Wake Up! social justice music festival takes the stage for the first time at KPU

The event aims to celebrate the voices of local BIPOC and queer artists while promoting the new KPU Music Minor

Musicians Janette King (left) and MUDHR (right) performing at the Wake Up! social justice music festival at KPU's Surrey campus in the Spruce Atrium. (Abby Luciano)

Musicians Janette King (left) and MUDHR (right) performing at the Wake Up! social justice music festival at KPU’s Surrey campus in the Spruce Atrium. (Abby Luciano)

The first Wake Up! social justice music festival shook the floor on Thursday night at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Surrey campus in the Spruce Atrium. 

From hip-hop to dance electronic and spoken word, seven artists took the stage with the focus to amplify and celebrate the voices of BIPOC and queer artists in the Lower Mainland. All performers touched on social justice through their music. 

“This is something that rarely happens at a music festival,” says Gordon Cobb, music instructor at KPU and organizer of the festival. 

“The music industry still is predominantly run and funded by cisgendered straight men, and for me as a queer activist, it was really important for me to do the exact opposite of that and to make it about social justice,” he says. 

“For me, that is about telling stories that don’t get told as often or representing people who don’t get represented as often.” 

Musicians Ndidi Cascade, Janette King, Exécwen, MUDHR, Saint Soldier, and Á’a:líya Warbus performed, and Quanah Style was the headliner. Some of the topics were the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous land, motherhood, and issues Indian farmers face. 

Cobb says the artists were chosen carefully to share the message of social justice in one way or another through their music, and to give a more accurate representation of the population and demographic of Surrey and KPU students. 

“How do we sass the world? We do it through our choices, our creativity, cooperation, and in our agency,” Cobb said at the festival. “We do it through performance and through community. That’s what we’re trying to do tonight is we’re creating community in Surrey, on this campus.” 

He showed multiple videos in between the artists performances throughout the festival, ranging from explaining what social justice is through song, to the O’Canada remix video he created for the online graduation convocations.  

From February to June last year, Cobb and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Shelley Boyd, joined the Surrey Music Strategy, an initiative by the City of Surrey with different groups of the local music community like record labels, musicians, and producers to develop music strategies and support music in the city. 

While they were the only post-secondary institution part of this think tank group, Cobb says from the meetings they learned that there is a huge need for different events that support BIPOC and queer communities in Surrey. 

The festival is also in celebration of KPU’s new Music Minor, which started last semester. For the past couple of years, Cobb says he has been working on decolonizing the music program and using what he has learned from the strategy. 

“So we thought, what we could do is have a music festival that would be based on social justice issues that we could use as a platform to engage with all these amazing people we met at the Surrey Music Strategy,” Cobb says. 

Cobb also says there isn’t a strong queer presence at KPU and through some of his projects he worked on as a digital content producer at the university, some students say they feel underrepresented. To try and change this, Cobb wanted to bring a queer icon to KPU and in Surrey. 

Quanah Style is a two-spirit, transgender Cree artist who headlined the festival. Her music ranges from bubblegum pop, dance, to r&b and rap. Her debut self-titled album was listed as one of Billboard’s top 10 dance albums of 2020. Outside of creating music, she is a drag performer who was on Season 2 of “Canada’s a Drag” on CBC and is a producer who started her own production company. 

During her performance, Style performed some new songs that will be released in her sophomore album this summer and interacted with the crowd. 

“What I love about performing for new audiences is getting to win fans over. It’s cool when people know my music and stuff, but I really love it when somebody can come and see me, doesn’t know who I am, and I can win them over, ” Style says. 

Style grew up in a musical family with her dad, Art Napoleon, who is a musician and host of APTN’s show “Moosemeat & Marmalade.” When she was younger, Style was part of The Napoleon Collective, a band with her father, sister, and two of Style’s cousins. After that, Style began doing solo projects and later signed to record label Wet Trax.

“I first found my voice by just jamming with my dad with an acoustic guitar around campfires,” she says. “My music is a piece of my heart and I put everything into it. There’s little bits of me like leaves falling from a tree.” 

Style says with festivals like Wake Up!, she loves the diversity in the lineup and being able to meet new people while also finding new songs to enjoy. 

To celebrate more voices, KPU students from Cobb’s class performed their work as part of a student showcase in the festival. 

Ravita Rishi, Philip Soava, and Sumaheep Khatri performed a rap about mental health and at the end listed resources people can access through a QR code. Other students that performed were Rafael Izquierdo about having fun, and Robin Singh, whose songs were close to him and sung in Punjabi. 

After the show, Cobb says he received an email from Rishi saying how impactful the festival was. 

“I know the students had a great time, and that was the most important part was to give our students an experience that was fun and engaging,” he says. 

During the festival, a land acknowledgement was given by Brandon Gabriel, a member of the Kwantlen First Nation and an artist-in-residence at KPU. 

Navleen Kaur, a third year psychology student, found out about the event when Cobb attended her advanced topics in psychopathology class as a guest speaker discussing misophonia and the festival. 

“I really loved it, especially the drag queen [Quanah Style]. I love drag. It was amazing seeing that at KPU because not a lot of pride festivals happen here, so it was really nice having this festival now,” Kaur says.

She says having these types of events are important to have on campus not only to build student life at KPU, but building a safe environment for everyone. 

“KPU is a pretty accepting place,” she says. “Having more events with Indigenous artists, coloured artists, students, as well as drag queens, it’s going to build up a more safe [and accepting] environment and give LGBTQ+ students to come and enjoy and be safe in an environment and meet other people.” 

“The artists are all coming here to just celebrate being authentically who they are, and that’s the message I’m hoping people will take away is that music is queer, music is BIPOC,” Cobb says.