and spilling drinks on you. 

After calling out a promoter for always booking all-male lineups, you made the list of active women DJs in Toronto. What was the reaction? 

Initially, it was positive and people shared it all over the place within the first day. [When I first posted it], it was still a work in progress. The backlash came overwhelmingly from older men who criticized the list. They complained it didn’t include every female DJ who’s ever existed, which wasn’t the purpose. I wanted it to be a resource for male promoters who were too lazy to research themselves.

Why is it important to always have women in a lineup, whether it’s at a dance party or a festival? 

Toronto is diverse, so why should our parties be an exception? I think when you look at parties where [the lineup] is very homogenous, those parties have terrible vibes. We always ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t there more female DJs?’ Stop asking and just book more women. I’m a woman, a DJ and a producer I want to give back to other female artists and I want to leave the scene better than how it was when I first came to it. 

So you believe diverse lineups will bring more diverse crowds? 

Yes, absolutely. Diverse lineups – not just women, but diversity in colour and also queer and trans people – inspire a young generation to pick up the craft. People are inspired when they see people who look like them doing something they might be interested in.

Also, when you bring in diverse people, it keeps the ideas fresh. Instead of the same group of friends who share their records with each other, [why not] book this woman of colour who might play some Haitian dance music in her set? When you cross-pollinate and bring in new ideas, that’s when music really comes alive. 

Your debut EP comes out in October. What can you tell us about it?

It’s electro with some breakbeats. If I had to use one word to describe it, it’s “dreamy.” That’s a word that I see come up a lot when people describe my sets, so it makes sense for me. 

This story is part of NOW’s Fall Music Preview.

Cindy Li aka Ciel

Samuel Engelking

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