Meet Cindy Li, the founder of 'Work in Progress,' a radio show dedicated to only playing music produced by women

BY JASMINE ELLISON

Photo by CL

Photo by CL

“Growing up in upstate New York, I developed an interest in music from a very young age, listening to hip hop on the radio and playing classical music on the piano and violin. [At my] university, I got involved in radio programming, which taught me a ton about music and crate digging. It was also the time when I bought my first mixer. Although I eventually pursued a career in publishing, my interest in music was always what lit my fire. I thought it wasn’t a realistic goal to have if I wanted a steady income, and I was mostly right. But five years of working in an industry I didn’t really care about, while DJing and throwing parties on the side, has taught me that there are some things I’m willing to sacrifice in order to devote my life to my passion,” Cindy Li explained.

Cindy Li currently resides in Toronto and works as a DJ, going by CL, and a promoter. When the concern about a steady income diminished, Li created Work in Progress, a radio show dedicated to only playing female productions.

But five years of working in an industry I didn’t really care about, while DJing and throwing parties on the side, has taught me that there are some things I’m willing to sacrifice in order to devote my life to my passion. 
Photo by Doug Estey

Photo by Doug Estey

Li loosely describes the sound of Work in Progress as “electronic music with an emphasis on more experimental sounds. I play a lot of techno, house, acid, electro, noise, ambient music, but I also play some Italo, EBM, synth pop, some industrial. I’ve also had a guest in the past do an all-female MC set. There aren’t really any rules that I subscribe, as long as it’s made by women and it’s interesting.”

There isn’t any one moment that defined the creation of Work in Progress but rather it was an accumulation of life experience and values that led to its inception.  “. . . Having been brought up by a mother who instilled in me feminist values from a young age, I had been interested in the role of women in music since long before I even listened to techno or knew how to DJ. My radio show [at my] university was also a 2-hour spotlight on music made by women, but back then I played a variety of genres like soul and hip hop and shoegaze. As I got older, and my tastes drifted to more electronic styles, I became more aware of the representation problem in contemporary dance music culture.”

Faced with a lack of representation, Li took advantage of opportunity to balance the scale for women. “When TRP started here, I knew it would be challenging to produce a monthly radio show featuring only female producers that was not only well curated but also included a variety of artists. But I knew it wasn’t impossible. To believe that it was would have gone against everything I had fought for and believed in my whole life about gender equality. And to approach the challenge with open arms meant that not only could I make a difference with my passion, but I would also learn a tremendous amount about female artists from all over the world, which in turn makes me a better DJ. Knowing that I could do an all-female radio show in university for four years was definitely encouraging, it felt almost like I didn’t really have a choice but to continue in the struggle I had started 10 years earlier.”

The road to creating the show was not easy. One of the main hurdles faced by Li was “definitely a lack of information and coverage of female artists. In the past year since I’ve started Work In Progress, I’ve learned that there are so many incredible female producers out there, if you’re just willing to take the time and dig. Although it’s changing, women still don’t get as much coverage as men in the media, they’re still not getting signed to labels as much as men, and they’re still not getting booked for festivals as much as men. It feels at times that male artists are being shoved down our throats, but female artists are always hidden. There are male artists out there who adopt female monikers for their production. This is a major obstacle for people like myself who are trying to tip the unbalanced gender scale in dance music by playing more tracks made by women, and in the past I have accidentally played music produced by men on Work in Progress as a result of that.”

 Why would men take the moniker of females? Good question. Li enlightened me by stating, “I find in underground techno & house, anonymity and mysteriousness are much desired. Producers want their music to speak for themselves, and believe that knowledge of who they are as people would somehow prevent that from happening. Some producers have different monikers and aliases depending on what kind of music they're making. I think it's one thing when a male producer takes on a female alias sometimes, and other times takes on a male alias, but makes no secret of their true identity. But it’s quite another thing, and very damaging when male producers take on a female moniker, keep their maleness hidden, in order to achieve some kind of techno alter ego. Sometimes it's completely thoughtless and they just like the name and the freedom having a female alias gives them. That thoughtlessness is what I'm criticizing. Because a lot of these people think it's just a name, and don't understand the ramifications it has on female producers and DJs.”

In the underground techno & house world, anonymity and mysteriousness are much desired. Producers want their music to speak for themselves, and believe that knowledge of who they are as people would somehow prevent that from happening.

The fruits of Li's labor have not gone unnoticed. One of her proudest moments was being featured in The Fader. Additionally, she enjoyed first event under the Work in Progress brand that featured Discwoman. However, one moment will always reign supreme. “More than anything though, it means the most to me when girls from my local scene introduce themselves to me at my events and tell me how much my show has inspired them to take up production or DJing. You can’t take away that feeling,” Li stated.

For the future, Li said it best, “the future is full of possibilities.” She revealed that she has “a slew of amazing guest DJs coming up in the second half of 2016. Other than that, I’d like to do more locals showcases spotlighting the female talent in my scene, continue to book amazing female artists to play here and help create opportunities for undiscovered women producers, maybe start an agency or label representing female artists, maybe produce some of my own music.” A few dreams guests include Helena Hauff, Veronica Vasicka and the Black Madonna. She was happy to report that “Lena Willikens was the one guest I wanted more than anyone else, and I have turned that dream into a reality.”

Photo by Doug Estey

Photo by Doug Estey

As usual, our guest provided solid advice to our reader. “Never do anything half-assed. Stay on top of deadlines,” Li advised millennials. However, one of the best pieces of advice from her parents was to keep a to-do list. She emphasized this with the same insistence as a devoted parent.

Catch Work in Progress on TRP monthly on Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST. If you’re not able to catch it live, you can relive the experience on Mixcloud where all Li’s shows are achieved.