Changing a power dynamic, one Instagram story at a time - Mise Fosta Interview
I was competing in my first senior competition at the Ulster Fleadh, and as much as I would like to deny it, I get stressed very easily. My default stress setting is constantly at ‘Senior Céilí Band results at the All Ireland Fleadh 2017’ and can jump right up to Britney Spears circa 2007. Pressure is not always my best friend. Standing outside, I was met by a wall of audience members leaving the competition, including a woman who commented
to her friend “it’s just some girl playing
now” and that she would come back for the next competitor, who just so happened to be male. It really doesn’t take a genius to realise that I, cradling a Paolo Soprani and looking like I was going to be physically sick, was that “some girl”. Of course, she probably didn’t mean anything malicious by her remark, just a passing phrase. But in a world where being a woman means you don’t understand syncopation or chord substitutions (that is all I will say), it was naturally my first instinct to think “oh, she’s not going to listen to my music because I am a girl.” This lack of respect for women is unfortunately present in many areas of society, including the Irish traditional music community. I spoke to Anna Ní Nualláin of Misa Fosta, to discuss their work which is frankly essential and necessary.
Could you introduce yourself, describe your role within this organisation and how you got involved?
I’m Anna Ní Nualláin, and I put up a post on my Instagram story along with a few other
people on the 21st of June, we didn’t think much of it at the time, and a few days later –
Mise Fosta was created. It isn’t an organisation, but it is a collective movement in which
anyone can be a part of. It began in a very organic way – it was not an orchestrated
movement, but the speed at which it gained traction showed how necessary it was. It
kicked off initially after seeing abusers being outed in the mainstream music scene in
the North which made us decide to take action in our own little bubble of traditional
music. Everyone knew abuse was happening on some scale, but nobody wanted to
speak up about it. Lockdown had given us a lot of time to think, and we quickly realised
that many of us had spent more time over the past few festivals consoling friends who
had been assaulted than we had playing music and enjoying the festival. We began to
question why the Trad scene had facilitated and enabled this behaviour, and how we
could go about changing it.
What are the main aims of Mise Fosta?
The main goals of Mise Fosta are to open up an honest conversation around consent, as
in Ireland there is a real lack of consent education for young people, so the Mise Fosta
page is hoping to deliver educational content in an attempt to provide information that
is often not openly discussed in Ireland. Also, we aim to give victims a voice and to ensure the abusers, and people that enable this behaviour - know that it is no longer acceptable. Abusers once acted with impunity, as they knew there would be few if any consequences we are hoping now that they think twice before acting.
Why do you think an organisation like this is needed and why now?
The sheer number of stories we received shows exactly why something like this was
needed. As to why now, I think it was needed long ago, but nobody spoke up – this kind
of abusive behaviour was completely normalised and it was only once we began to
question the dynamic within Trad that we truly realised how rotten it was.
What does the organisation hope to gain?
We want the traditional music scene to be a safe place for all, where everyone can
enjoy each other’s company and music without worry.
Similar to the #MeToo movement, the focus here seems to be an abuse of power and
status. Do you think there is a link between musician status and this abuse of power?
Without a doubt. In quite a few of the stories we received, the abuser was a well-known
musician. These people use the respect they have gained through music in malicious ways as they have the idea they are untouchable.
The FairPlé movement sparked controversy among individuals in the Irish traditional
music scene. How do you think the movements differ as regards to controversial opinions?
I remember when FairPlé began there was quite a bit of controversy. Many people
denied there was any gender discrimination, and of course, discrimination is something
that is very hard to prove, especially when it comes to selecting the ‘best’ musician for a
headline act at a festival. FairPlé brought attention to obvious examples of discrimination against women but also a tacit and hidden culture that undervalues and side-lines talented women. They knew there was disproportional representation of women in trad, and since Mise Fosta began, there has been further clarification of why that is. In saying that, the Mise Fosta movement hasn’t been without criticism, with some people disregarding women’s stories as “salacious gossip”, “defiling our wholesome tradition” and “ruining men’s careers”.
How do you think the current state (due to Covid-19) has influenced this campaign?
Without the pandemic, I doubt this would have happened. Lockdown gave everyone
time to reflect and begin to scrutinise things they have never questioned. On top of
that, many people had plans for this year – travelling, work, college etc. so there is no
way any of us would have had time to keep the campaign going all summer!
From being a part of this movement, have you developed a different outlook on the
Irish traditional music scene?
If anything, I have gained more respect for the scene and (most ;) ) people in it. We
have shown how strong of a community we are and how many people are open to
change and willing to work towards a better and safer environment for future
Activist Malala Yousafzai once said, “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard”. Movements like Mise Fosta have allowed women to speak up against this abusive power dynamic, while also paving the way for a safer environment where your gender does not define your musical status or susceptibility to abuse. Hearing these incredibly heart-breaking stories have indeed turned heads and started conversations that we really should have been having years ago. We are like drums; we have to be hit to make noise. Starting a movement and creating change is always difficult, but we will keep talking, listening and moving forward. Saluting the work of individuals who dare raise their cups – “to the world we dream about, and the one we live in now”.