Sound system innovators: The women shaking up the UK scene

Thali Lotus, founder of CAYA Sound System. Pic: Elliot Baxter for Let’s Go Yorkshire.

Since the first Caribbean communities settled in Lewisham and Hackney in the 50s, they have cultivated a rich sound system culture which was crucial in the genesis of the UK-wide movement. Nowadays, there are fewer sound system events across the boroughs but the scene is still going strong – and increasingly those doing the most innovative work are women.

A photography exhibition currently on display at Goldsmiths University celebrates the new generation of sound system operators across the UK, including pioneering soundwomen. While honouring important traditions such as using vinyl, playing dub, roots and culture reggae and promoting a message of unity, these new operators are modernising the scene and challenging assumptions about the role of women.

Emma Finamore, the writer and researcher for the exhibition, decided to get involved in the project after visiting a history of UK sound systems exhibition on tour in Notting Hill two years ago. She noticed that there wasn’t a single woman pictured or named in the exhibition as having operated a sound system.

“Traditionally, from about the 50s to 70s, the ‘woman’s job’ was supporting the soundman”, she explained. “A lot of it was to do with the physical side of lugging around sound system boxes and equipment and the technical issues – women were dissuaded from learning the skills to build and operate a sound system. Women would sing and sell the drinks and patties at the dances, as opposed to being selectors.”

After talking to Mandeep Samra, the curator of the exhibition, Emma agreed to be the researcher for a new exhibition exploring current UK sound system culture and pioneering soundwomen. When curating Let’s Play Vinyl, Mandeep looked to highlight the very recent emergence of women building, operating and owning their own systems.

“Even in the 70s, 80s and 90s, women didn’t tend to get more involved in sound systems. Very occasionally there would be female guest selectors,” said Emma. “Often the people behind the counters at record stores would purposefully not sell records to women. But in the last ten years, as society has changed, people have become more accepting of women running sound systems.”

April Grant, founder of Rebel Rock Sound System. Pic: Elliot Baxter for Let’s Go Yorkshire.

One of the most established female sound system operators featured in the exhibition is April ‘Rusty Rebel’ Grant. April founded Rebel Rock Sound System in Birmingham three years ago and plays a key role in promoting gender diversity in the scene. April believes that having more female operators creates a more collaborative culture. For instance, she says that sound men often overrun their set times while women stick to them.

“At dances, men often say, ‘What are you doing with those records?’ It feels fabulous to shock them,” she said.

April has also supported other female sound system operators and invited them to play with her on Rebel Rock. One of these women is Thali Lotus, the founder of CAYA Sound System in Bedford. Thali grew up around sound systems and was inspired to build her own a few years ago, which she runs alongside her day job and looking after her daughter.

“I think people, more and more every day, are becoming conscious of the stereotypical role of the woman and how unfitting it is in the modern day,” she said.

“I try to play as ‘femininely’ as possible, despite it being a very male-dominated arena. All I hope is that, through the sound system, all people are inspired to be the best version of themselves, and come as you are.”

Thali is also planning on creating an exhibition featuring her sound, which will highlight the work of female activists such as Nanny of the Maroons, an 18th century slave rebellion leader.

Thali Lotus playing on Heritage HiFi at Goldsmiths Let’s Play Vinyl workshop. Pic: Elliot Baxter for Let’s Go Yorkshire.

Many of the soundmen featured in the exhibition also strongly support the rise of female operators in the scene.  They see it as a natural evolution of the culture which chimes with the messages of justice and equality that are an important part of reggae music.

Gavin, the founder of Government Sound System, believes that women bring a unique angle to the sound system scene. “Women always have a better vibe, with men it can just be about ego”, he said.

In Lewisham, Young Warrior Sound System has championed soundwomen through organising women-only events. Young Warrior is the son of Jah Shaka, one of the most famous UK sound system operators, who lived in Lewisham during the 1970s. He believes that all sound system operators, regardless of their gender, should rally together in the face of the dwindling number of venues willing to host sound systems.

“Over the years many venues in Lewisham have closed down or closed their doors to this culture,” he said.  “But we still hang in there where we can as Lewisham still holds a wealth of strong and creative people… Going to a dance can be like a revolution, turning up and dancing free.”

Young Warrior playing on Heritage HiFi at Goldsmiths Let’s Play Vinyl workshop. Pic: Elliot Baxter for Let’s Go Yorkshire.

Let’s Play Vinyl will be at the Lower Atrium, Professor Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths University SE14 6NW until 12 February.

Open every day 8:00am – 8:00pm. Admission Free.

The exhibition is produced by community organisation Let’s Go Yorkshire in partnership with the University of Leicester; Goldsmiths, University of London; Birmingham City University and the University of Huddersfield.

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