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Where Are The Women In Reggae?

Just a reminder on International Women’s Day that female reggae performers are abundant, but underrepresented at events

By: Kayla Kush (@djkaylakush)

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Why is it that, in the conscious musical genre of reggae where there’s songs of equality and justice, women’s voices appear to be severely underrepresented? Especially in the U.S. reggae scene. Note here that your narrator of this article is a woman. Women are half of the human population. Why is it that the reggae scene is so male-dominated? And does this even matter?

Reggae isn’t alone in the gender imbalance. This 2020 Spotify study, Inclusion in the Recording Studio? Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Artists, Songwriters & Producers across 800 Popular Songs from 2012-2019, shows that females are widely missing in popular music. For females, music is most often a solo activity. Very few female producers work in music, which can be a creative restraint. However, 2019 had the highest number of female songwriters across all of the years evaluated. Things are changing.

The purpose of this article is to welcome constructive conversations about women in reggae, the challenges they face, and some strategies that could help fix the glaring gender imbalance we are currently experiencing.

But first, let’s back up and ask this question:

Why does this even matter?

In the song “Greatest Threat to the Status Quo,” Jah9 sings, “persecution of the feminine is the reason for the state the world is in.” Look at our world. There has been an ongoing imbalance when it comes to men and women in positions of leadership. The theory of ecofeminism explains how ecology calls for a more collaborative society, drawing parallels between the treatment of the feminine and our relationship with the earth. One parallel is how men dominate women, and humans dominate nature. Another parallel is seeing women and nature as property. The repercussions have appeared to be destructive. Besides the environmental issues, look at some of the products of our socially constructed patriarchal society: toxic masculinity, mass shootings, domestic violence against women, rape culture.

There desperately needs to be a balance of masculine and feminine leadership in the world. This includes who’s in control of the microphone. This includes the music being promoted to us. Music tells stories that shape our culture. Half the people in this world are women, and we have gifts and viewpoints that haven’t been fairly taken into account in recording studios, boardrooms, and political offices. Becoming more inclusive of women in these types of leadership positions will lead to more harmonious outcomes in society. That’s why the reggae scene needs to be more proactively inclusive.

Challenges for women in music (and business)

….because music is also a business.

What’s happening for women in reggae is the same for women in business in general. It may not still be as blatantly (and nauseatingly) unfair for women as it was in the era depicted in Mad Men, but there is still a huge disparity in the number of women in positions of leadership. Take for example the number of female CEOs you (don’t) see. In 2019, just 6.6% of the Fortune 500 companies were led by women. It’s not that women aren’t as smart as men—it’s that the playing field is not even. Did you know that women still get less than 3 percent of venture capital funding? Three percent! Why is that? Well, the truth is that most investors are (white) dudes, who have had certain privileges allowing them to accumulate wealth due to their historical position in our society. Something to understand is that there is an unconscious bias on their part as they tend to back other entrepreneurs who have had relatable backgrounds to their own. These investors can’t “see themselves” reflected in women as easily as they could with younger men who remind said investors of their younger selves. I’ve talked to a lot of female startup founders about this, and it is absolutely true.

We know that women are just as skilled as men in music and business. But we don’t yet have a significant number of women on top to back up other women.

The U.S. reggae scene has been a perpetual boys club. People are being exposed to the same names over and over, so that’s all they know. There are so many mind-blowingly talented women in reggae who have been mostly unheard. They are out there. But not everyone is proactively digging for unexposed music. Many people tend to be more passive listeners. So the cycle goes on and on, and it’s hard for women to push their way to the top because they aren’t getting the support and exposure they need.

People are becoming aware of this issue, and festivals like California Roots Festival (affiliated with Rootfire through our parent company, Ineffable Music Group) are working to change that. “As the producers of Cali Roots we see ourselves as leaders in our industry”, said Amy Sheehan, Operations Manager at Cali Roots Fest. “Women face the obstacle of equality in music just like any other industry. What can we do? Continue to book women performers on our main stages, building them into headliners, and hire women into leadership roles on our staff, where they are managing others and making executive decisions on our behalf.”

I agree that building women into headliners will be a key aspect in creating change, because it will inspire other women in music and life in general.

As a woman, I can’t tell you how empowering it is to see a strong woman on stage performing music. During the rare occasions I do see this, it often brings tears to my eyes because it makes me realize how I have been constantly deprived of this energy.

Girls aren’t yet frequently seeing other girls on stage performing reggae music. We need that. Just like we need young girls to see female CEOs and doctors—we need them to see that they can do it. Whether it’s seeing a woman performing at a concert, giving a TED talk, or speaking in congress—the energy is the same. It’s empowering.

Of course, there are a lot of other challenges for women in reggae / the music business / business in general. Having children and being expected to jeopardize your career to be the main caretaker (e.g. paid maternity leave but no paid paternity leave), dealing with sexual harassment in male-dominated spaces, etc… I could go on and on. Much of these issues have pretty simple policy solutions, and they need to end in this generation. Time’s up.

How to help women in reggae

Let’s stop asking, “Where are the women in reggae?”

Instead, let’s ask, “WHO are the women in reggae?”

Listen to Rootfire’s Women in Reggae playlist. Enjoy it! Share it! There’s nearly a hundred women being represented there, and it’s not even a comprehensive list. Just some women who you should know about if you don’t already. Most of these women are currently active, releasing new music and performing shows. There are many more women in reggae out there.

Major props to dudes like Mungo’s Hi Fi, DJ Vadim, Major Lazer, and other accomplished male producers/groups who regularly feature women on their tracks. It’s great to have you guys on our side. We need that.

Book more women.  Large events are the influential epicenters of music scenes, and there aren’t many women on reggae lineups. This contributes to the cycle of the boys club.

One of the best Instagram accounts to follow is @BookMoreWomen. They create visual comparisons of festival lineups—an altered version with just the women, next to the original version. In effect you see the shocking disparity that may not have been easily noticed otherwise:

(One Love Fest – 2019 Lineup. Source: @BookMoreWomen)

“Hey, that’s not just true for reggae—that’s true for many genres of music!”

(Bonnaroo Festival – 2020 Lineup. Source: @BookMoreWomen)

(Electric Daisy Carnival – 2019 Lineup. Source: @BookMoreWomen)

Okay but…..maybe reggae can be a leader and pave the way for change?

I’m not alone in thinking this. Jared Segawa, Talent Buyer for One Love Festival, said that “We feel very strongly about women in reggae and definitely want to showcase the Female Talent at One Love. We made a conscious effort to book as many female artists as we could. This year [2020] included Hirie, Nattali Rize, Anuhea, Eli Mac, Leilani Wolfgramm, Etana, Sister Nancy, Analea Brown and Yellowman’s daughter K’reema. We will continue to advocate against any gender barriers and book female artists in the future.” In 2020, One Love successfully achieved a 30% increase in female representation compared to the previous year.

California Roots Festival shared a press release highlighting the women involved in this year’s event, including the operations staff which is over 70% female. It’s extremely helpful to lift women up like this while remaining committed to booking more women, even though it does require more of an effort to do so. Which brings me to the next point:

Put the spotlight on women in reggae. Music tells our human story and greatly influences our culture. Women’s voices need to be heard, so pass them the microphone. By letting women share their stories, everyone can begin to see things from a historically underrepresented perspective which will allow society to become more progressive and harmonious. Rootfire has a Women in Reggae series which gives women in the reggae scene an opportunity to share their thoughts. Right now it’s okay to highlight a musician because they are a woman, because the playing field is tipped against their favor and what they’re currently achieving is actually monumental and noteworthy.

Let me clarify: Put a spotlight on women, but not a microscope:

Don’t scrutinize a female performer’s appearance, just as you don’t scrutinize a male performer’s appearance. Don’t judge a female performer on whether she is wearing 4-inch heels, a mini skirt, and fake eyelashes—or jeans and a t-shirt. I have caught myself passing judgement in the past. With so few women performing reggae on major stages, I had hoped that the ones paving the way for others would not set the standard to be a beauty pageant, or sexually provocative. But then I realized, the beauty is that women can look and act however they want. Women can—and should—do what empowers them. The patriarchy thrives in pitting women against each other in competition for the male gaze. Let’s instead focus on praising women for their talents, and focus on that when we make comments about them.

Demand change. We need to break this cycle of the boys club, and no one has more power to do this than YOU, the listener. I love what Nattali Rize has to say: “You are within your rights to demand more female representation at your favorite events.” Fuck yeah you are.

Mentor young women in music. Mentorship is key in business. Same with music. Things shouldn’t have to be harder for women just because there aren’t many other women who have made it big in the scene yet. The guys can lift them up. If you have the capacity to provide help and guidance to a talented woman who has less experience than you, please do. If you are a man, do not have ulterior motives. What do you think it does to a young woman’s confidence when an experienced musician who they admire says they love what they’re doing and want to help, only for them to discover that the guy was just trying to get into their pants the entire time?

Women might feel more comfortable collaborating with other women, so we need to foster the right environments for them to do so. I like to support Girls Rock Camp in Madison, which allows young women to come together and learn to write and perform songs in a group. They walk away with valuable connections that they can rekindle whenever their musical chord strikes. Girls jamming with other girls. There are other empowering groups like this around the country that are in need of financial support and mentorship too.

Concluding thoughts…

Recently, I was playing a DJ gig, and it was a relatively small turnout since it was sleeting heavily outside. But something happened that night that made it all worthwhile.

During my set, a 10-year-old girl named Mazie came up to me and said, “It’s so cool to see a DJ that’s a GIRL!”

Damn, that gave me the feels. I’m glad I can be a role model for Mazie, but am also kinda sad that it’s not normal for young girls to see women doing things like this. This is just one personal example, but it made me think about what it would do for the next generation if there was more of a balance of women and men in music.

This is not about taking power away from men, it’s about helping women step into their power and embracing the divine feminine within us all. It’s time for women to run things alongside men. Be a musical feminist. Join the women in reggae movement. Demand positive change for the well-being of the entire planet. Thanks for reading.

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

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Kayla joined Rootfire after following this music around the country for years. She has been hosting reggae radio shows in Madison since 2010. Her newest installment is '2 DUB', Saturday nights at 10pm on 89.9 WORT FM. She is the 4x winner of 'DJ of the Year' at the Madison Area Music Awards. You can follow her on social media at: @djkaylakush

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