Andrew Ryce spends time in Toronto with Cindy Li, a DJ, producer and promoter on a mission to improve the scene around her.
"People from Toronto think Toronto sucks," she laughed as we sat in a cafe in Parkdale, a neighbourhood where many of the city's venues are disappearing. "It's a chip on our shoulder that we carry. We're the biggest city in Canada. The normies think we're the centre of the world. But the 'real' people are like, 'Toronto sucks compared to Montreal'—or New York, or even Vancouver. That attitude is pervasive in the music community. It's weird that people think that, because I've played in other cities and there are lots that are way shittier than here. Why do people complain so much?"
Li has a caustic sense of humour, both in person and online, but she's also an irrepressible optimist. Her events, including the women-focused Work In Progress series, have booked artists like Octo Octa, Anthony Naples, Courtesy, DJ Stingray and Avalon Emerson. With It's Not U It's Me—a partnership with Brian Wong, AKA Gingy—she tried to bring the sometimes fractured Toronto scene together, throwing labour-of-love underground events in places like strip malls, warehouses and an old power plant.
Li's ascent has not been without its complications. Because of her fast rise and outspoken nature, she's a lightning rod for both controversy and acclaim. As one of dance music’s most vocal advocates for feminism and social justice, she deals with her fair share of hate messages and trolls, and has admittedly rubbed some people the wrong way in her own scene. But she also draws plaudits for her dreamy style of DJing, developed in Toronto bars and opening slots for bigger DJs. She has one lauded EP in the bag, with another on the way later this summer on Coastal Haze.
Though secondary to her music, Li's unwavering moral compass is part of what makes her such a compelling figure. Where others in the scene might simply vent their frustrations or cut down other promoters online, Li has gone out of her way to make a difference through real action, putting on her own events to support marginalized parts of the community and working to improve local bylaws and licensing rules. Though she's now on a break from putting on parties, she remains active behind the scenes, working with advocacy groups to help make Toronto's laws more favorable to creative ventures. Li stands for equality, openness, acceptance and safety, things that many people in the wider scene consider to be core tenets of dance music. Crucially, she does more than just grandstand about them.