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Estrojam '05
by Niki Coate
2005-09-14

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Pictured Amy Ray (#1 and #2) Limited Express Has Gone. Scream Club. Atalee.

'Please use your liberty to promote ours.' — Aung San Suu Kyi

'It is not the prerogative of men alone to bring light to the world: women with their capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice, their courage and perseverance, have done much to dissipate the darkness of intolerance and hate, suffering and despair,' Aung San Suu Kyi once said. Suu Kyi is known as one of history's foremost activists because of her fight for democracy in Burma, where the military government uses torture, murder and rape to suppress the 45 million Burmese people.

Next week in Chicago, Estrojam Music and Culture Festival brings together thousands of women and men to celebrate and promote women in the arts. In turn, they will support women's voices on a much grander scale, including the voices of Suu Kyi and the people of Burma, where singing a freedom song can mean a multi-year prison sentence—a testament to music's ability to influence society.

The founders of Estrojam, passionate about social change through art, dedicated this year's show to benefit The U.S. Campaign for Burma ( USCB ) , a group committed to Suu Kyi's effort to end the country's military dictatorship, and The Chicago Abused Women's Coalition.

Estrojam, an annual women's art and activism event, that this year takes place Sept. 21 to 24 at venues throughout Chicago, strives to empower and educate women about creative outlets and careers in which they are under-represented. The nonprofit festival supports political and social activism by providing a foundation for creative expression and promoting the voices of female artists. Last year more than 5,000 people attended the festival. This year's concert lineup includes Amy Ray, The Hazzards, The Reputation, Alina Simone, Brazilian Girls and Scream Club. Among the festival's other activities are an art show, film fest, and a breakdancing and DJing clinic.

'Music is a tool to create social change,' said Tammy Cresswell, who founded Estrojam in 2003. In addition to Estrojam's mission to support female artists, each year it benefits causes to which the Estrojam community feels connected. Nonviolence is this year's theme.

'Aung San Suu Kyi is causing a huge amount of social change; it isn't through the arts, but it is very much in line with our cause,' said Cresswell, who is pursuing her graduate degree in Buddhist philosophy based in nonviolent social change at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.

Throughout the festival, Estrojam will not only raise money for USCB but also, and perhaps more importantly, awareness about the situation in Burma. USCB will screen a collection of video messages, relaying the voices of activists and Burmese refugees working for women's rights on the Thai-Burma border. The messages will expose the realities of life for women in Burma, which is marred by a rampant sex trade and military rapes.

'Short of traveling to the border and meeting people, seeing and hearing these women speak for themselves will be the most powerful way to affect those in the crowd who may know little to nothing about Burma,' wrote USCB Campaigns Coordinator Christina Moon from the Thai-Burma border earlier this month during her mission to collect the footage.

A handful of Burmese women will also share their messages in person at the event, a liberty so few of them have. Four Burmese women—representatives from the Shan Women's Action Network, a Women's League of Burma organization—will speak at Estrojam. Moon will also meet with students from the University of Chicago who have just returned from the second annual University of Chicago study trip to the Thai-Burma border.

Suu Kyi carries the torch passed on by her father, General Aung San, a freedom fighter assassinated for his beliefs when she was two years old. As a teenager she moved to India and then to England, where she stayed until 1988 when she returned to Burma to care for her dying mother.

When Suu Kyi left England, Burma's pro-democracy movement against the socialist government seemed promising. Months later, with Suu Kyi on board, the movement suffered a devastating blow as the military junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council ( SLORC ) , seized power; its first order of duty was to kill thousands of pro-democracy advocates. But hope was restored in 1990 when SLORC allowed an election. Suu Kyi headed the opposition party National League for Democracy and won by an 80 percent landslide. SLORC not only refused to recognize the results but also put the elected pro-democracy leaders under house arrest. To this day Suu Kyi has continued to fight for democracy in Burma, renamed Myanmar by the military junta, and while she has been temporarily released in past years, today she remains under house arrest—the world's only imprisoned Noble Peace Prize recipient.

'We're trying to raise awareness. Nine out of 10 people on the street probably have no idea who ( Suu Kyi ) is,' said Emily Evans, a Web site and graphic designer for Estrojam as well as the festival's liaison with UCSB. 'We're trying to give whatever support we can to her and the people of Burma.'

Evans was destined to join forces with Estrojam. In 2002 she founded naïveté, a Chicago-based multifaceted record label, artist co-op and design firm. While music alone makes Evans a good fit, political activism drew her in. Evans designed the CD packaging and ad campaign last year for USCB's 'For the Lady: Dedicated to freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and the courageous people of Burma,' a two-disc compilation featuring 27 artists including Ani DiFranco, U2, Indigo Girls, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Coldplay. When Evans heard this year's event would benefit Suu Kyi, she was inspired to participate.

'It's a great intention,' Indigo Girl Amy Ray said of this year's Estrojam. ' ( Suu Kyi ) is an example of a great woman, a great person to look up to.'

Ray, one of the most outspoken activists in music and a highlight of the festival's lineup, is the epitome of Estrojam. While Ray points out that many music festivals—especially those with punk roots—benefit social and political causes, she also recognizes that women's music fests more often tend to double as benefits. She attributes this to the fact that there's no shortage of motivated female activists, and that they are often involved in cross-platform activism.

Stacey Singer, publicist at Ray's independent label Daemon Records, will be part of Estrojam panel 'Women in the Music/Arts Business and Activism,' which takes place at 4 p.m., Sat., Sept. 24, at DePaul University.

The Decatur, Ga.-based, not-for-profit Daemon Records prides itself in its activism, supporting artists like John Trudell, a poet and long-time spokesperson for Native American rights, and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through compilation releases and concerts for causes like Honor the Earth.

'A lot of women understand oppression. When you have been oppressed and you know what it feels like, you might be more inclined to do something about it,' Singer said. She noted that while activists in the United States fight oppression at home, they also are compelled to fight the more dramatic inequality in other nations, like Burma.

S. Flynn, Estrojam's art director and photographer who has been involved since the festival's beginning, said that although the tie between Suu Kyi and Estrojam has many layers, the basic relationship is really quite simple.

'We're all trying to help peacefully create a community that supports our voices.'


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