Femme Musicians of Color Confront White Male Industry Dominance
When people think of electronic music, their minds often go reflexively to a handful of middle-of-the-road, white male DJs and producers such as Diplo, Calvin Harris or David Guetta. One group on Oberlin’s campus, Femme Artists Breaking Boundaries, founded last year by College juniors Rayna Holmes and Hannah Halpern, is looking to subvert the norms of electronic music culture by showcasing women, people of color and queer people who are doing innovative work in the field.
According to the group’s Facebook page, “[FABB] hopes to empower these minorities as well as broaden popular perceptions of what femme artists are doing in their communities and the important impact they are making” by bringing femme and women artists of color to campus.
FABB expanded on that mission by bringing together four women DJs and producers — Ma-Less, Dani Deahl, BEARCAT and Conservatory senior Sarah Snider — for a panel discussion titled “Gender, Race and Social Mobility in the Production World” in the Cat in the Cream Thursday afternoon.
The conversation was peppered with questions from topics as mundane as the musicians’ day-to-day routines to more thought-provoking ones on combating the patriarchy in the electronic music world. The panelists also discussed how their identities shape the music they make.
Ma-Less, an Orlando-based producer and DJ, wrote in an email to the Review that her background informs her work.
“I never fit in anywhere growing up,” she wrote. “I was the first American born in my family, but I was not Hispanic enough to be considered Hispanic, and I wasn’t Black enough to be considered Black.”
Ma-Less was bullied and had trouble finding her place until she began DJing at 25, finally finding a space she could be comfortable and confident in. Despite discovering the music world comparatively late, it has become a main source of joy and expression in her life.
“I love to play the music that I love and to connect with other people,” she said. She describes DJing as something that’s “addicting,” especially when other people understand it. “It makes all those hours in the studio worth it.”
BEARCAT, a London-born, Brooklyn-based producer and DJ, regards her British and Jamaican heritage as having shaped her unique perspective.
“A lot of the time after a set, people are like, ‘I can tell you’re from London,’” she said. “Growing up, I would also hear Caribbean music, and in Brooklyn, I still hear that music. It’s followed me, which is a beautiful thing.”
The discussion then turned to the politics of the music industry as Holmes asked the panelists if they saw their work as political. BEARCAT answered that being a woman of color is political in itself. People of color occupy a political sphere whenever they are in public, whether or not they want to.
“Being a woman of color behind a DJ booth is a statement,” she added.
Ma-Less also recounted a time when she was offered a performance slot at an event but only if she dressed a certain way. She didn’t accept it, refusing to submit to the sexism of the industry around her. “If you feel like you’re undermining your character, you shouldn’t do [a gig],” she said. The rest of the musicians agreed that staying true to yourself was an important part of making good music.
Though each of the DJs come from different backgrounds, there was a sense of camaraderie on stage. Dani Deahl, a Chicago-based electronic dance music producer, journalist and blogger, remarked that they had all encountered similar struggles regarding sexism in their careers, even though they come from different music scenes.
Another issue that was tackled was lack of female representation in the charts. Holmes mentioned that DJ Mag did not feature a single woman artist in their Top 100 DJs of 2011 list.
Deahl, who is the editor-at-large for DJ Mag, noted that the poll results are determined by the public.
“The people who are in these charts are people who have the most advertising money behind them,” she said.
BEARCAT offered some advice to women DJs feeling dismayed by the lack of women in the charts. “Keep doing you, don’t pay too much attention. It will happen if you really want it to,” she said.
The panelists also discussed their plans for the future. Ma- Less is in the process of leaving her day job to focus on music full time. She also hopes to put Orlando on the map as the next hub of innovative electronic music, in addition to touring and releasing more music.
Despite frequently having to put up with patriarchal norms in the electronic music world, BEARCAT loves her job. She hopes to become part of a record label but has considered simply starting her own rather than joining a label “owned by a white guy.”
FABB hosts events like this in the hopes of building a community of underrepresented artists and showing students that they can compete and thrive in the music industry not merely in spite of their intersectional identities but because of them.
“We want to foster community,” Holmes said. “We want the non-dude artistic community to feel strong together. We want people to feel like that community exists.”
Holmes hopes that the panel will expand upon the idea of trading knowledge in an expanding and diverse community.
“We want to hear about the general ways that identity pushes and pulls you around in the music world,” she said, adding that FABB wants to create conversations that acknowledge these issues are happening and give artists a means to share their individual experiences.
“The coolest thing about doing something so mission-based is that when people are excited about your mission, it’s less about the booking aspect but more about ‘I want to be a part of what you’re doing.’ I definitely get that vibe from these artists,” Holmes continued.
Holmes hopes that those who attended the event took away more than a new artist to listen to.
“I hope the audience feels empowered doing whatever artistic endeavor they’re trying to do and really feel like there are people looking out for them in large and small ways,” she said.