Heraid Castillo – Founder and CEO of BossyXX
When Heraid Castillo, a Venezuela/Florida native, arrived in Myanmar a little over a year ago her intention was to get a job working on women’s issues with a local NGO. When things didn’t quite go as planned, Heraid decided to chart her own path forward by first falling in love with the local music scene and then realizing there weren’t that many female performers and that something needed to be done about it.
Combining her passion for the arts and for supporting other women, Heraid founded BOSSYxx, a promotion company that seeks to create a platform for women and girl musicians in Myanmar and Southeast Asia. BOSSYxx also collaborates with a local music school to offer scholarships to women and girls who want to pursue musical training. The goal is to raise up the next generation of lady rockstars in this corner of the world.
MUJER! : Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? Where and what did you study? What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?
Heraid : I’m from Venezuela. I lived there most of my childhood. I feel like I’m an American but very much Venezuelan too. I studied English literature in Florida. I didn’t like doing anything else. I wanted to study art but it wasn’t available at my campus which I was tied to due to economic strategy. I tend to have a new hobby every few months: taking photos, visual arts, trying to learn the language of the place where I’m living, practicing an instrument. I feel like I’m very blessed as a person. I’m not religious but I don’t know what I did to deserve the great life I have and I feel like I have to give back. And chocolate. Always.
M!: Tell us about BOSSYxx. How’d you get started? What’s your mission and what’s the business model?
H: Well, I moved to Myanmar because I wanted to work with an NGO that dealt with women’s issues. I just packed up and went there but shortly after I arrived I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t have the right qualifications. There were a lot fewer jobs than I expected. I also began to see that the NGO world was not where I wanted to be anyway. It’s a world very separated from the local crowd. And to my surprise, I actually really felt out of place at these events with 90% foreigners, and out of place at events with 99% Myanmar people, but if I had to be out of place I’d rather be with Myanmar people because why else live there?
In the meanwhile, I started going to gigs like I would anywhere. I met some event organizers by always dancing at this one bar that had a healthy mix of people. I always happened to be dancing by, and eventually with these very hip looking local guys who were having the most fun. And this kept happening and then we all thought, hmmm… should we talk? I met Abin, a Japan raised Myanmar guy. His English was limited but he introduced me to his partner, a really cool Myanmar woman who ended up having the same birthday as me. So, we hit it off right away. Their shows, YoukShi, were really great. Their thing was cultivating the local hip hop scene. Despite one of the organizers being a woman, I noticed that there were not a lot of women in the scene. There were a lot of women in the audience, but not on the stage.
I told the YoukShi organizers I wanted to do shows of all genres with women. I was worried they’d see it as competition or like it’s none of my business because I’m a foreigner but they were so supportive! I started looking through Facebook [for performers]. I got in touch with one girl, Tu,—she’d left home against her family’s wishes and she was a lesbian. She had moved to Yangon for better opportunities. She connected me with a group of very well educated women who were musicians. A couple of them even had fathers who were rockstars. For these women, it wasn’t money that limited them from pursuing music. But they had their theories as to why so few women were present in the scene. It was the stereotype here (and maybe everywhere?) that music is dangerous or a job for lower classes. Even for them, music was just a hobby. Their pursuit of music, of the arts was a privilege they were afforded due to their high socio economic status plus support from their uncommon families. In Myanmar you can pretty much name all of the wealthy families in the country. The rest of the country is very poor. These women were the exception, but they were very talented too!
So I told this group of women that I had an idea for a scholarship for female musicians and they worked with me to make it happen. I went to look for a music school that I could work with on this and found, Gitameit, an NGO that is dedicated to musical education. The director of it was the organization’s first scholarship student from a small village. He’s super passionate about music training. He knows that people in Myanmar often see music as a low level job and he’s interested in elevating it as an art. This is in line with BOSSYxx’s philosophy so we decided to work together.
Then I found my partner. I came up with the name BOSSYxx, but Kelsey Atwood actually puts all the boss in the name. She was deputy director of a local NGO (only foreigner in the whole organization) and has been working in human rights and specifically LGBT rights since she arrived in Myanmar years ago. To get money together, we made a video explaining the mission and did some fundraising online. I also used all of my savings. All the money that I moved to Myanmar with went into BOSSYxx. That’s why I’m out of money now but this is really all I want to do. I love it.
To prepare for our first performance, I went to Bangkok and attended all the shows I could the weekend I was there looking for a female groups to come to Myanmar to kick things off. There, I found Jelly Rocket, which became the headlining group. I promoted our first concert for a month and half, explaining that it was a fundraiser for scholarships for female musicians. This was the BOSSYxx launch. 250 people came to the event. It went beautifully. I was looking around at the local scene and was so impressed by the musicians. We managed to get a lot of people to go. A lot of the foreigners were shocked—at the scene and creativity.
At this first event, combined with the online fundraising, we made enough money for the scholarship program. We raised enough for two one-year scholarships for two local Myanmar women and in March we will announce our two scholars.
We want to continue with the scholarship program, putting women on stage to create role models but this year we also want to do workshops, open jams, videos, online drumming lessons all to show younger women that there are women like them making music— really creating it— and that they are excellent at their instruments. They jam and COLLABORATE with one another. There is a space for them too. They can have a voice and opinion in the music that’s created. Music is not just reserved for the boys.
BOSSYxx is also a culture exchange between countries. Jelly Rocket is super well known in Thailand but they had never been to Myanmar and it’s only a 45-minute flight. Some bands are big in their own countries and have been to Europe but they haven’t played in other places in Southeast Asia. I want to create this movement of female collaboration—to show women supporting one another and hyping up regional talent.
M!: Wow! This sounds like a really ambitious mission. What challenges have you come up against?
H: There’s so much social work to do I can’t figure out how to make BOSSYxx profitable. I want to help improve the scene, encourage women who are in it plus train the girls that could be in it in the future. To do all this, we need sponsors. In Myanmar, when we put on the first show, we didn’t get sponsorship! And it was fundraising event! We put on the second show and still we couldn’t get a sponsor. I think I’m having a hard time because my pitch is very feminist. People see that as too confrontational. People are like, “Why is this only for girls? That’s prejudice.” Even girls ask me that. You can’t just go around talking about how you want to empower women.
We want to make this profitable though. It’s important to me because I want to show female musicians that they can be profitable. That they can have careers in this, and that being a woman in the scene can actually work to their advantage! We have already proven that women are profitable because people are coming to our shows but there is hesitancy around us in Myanmar because what we are doing is feminist. For example, the alcohol companies don’t want to sponsor our events because there is a belief that girls shouldn’t drink. It is expected of pop musicians to not perform at shows that are sponsored by liquor companies!
So we are going to start monetizing other ways. We’ve designed some really cool merchandise that combines iconic women in music from around the world. We took intersectional-feminism and inclusivity very literally and made it very beautiful. So we’re launching that line soon to be sold in an online store. If anyone is interested, we’re updating often on Instagram @bossyconcerts.
M!: What drew you to women’s issues?
H: In the arts, women are important to me because I feel like Amy Winehouse got me through being a hormonal teenager that was doing things behind my mom’s back. Their lyrics are important. I also have some Catholic guilt. I come from Venezuela and for reasons that feel like divine intervention, I don’t live there anymore. A lot of my family is still there but we randomly got out before it crumbled. I have so much confidence and I do what I want and I’m very free. I want all girls to have that, including girls from countries in the global south. I want to empower as many women as possible to have the confidence to access the opportunities around, or make their own.
M!: How do you figure out who is or is not a good male ally?
H: You have to look at past experiences—is what they’re saying matching their actions? The director of the music school we work with is a man. I don’t know that he understands feminism but he clearly understands that there are not a lot of women musicians and he’d like to see more. I think that if men ask questions and are not dismissive that means something. Some of the boys that participated in the first BOSSYxx shows were not talking about the word feminism. They were like, “I don’t know. I don’t get it; but I want to help. I see there is a problem and I want to do something about it.” You can read people and see what kind of heart they have if they want to give an ear to what you’re saying or not.
M!: Any thoughts on the connection between politics and music?
H: I think feminist music is very political.
I recently met the Vietnamese musician, Mai Khoi who was evicted from her apartment in Hanoi after protesting Trump’s motorcade. Ever since she decided to stop singing love songs, and criticized the government in her music, she’s an enemy of the state. Music is a very powerful communication tool so those in power censor it. In Vietnam musicians must submit their lyrics in order to get event permits; this also used to be the case in Myanmar. Very progressive arts centers are being closely watched and Mai Khoi, well she’s a force! She’s drop-dead beautiful in the most traditional Vietnamese way too, she’s extremely talented, smart and outspoken so public opinion around her needs to be shaped. In Vietnam, there’s an online-monitoring government task force and they are doing just that. I was researching hate comments about her online and 95% of the comments were from men, and according to her they belong to this force. She used to be a pop star— the only one at the time in Vietnam who wrote her own music!— and once she didn’t wear a bra to an award show and was very open about it in an interview. She said that bras are bad for breasts, especially if you have small breasts they are not necessary and people got angry. So this is some of the things that can be said about her to shape public opinion. She’s also married to a foreigner and doesn’t have kids. Forget her political views, her lifestyle is the easy target. Her feminism, all feminism, is political because it threatens tradition.
Feminism encourages women to not be confined to the domestic sphere, and traditionalists fear a slippery slope. If women make music, go out to gigs, hang out with boys, feel liberated, get politically involved, do other things, they fear it will result in them not getting married, and end up not having kids… worst crime ever, right? Whatever they think, it’s true that feminism fucks with tradition in many ways. Some people want things to stay the way they are. We are threatening the status quo. Powerful men hate that.