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Urban XX: Finding Opportunities for Female Artists in an Underrepresented Scene

June 4th, 2016

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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Canadian Musician

By Justin Reid

Not since the late ‘90s, when five “spicy” exports from Britain championed the phrase, has the term “Girl Power” meant more than it does right now in mainstream music.

Artists such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Beyoncé rule over the pop world with an iron fist while traditionally male-dominated genres like hip-hop have seen artists including Nicki Minaj and Australia’s Iggy Azalea explode in popularity, often selling disproportionately more records and singles than their male peers.

With Canada being home to incredible female (and male) talent in genres across the board, the level of success for women in the urban realm has yet to translate to that of their counterparts south of the border. That begs the question: why?

To start a dialogue surrounding that very question and also to discuss the current and future climate of urban music in Canada, Canadian Musician rounded up a panel of artists and industry professionals that, actually coincidentally, is comprised entirely of women.

DJ MelBoogie [Photo: Fred E Fame Photography]

DJ MelBoogie [Photo: Fred E Fame Photography]

DJ MelBoogie, a multi award-winning DJ and radio host based in Toronto, says the issue doesn’t stem from a lack of homegrown talent, but rather from a lack of homegrown industry support.

“I know that there are so many diamonds in the rough as far as talent is concerned, but the industry here just isn’t built to cultivate and take them from being diamonds in the rough into the megastars that they could be. That’s why you have a lot of these artists going stateside, because that is where they can get that support, unfortunately.”

Working in radio, Mel says she has an optimal opportunity to hear these diamonds in the rough early on and uses her position to help new artists gain traction and, more specifically, provide female urban artists a platform they may not have been given otherwise.

“One of the reasons that I like working in radio is because I have the opportunity to break new artists and support new artists. I don’t like waiting until everybody else gets on board,” she says.

Listing some of her influences as DJ Spinderella from Salt-n-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and fellow Torontonian Michie Mee, Mel says it can be challenging being a female urban artist in a country that isn’t necessarily rooted in that particular genre of music.

“I think that with the urban artists, the industry, the labels, and A&Rs, they still don’t know how to categorize female artists, or urban artists period. That makes it hard to kind of stick to your own guns and keep your own voice and do the music that you want to do, knowing that the industry isn’t built to support urban music,” she concludes, which may answer the question of why there seems to be fewer successful female urban artists than their counterparts from country or pop currently populating Canada’s musical landscape.

Jully Black

Jully Black

Samantha Pickard is president of the Toronto-based PR firm Strut Entertainment, which represents clients from the music, entertainment, and lifestyle markets. In the past, Strut has worked with megastars like Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, and Bif Naked, among others – including many female and male urban artists – and Pickard agrees that women in this particular scene face additional challenges by not having the established inroads that some of the aforementioned genres enjoy.

“There are probably close to 200 radio stations for country music [across Canada]. When you put that up against how many stations there are to really support urban artists, [it’s] very, very small. So straight away, they’re at a handicap right there,” Pickard says, noting the relatively small handful of stations whose primary mandate is representing urban music.

According to Pickard, another obstacle female urban artists in particular face is finding appropriate venues where they can hone and perfect a live show, which has become an essential revenue stream for performing artists in the world of (mostly illegal) downloading we reside in today.

“Outside of the club world, where are the venues for these young women or even established women who are cutting their teeth or continuing their careers in hip-hop? Where is the community in every market, big or small? Where’s the hub to really give these women a live stage and a live voice?” Pickard questions, noting that singer-songwriters in country or rock often get the chance to play or open for more established acts on Canadian dates, something she hasn’t yet seen extend to the urban landscape, at least not to a significant degree.

PhemPhat CEO Ebonnie Rowe

PhemPhat CEO Ebonnie Rowe

Now don’t think this discourse is meant to deter any up-and-coming female artists who want to make hip-hop or R&B music in Canada, or say it’s too difficult or that it can’t be done. Quite the opposite, as there female artists that have, despite the factors working against them, found success. Consider them beacons of hope – artists that prove that hard work and a never-say-die mentality can make all the difference.

There is, of course, the previously mentioned Michie Mee, who holds the distinction of being the first Canadian MC signed to a major American record label and had the opportunity to work with hip-hop contemporaries and luminaries such as KRS-One and the late Scott La Rock of Boogie Down Productions.

Or what about Toronto-born songstress Deborah Cox, whose 1998 hit “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” spent a whopping 14 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart, a feat that transcended genders and would translate into a record Cox would hold for nearly eight years.

That’s, of course, without even mentioning the two esteemed contributors to this piece. There’s Jully Black, the award-winning, highly lauded voice behind such radio mainstays as “Seven Day Fool” and “Sweat Of Your Brow ” and a member of the CBC’s elite list of the greatest Canadian singers ever. And then there’s the voice behind the 2005 hit “Old Skool Love,” the JUNO Award-winning R&B soul artist whose first name could easily describe her overall vibe as a performer, Divine Brown.

So while there may not currently be Canada’s equivalent of Nicki Minaj or Iggy Azalea making their mark on the charts, Brown, who lists musical pioneers like Eartha Kitt, Bessie Smith, and Dorothy Dandridge among her influences, offers great advice for any artists out there who may want to fill that lucrative void.

Divine Brown

Divine Brown

“Make an effort. Do some research and think about what your genre is, and how you want to approach your music and do the research to find out what territories you think you would do best in, and start there.”

Brown, who from her own experiences re-iterates the aforementioned issues of accessibility for female urban artists in this country, is also optimistic that a new batch of fresh thinkers will eventually usher in new ways of approaching and nurturing female talent in the urban genres.

“It’s the young, fresh, innovative thinkers that are going to really make a difference and change this industry, and the way that they will view female artists as a result of that fresh, innovative thinking will definitely change,” Brown says with confidence.

Black, who is a pioneer in her own right, serving as C.E.O. of her own record label, says if you want to be successful, it’s imperative you go in with an established mindset for what you want to accomplish. “Make sure that you have some sort of vision, and really establish your ‘why.’ What are your intentions? Why do you really want to be in the music business? Why are you making music? What’s your message?” Black asks rhetorically, stating that artists often forget it is a music business and thus you have to treat it as such.

Black, who cites Lauryn Hill as one of the early female pioneers in the urban genre who gained success on a worldwide level, also stresses the importance of sisterhood, and that female artists helping to bring up and support fellow female artists will lead to future success for the scene as a whole.

Listing examples such as Angie Martinez’s “Ladies Night,” which featured an all-star cast of female talent, and the more recent “Bang Bang,” linking singer Jessie J with fellow superstars Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, Black says ladies working together can lead to huge success for all parties involved – tough to debate, even just considering her two examples.

Helping to bring up and support female urban artists is something PhemPhat Entertainment Group CEO Ebonnie Rowe had in mind when she first founded the all-female, multi-genre Honey Jam showcase in 1995.

“When Honey Jam started 20 years ago, it was primarily to combat the negative portrayal of women in hip-hop. So unlike now, where we embrace all genres, in 1995, we were much more focused on hip-hop, and having women taken seriously as MCs, DJs, graffiti artists, breakdancers, and rappers. Back then, hip-hop and concert production was very much a boys club, and there weren’t a lot of women in decision-making roles,” says Rowe, noting that while there is still work to be done, there has been a lot of progress since they first presented Honey Jam. Encouraging news.

A recipient of the YWCA’s Women Of Distinction Award, Rowe says she would love to see some of the female urban artists in this country receive the “co-sign” from major artists that have done wonders for other promising acts, such as Drake’s support of The Weeknd.

“There is certainly no lack of talent here, but it definitely helps to have someone who is already known co-sign for you, and I haven’t really seen that happen with any of the Canadian female urban acts, and that’s something that I would love to see.”

Warner Chappell Music Canada GM Vivian Barclay

Warner Chappell Music Canada GM Vivian Barclay

A fellow member on the board at PhemPhat and GM of Warner Chappell Music Canada, Vivian Barclay has also been a proponent of supporting female urban artists, an initiative that dates back to the early days of Honey Jam.

“Specifically, if you were a hip-hop artist and a guy, there were a lot of avenues that allowed you to go and sort of put yourself out there – freestyle battles and the like. Then, as a female artist, those kinds of opportunities just weren’t there and that’s why we even started Honey Jam in the first place, to give an audience to those kind of artists,” Barclay explains of the early motivators behind the showcase.

Naming the usual suspects such as Jully Black, Michie Mee, and Deborah Cox when listing female pioneers who paved the way in the genre, Barclay thinks labels need to do more when it comes to the aesthetic presented through media, such as music videos and publicity photos. “The reality is, in order to compete in R&B in America, it has to be slick, because that is the look, and so when you have Canadian labels not understanding that the budget needs to be a little bit bigger, when it comes to hair and makeup and clothes to match that production value, that makes no sense,” says Barclay.

Another detriment to urban music that Barclay points out – the significance of which likely went unnoticed by many – was MuchMusic’s decision to eliminate the R&B category from the Much Music Video Awards several years ago while opting to keep the hip-hop category.

While that may seem like a small blow on the surface, as Barclay notes, most of the field in the R&B category was traditionally female, with the hip-hop category traditionally male, thus eliminating the category not only created a divide, but undermined the contributions of a whole segment of musicians.

“By eliminating the R&B category, which happened to be majority female at the time, you eliminated a space for a whole whack load of talent,” Rowe says of the move.

Instead of removing platforms for female urban artists, Pickard would like to see more of a spotlight directed toward women in the urban realm during industry events, particularly Canada’s larger and lauded festivals.

“What I’d really love to see is some of our festivals and our conferences like CMW, NXNE… I’d really like to see more of a spotlight shone on the females in that particular genre. I think that there’s more work to be done there.”

With the next potential Canadian female hip-hop or R&B superstar possibly having their eyes on these pages right now, wondering how to push their career to the next level, since we had the chance to pick the brains of some of the industry’s elite, we wanted to elicit some more advice on that front.

Both Barclay and Brown suggest expanding your horizons to other markets – not just America, but Europe and other places that may be more receptive than your home base to your style of music.

“I think that there are a lot of other audiences that may be more receptive to Canadians, like the U.K., like Australia, like Europe, and I think more and more artists are starting to realize that they don’t need to live or die on whether they can get released in just America, and they’re star ting to look at the world as a way bigger place,” says Barclay.

For Pickard, she would tell any budding female artist from any genre that they have to believe in themselves and not be willing to take no for an answer.

“You know how many people got a no? And they kept going and they eventually got there, with great songs, with a great voice, with great chops, with great live performance, with the whole thing. If the whole package is great, eventually you’ll get noticed.”

DJ MelBoogie offers humbling advice to any upcoming female urban artists – a message that extends to other facets of life. It’s one we forget all too often as the bills pile up on the countertop: it’s not all about the money.

“As important as it is to get paid for your craft, especially when you invest time into it and you practice and you refine your skill, if there is no love to it or you fall out of love with it, then there’s no point. Money isn’t enough. If it’s something that you love, then you should do it for the love and the money will come.”

Seeing a young Jully Black and Nelly Furtado perform on the Honey Jam stage long before they became household names, Rowe says the key is being real, and being yourself – an idea that both artists embody. “Be authentic. Know who you want to be and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get there,” she says.

So, with artists such as Rochelle Jordan and Jelly Too Fly currently making a name for themselves in the R&B and hip-hop categories, respectively, could a female urban music renaissance be on the horizon?

“Well, the only place to go is up. I feel like we haven’t even put our foot in the water yet,” says Pickard, a common refrain from our panelists on the subject of what the future musical climate holds for female urban artists in Canada.

Black, who herself serves as an inspiration to any artist who chooses to follow in her footsteps, says if female artists continue to “build their business” and make a concerted effort to really “work on becoming great,” there will be huge success in the future.

MelBoogie thinks once fans show vocal support for female urban artists, labels will have no choice but to embrace and nurture that talent, since at the end of the day, it’s all about what the people want, and what sells.

“The potential is there for it to be more than it currently is, but we have to be able to support it at all levels, and it has to make economic and financial sense. Once the fans support it, the labels will say, ‘Okay, well we were right in supporting this artist; let’s invest more money. Let’s see who else we can cultivate here,” she says.

Pickard, who works with some of the biggest names in music at the national and international level, says female urban artists have to get out there and be visible. “We need to hear their voices. There just hasn’t been enough of a groundswell for women in this genre and I definitely think those women need to band together and start moving things along, and we need to hear from them.”

There is no formula to becoming the next Michie Mee or Deborah Cox. Unfortunately there isn’t any sure-fire way to ensure success in life, let alone the music business, but if you work hard, believe in yourself, and don’t give up, you can easily become the exception to the rule – and even the one that changes the rules.

So while there currently may not be any Canadian female urban artists breaking YouTube records a la Nicki Minaj, as cliché as it may sound, the statement remains true: it only takes one, something I’m sure Minaj’s label mate, a small artist out of Canada named Drake, would attest.

I mean, who honestly thought a kid from Toronto who had a role on Degrassi would go on to become the most popular urban artist not just in Canada, but just about every other part of the world? When it comes to talent, not to sound like a warped record (no pun intended), but Canada is home to incredible female voices in genres across the board, and whether it is tomorrow, the next day, or the more distant future, you can bet they will leave an indelible mark on the culture.

Divine Brown perhaps says it best: “I think there will always be room for great female artists that are pushing boundaries, and I think at this stage of the game, that trend is only going to continue.”

END

Justin Reid is a former Editorial Assistant with Canadian Musician. He is a freelance writer whose interests include sports, documentaries, and all things music. If he isn’t rocking out at a concert, you can catch him on Twitter @JReid905.

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