... the other Black experience

A Look at the Best Women in Music: A Response To The “Official” Lists and Sources, From and By Women

By Reza Rites / Venus Sings / DJ Reza Wreckage

The day after the annual Grammy’s ceremony, DJ, blogger, and media producer, Reza Clifton, shares her 2011-2012 top picks and honorable mentions of women in music, revealing similarities to the ceremony as well as an expanded view of artists.  She also talks about why she feels compelled to do the list every year, and talks with feminist media activist, Jamia Wilson, about the topic of women in music and women in the media.”  Click on the image above to access the best of list, here to access the honorable mentions, or here to listen to a segment of the interview with Wilson.   

PROVIDENCE, RI - Every year, I publish a " best of/year-end/year-before review of women in music based on the monthly "Venus Sings Radio" program I do on a show called Voices of Women.  Every month, I go in and basically choose songs based on my mood, first, if I’ve done an interview with a musician, secondly, and thirdly, if I’ve intentionally or unintentionally researched an artist, for instance through songs that keep coming up on music shuffle, by following links in one of dozens of e-newsletters I receive, or tearing through blogs, social media links and print magazines.  The only requirement I have, probably obviously, is that Voices of Women is a show dedicated to music by women or by bands led by female vocalists – which is why my list is a best of list of women in music!

The list may be slightly skewed in terms of attention on women as vocalists and in terms of the kinds/genres of music I prefer, but even that is pretty diverse. While many might say that I provide a slightly heavier dose of “world music” than what other DJ’s they follow provide – or more hip hop than what my Voices of Women partners contribute – I happily play everything from the Cardigans to Nicki Minaj and from Lykke Li to Etta James.  There are some financial limitations in terms of the growth of my collection, but between Youtube and free downloads, I basically get by.

This means that my list is pretty dang objective as far as trying to figure out which women are really doing their thing in music, and a pretty handy source if you want to look at a genre-inclusive list instead of a one-dimensional compiling. 

Now, that takes care of the who, what, when and how pieces, but I wanted to go an extra step this year to talk about why I do this or why this is necessary. 

During the development of the 2011-2012 list, I took some time to peruse other’s compilations – namely from places I respect and turn to for music tips, early awareness, and artist research, and I’m not talking about commercial places like Billboard Magazine or Hot 97.  Well, upon seeing few women listed this year, how I ended up feeling was disappointed.  In some cases, it looked like fewer women than in years past, even!  On the other hand, I'm also aware of several women – including some who made my list – who got major plugs in a few other highly respected places in 2011 (ie. Latin Grammy nods and MTV) – reminding me, that as always, women are out here doing our/their thing with and without the accolades to prove it (think Estelle and Nneka, two artists who made my list who were completely absent from this year’s Grammy nominations).

One of the conclusions I jumped to was based on the years of research and lectures I’ve done about ethnic and gender diversity in the news.  From the guests and hosts on Sunday morning political roundtable shows, to the boards running the major media companies, analysis and studies have proven again and again that women are not equally represented in these spaces.

So is there is a link between the dearth of women in leadership positions in media/communications/printing/publishing/broadcasting fields and the absence of women on many music lists including on alternative/independent/underground-generated ones?  Will women ever get fairly noted in an environment in which they are kept from gatekeeper positions and roles?  And what about the growing over-sexualization and constant lack of attention on craft when commercial and mainstream spaces and “experts” do cover women in music?

To help the questions stop spinning – and to help me complete this list/article – I checked in with an old college friend of mine hoping for a miracle:  feminist media activist, Jamia Wilson.  As a writer and educator, Wilson travels and trains women and writers on getting their voices heard through traditional and digital media.  She is also the Vice President of Programs at Women's Media Center, an organization that convenes panels, issues reports, leads grassroots campaigns, and trains members of the media to address issues of women’s representation and general diversity.  And let me tell you, she knows her stuff.

Despite the surprise that I felt, Wilson clarified that even when you look at independent media and new online networks, women and people of color are still underrepresented in leadership positions.  Most places you look, she says, even in alternative spaces, “there is a normalizing of masculinity and whiteness,” and they are “not doing the work” to de-normalize this lens.  What you might see, explains Wilson, is “let’s diversify once a month or once a year” without any authentic attempt to “put marginalized groups at the center.”

‘But what about artists like Beyonce or Katy Perry that are household names?’ I asked.  ‘Those female artists that do get attention and placement on lists?’  Wilson broke that one down too:

“If you look at what it took for Katy Perry or Beyonce to get on the list,” she explains, “it is often different.”  For example more reliance on what they wore, how little they wore, or what else they were doing besides music.  “You don’t see men being listed and compared in the ‘who it wore it better’” columns and pictures, says Wilson.  “And if you don’t fit into the social sexualization model, you might have trouble.”

Still, I push Wilson, I might understand it early in an artists career, but why should Beyonce’s newest album, for instance, rely on a photo spread showing either highly sexual poses or very provocative/revealing outfits?  Wilson is quick to recognize Beyonce and Perry for their musical merits, but she also understands my concern. 
“These are two really talented women,” says Wilson. Nevertheless, she says, “the sexualization that is pressed on many types of women can push them away from their talent,” and move them into “a commodity model.”  Remember, explains Wilson, “there may be men who are seen at face value, but some women may not receive the same treatment if they are actually being judged as a [sexual] commodity too.”

And these issues aren’t just faced by superstars.  For example, says Wilson, “people assume that women in music are always vocalists, but people doing bookings should diversify their musicians.  Hire a female saxophonist,” suggests Wilson, or a band-leader that’s a woman.  Remember, says Wilson, “women can play every instrument.” 
So what can women in music and advocates do to counter these trends and raise their profiles?  One thing Wilson suggests is thinking about “ways and forums for women in art to come together and share each other’s work.”  Create “consciousness-raising open mics,” says Wilson, “or speak to audiences before performances,” and create opportunities to discuss women in music in the context of grassroots and legislative issues being discussed.  For example, when the SOPA and PIPA acts were being discussed, there was room for a conversation about how digital downloads and music sharing is or is not affecting female artists’ “bread and butter.”

Wilson also goes back to the media, publishing, and broadcast industries in thinking about solutions, reminding me that “we know that sexuality sells, but there’s always the option of we’re not going to buy it.”  She also suggests looking to or launching “media accountability campaigns” and making sure the topic of women in music is discussed in those spaces.

On the other hand, Wilson also believes a prime strategy is “women creating our own media.”  From writing editorials about personal experiences or writing about women in music to using Facebook and “doing tweets about the issues they’re facing,” Wilson says “get out there and do it!”  Remember, explains Wilson, if you’re talking about the issues, “your fans can help influence legislators.”      

But, she cautions, we can’t do it all alone. “Partner with organizations," says Wilson, "join coalitions to demand equal pay for male and female artists.”   Finally, she suggests, “support sisterhoods” for example by reaching out through the internet and “lik[ing] the Facebook page of a woman in music or recommend the women artists you know.” 
To listen to a segment of my interview with Wilson, click here.  To see my 2011-2012 list of top women in music and honorable mentions, click here and here.  To read more about diversity in the media, click here to view some of my archived presentation notes or here to read the 2012 Women’s Media Center report on "The Status of Women in the Media." 

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Tags: Music, dj, hip, hop, punk, reggae, sings, venus, women, world, More…wriu


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Comment by Nora Woods on February 15, 2012 at 8:37pm

We have to show our support for sisterhood-


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