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Cathy DiToro: The HERA behind HERAFest

by Kimberly Shires

Cathy Di Toro, of Baltimore, MD, is firing on all cylinders while decked out in her badass 80s/90s inspired outfits. Cathy regularly gigs with one of her many projects, writes her own originals, and runs a music-focused non-profit called ProjectHERA, based out of Washington D.C. Cathy is a superwoman with an infectious warmth who is full of passion to empower others. Cathy claims her superpower is her innate ability to memorize lyrics, but her real superpower is her ability to lift others to realize their own dreams.

Cathy founded ProjectHERA in 2017 and affectionately calls herself the Chief Empowerment Officer “CEO”. The non-profit empowers and creates visibility for local female musicians, particularly young girls. Cathy’s business partner, Juliet Maggio, is the Director of Events, and Rachel Levitin is the social media Goddess. ProjectHERA is also greatly supported by a cadre of passionate volunteers. ProjectHERA hosts the annual music festival HERAFest, networking events, fundraisers and open mics, all featuring local female talent. 

HERAFest is on Sunday, September 22 from noon to 9:00 PM. ProjectHERA has partnered with The National Center for Children and Families and will be accepting donations of unused toiletries. Make sure to bring a few items to contribute at the door. Tickets can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/hera-fest-2019-tickets-63884723929

HERAFest is a DMV Roots/Lilith Fair style festival and is headlined by Jill Sobule. Jill is known for her single “I Kissed a Girl” and “Supermodel” from the soundtrack of Clueless. The festival, hosted by City Winery, will showcase 36 talented local women on three different stages. The performers range from seven years old to fifty. Cathy said, “This is really to showcase women being badass musicians at any age in all genres, including DJs. It’s a celebration of the arts in the DC scene. Some are returning artists, most are new to the festival.”  City Winery approached Cathy to host HERAFest, and she is eternally grateful for the opportunity to work with such a wonderful venue.

The festival will include a game area for kids and a vendor corner for local women-owned organizations such as Femme Fatale DC, which is a collective of local female creatives and entrepreneurs. There will also be vendors selling jewelry, candles, clothing and art. HERAFest is partnering with ArtFarm Annapolis, who will bring their youthful Fearless Female photography class to shoot the whole festival. 

Cathy is miffed that “nobody has reached a Lilith Fair festival since the 90s”. She thought back to advice given by her father to “find a need and meet it.” This gap in the region bred the idea to host an all-female music festival in DC. Cathy told us, “this is clearly my purpose and I am passionate about it. It is how I’ve come to find my place in this area to use the connections I have made.” Cathy continued, “Women are a minority. When I was little, I was scared to touch certain instruments, and I was made to feel like I couldn’t do certain things and I don’t want it to be that way…We perpetuate these stereotypes…but we should all be on the same level, because we are.” Cathy wants HERAFest to normalize women in music, encourage women to pick up instruments and create a more equal playing field than what is felt in the industry today. Cathy said, “We need this to grow.”

Putting on a music festival takes a village; from planning, to booking a venue to hiring the lighting and sound engineers (mostly ladies of course), to the identification of like-minded sponsors and local women-own vendors, to running the promotion campaign and finally to engaging volunteers to pull the whole thing off. Cathy and the team realized, through the collaborative energy generated during festival planning, “that it was important to give back…and do good for the community.” 2019 marks the first year that HERAFest has leveraged its visibility to connect with local charities to give back to the community.

Cathy has big dreams for the future of the festival. Cathy’s instinct is to think big. What does that mean for HERAFest? Cathy said, “I want to take it to Merriweather”. She continued, “I think end-project first and then dial it back.” Cathy is also actively exploring bringing in national acts to create more visibility for the festival and generate more sponsorship and to potentially expand beyond the local level. Ultimately her goal is to “celebrate and bring attention to women in music.” 

In addition to all of Cathy’s work with ProjectHERA, she is also a full time musician, gigging many nights of the week with one of her tribute bands covering hits from the 80s, 90s or 2000s. Cathy is a nostalgia addict and has created a niche with each of her projects. The Legwarmers is an 80s guilty pleasure cover band, complete with 80s costumes. Party Like It’s… is a Ska band that covers popular songs, mostly from the 90s. So Fetch is a 2000’s tribute band, wearing full-on vintage tracksuits while covering artists from Eminem to Ke$ha.

Cathy DiToro is not just about cover bands. Cathy’s original projects include her solo act, Cathy D and The Can’t Evens. Cathy will maintain there is no shame in a cover band. She loves to bring her audience back to a decade through the songs that were popular on the radio during that time. This is a source of pride for her. Nostalgia is something that allows people to let go of their day and have a great time. Cathy said, “We’re giving them that nostalgia. We’re giving them this fun energy. That’s not wasted on me.” 

Cathy regularly writes for her original projects and is working on a few videos. She is planning a mini-tour for next spring. Her goal is to get her original songs out and bring her act to South By Southwest. Cathy has a hard time focusing on herself, however. She wondered out loud, “What if I were to take the time for myself and my brand” to empower her own work in the same way that she empowers others constantly on a daily basis. One word: Superwoman.

Cathy began working with teens in schools after receiving her Master’s in counseling. She was also gigging each night, and the lifestyle became too much. Cathy realized that to keep her sanity, she needed to find a way to marry her two passions: helping teens and playing music. Cathy made a decision to transition from her job as a counselor to pursue music full-time, but with a bend towards youth empowerment through ProjectHERA.

Cathy said, “I’ve always known I was going to do something with music. My parents were both music majors. It’s just always been in my blood since I touched a piano and was able to sing and harmonize at a young age. It’s what I feel like I am most connected to.” Cathy continued, “ is the most powerful connector. It crosses all boundaries and races and genders and brings us to our human core.” Cathy is certainly pulling her weight creating meaningful connections and spreading the musical spirit throughout the DC and Baltimore regions.

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Kimberly Shires

Kimberly Shires is a native of the DC Metropolitan area. Kimberly is a freelance writer, music degree holder, road bike warrior, songwriter, corporate ladder climber, and a Subaru driving nature enthusiast.

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