All photos by Sara Wass
"Why are there so few women in dance music?" It's a question that's been popping up with increasing frequency in the music industry and media these days—every time DJ Mag's annual Top 100 DJs list turns out to be a sausage party, for example, or when a Tumblr illustrating the extent to which festival lineups are still boy's clubs ends up going viral.
While this query is an important one, assuming there's a dearth of female talent in dance music can be misleading, ignoring the multitudes of women already working in the industry, many of whom are taking the task of closing the gender gap into their own hands.
To try and expand the conversation, THUMP hosted a panel on Gender Equality in Dance Music with six incredible artists, journalists, and music industry professionals at VICE's HQ in Brooklyn. The session was one of a series held during Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival on November 7. We discussed issues like the value of female-only spaces; the intersection of sex, race, and class; and how to big up the next generation of female producers and DJs. Below is an edited version of everything that went down.
Kerri Mason: VP of Marketing for SFX who covered electronic music for Billboard for over a decade and grew up in the clubs of New York City—@KerriLMason
Ruth Saxelby: Managing Editor of the FADER who previously freelanced for the Guardian, Pitchfork, and Dazed & Confused—@RuthESaxelby
Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson: Co-founder of Discwoman, a traveling festival and booking agency for female-identifying DJs and producers—@DiscwomanNYC
Janjay Sherman: Co-founder of creative agency Grit Creative Group who has worked with DJs/producers Mess Kid, Venus X, Piu Piu on a booking/management capacity—@GritCreative
Honey Dijon: DJ, artist, and producer based in New York who spends most of her time "sitting on airplanes and entertaining drug addicts, sex addicts and alcoholics," as she puts it—@HoneyDijon
Lauren Flax: New York-based DJ/producer from Detroit by way of Chicago. A member of the trip-house band CREEP, with house, deep house, and techno solo projects—@LaurenFlax
(Moderator) Michelle Lhooq: Features Editor at THUMP—@MichelleLhooq
Michelle Lhooq: The first question I want to start with is something that gets asked all the time in the media: why are there so few women in dance music? My standard answer is usually to say, "Well, actually that's a myth. There are a lot of women in dance music, but they're marginalized and their works are not considered canonical." At the same time, you can't deny that statistically, there are fewer women in this industry.
How do you answer this question when it is posed to you?
Lauren Flax: I always forget, to be honest. I'm surrounded by working female producers and DJs who are living off of it. I'm living off of it. I'm not crazy famous, but I'm paying my bills. I am reminded of how little visibility we have and how a lot of us should be pushed a lot of further and playing at festivals. It's kind of why we're here—trying to figure out what's next and what we need to do.
Janjay Sherman: I think there are a lot of women [in dance music], but it is a matter of exposure. There are two sides of the coin: the creative artists side, and the business side. It's a boy's club when it comes to the festival industry and booking agencies; I've never really worked with a female booking agent, I've always had to work with guys. So I would have to say that there are not enough women in the business world.
Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson: We've worked with over 100 DJs and producers in a year, so women are definitely doing it. I think when you think about DJs who are getting paid the most, it's definitely dudes. When Forbes released the article about what the top tier of [male] DJs make in comparison to top female DJs, the difference is insane. The pool of women who are making millions and millions is so small.
Honey Dijon: I think we're talking about two different things: EDM and dance music. There are different tiers of the industry. As a house and techno DJ born and raised in Chicago, I grew up when [dance music] was made by intercity black kids and played by gay black DJs, so my experience is completely different. As far as women are concerned, it's just a lack of opportunity and visibility. I never wanted my gender to be an issue; I wanted my artistry to be first, because men are never asked that question. I think it's about access; women in all fields are not given the same opportunity as men, that's just the reality.
Ruth Saxelby: I made a list of my favorite albums throughout the year, and there have been a number of brilliant albums from women in 2015. There was Chicago footwork producer Jlin's album, Um Fang out of New York, Holly Herndon. I'm starting to see more outlets expressing interest in telling women's stories, and I think that's a big thing. I think more women who are making dance music are starting to put out albums. For a long time, women are putting out 12" or EPs, but albums are a great way of telling a bigger story that can be picked up. That's one way from the media perspective on how to get out there more.
Kerri Mason: Speaking from the business side, it's absolutely true that [dance music] is super bro-ed out. Being where I am everyday, which is the beating heart of corporate dance music, it's absolutely dominated by men. It becomes just a part of what's natural for them. I don't actually blame them for it—[agencies] are just going to give the opportunity to their boys and they're going to look for people who look and act like them. I think we're just going to have to take up more positions and speak up, whether it's in the boardroom or the booth. That's the only way.
Speaking of male-dominated spaces, I'm reminded of a conversation that I had with Frankie at Bossa Nova Civic Club, where we were both really frustrated at how male-dominated this industry is. And you said, "Well fuck it, we'll just build our own worlds then." Discwoman is a place for all female-identifying women to support each other. I can see how this can be a nurturing environment for women, but does it risk also becoming a ghetto?
FDH: Actually, part of the reason that we launched a booking agency is so [women] can be more integrated into the dance world. Often, I would pitch to clubs and say, "Can you please put this woman on?" And they'll say, "Do you want to do a whole showcase?" And I'm like, "No, I want it to be on the lineup" because that's what we're really trying to do. We don't want to function separately. We want women to work.
HD: I don't think any woman wants to be pigeonholed and ghettoized based on their gender. They just want the same opportunities, visibility and financial stability to do anything that everyone else does. As a support situation, [those female spaces] can be a great thing because you need to see what you want to be.
JS: Support systems and initiatives in which young girls have something to identify with and can be mentored are really important. People think the technique of being a DJ is something only guys have, and that's just not true. There are lots of women who express an interest in production, and giving girls the opportunities early on to have that skill set and see other women in that role is really important.
LF: Has anyone been to the Lower East Side Girls Club? It's a beautiful two-floor non-profit building; I went down there to do a panel and workshop for girls eight to 15 years old who want to pursue music. I said to them, "I didn't have that opportunity as a kid, so I'm thankful that I see this now." There are a lot more opportunities for young girls, and people like us need to show them that it's possible.
RS: A really good example this year was a festival called Sustain-Release, which is organized by two women and at least a third to a half of the bookings were women. It needs to be normal because it is normal. Anybody can pick up a piece of equipment and make music if their heart so desires.
DJ Mag put out their annual list of top 100 DJs in the industry, and there was one female act in the top 30: Nervo. When a DJ named Frontliner was asked why he thought there were so few women on that list, he responded: "Women DJs spend too much time in Sephora and too little time producing."
HD: Have you ever dated a male DJ? Do you know how much fucking time they spend on their looks, getting that T-shirt and hat just so? They're the most vain fucking people in the world, so that's just a load of shit. That's my two-cents. [laughs]
When I put Frontliner on blast, the Black Madonna, who is this great DJ and feminist role model from Chicago, was like, calling people out like this is great, but it's really easy. Because everyone can rally against this figure who is so obviously stupid, sexist, and wrong. And it might be more productive to point out some of the most subtle and insiduous forms of sexism that are rampant and systemic.
So my question is, have you ever experienced more subtle or implicit forms of sexism? And how has your career been affected by your gender?
JS: The PR landscape is very competitive, so if there's an artist or DJ/producer you want to sign and represent, there are obviously a lot of publicists who are grappling to get the person. I've experienced several times trying to sign someone and having my credibility questioned because I'm a woman. It really is a matter of the artist, who has to believe in you as much as you believe in them. If the artist's not smart enough to see that, then it's not someone I want to work with anyway, but definitely having to prove my credibility is a frequent experience because of my gender.
KM: I was working at Pacha back in the day, and someone who had a major booking agency said if he couldn't find a blonde DJ then I would do. That stuff still happens, but when you get into the corporate world, it's more subtle. It's something you internalize and say, "Oh, so I'm supposed to behave this way." The struggle is making sure that I'm not overly concerned with doing the appropriate thing.
Kerri, can you talk about the "imposter syndrome"—the idea that you're unable to internalize your own achievements even though you're very successful?
KM: I don't know if that only applies to women, but when I read about that I thought, "That's a very familiar feeling." You say, "I'm doing a great job, but maybe there's something everything else knows that I don't. Maybe I'm going to be found out." That feeling of, "I'm going to be found out one day; I'm not as good as I think I am," is another one of those internal things.
I do think it's a gender issue in the way that, for example, teenage fan girls are belittled as hysterical maniacs all the time. Even though they have genuine passion for an artist, they're seen as less legitimate or "imposters" because their passion is not the "right" way of listening to music, according to some people.
RS: At the beginning of my writing about electronic music, when I interviewed somebody, especially a man, I would kind of have to say, "I know this record, I've been to this club, I used to dance to this kind of record, and I know that techno's from Detroit and Chicago's where house was born." I could relax into the interview because I knew what I was talking about. I used to wonder if I was allowed to have this opinion or was it invalid, but over time I just got tougher, and now I'm like, "No, I believe my opinion on electronic music is valid." But it took me a while to get there.
There's been so much progress in the last few years with this movement for women in dance music to empower each other. But do you feel that we are sometimes leaving out, or not considering, women or color, trans women and women with disabilities? Do you think that these marginalized groups can get bundled up with the feminist movement, even though they face their own set of obstacles?
HD: I guess that question is directed at me? [laughs] What's interesting from my perspective is that I come from a culture created by queer people of color, women, and intercity youth. The first female DJ I ever knew of was Lori Branch, who DJ'd alongside Farley Jackmaster Funk, Frankie Knuckles, Andre Hatchett, Ron Hardy—all of these people who were so formative. But she's never been discussed and she was one of the first women I saw and thought, "I can do this. I can make dance music as well." Dance culture right now has become such a white, hetero-normative industry, and these voices need to be heard.
I don't know any trans people who are producers, DJs, booking agents or club owners. We're still at the forefront of even discussing trans lives. And how many women of color DJ? Most of the conversations are about white girls—the Nina Kravitzs and the Nervos.
There are all these cross-sections of race, class, visibility and sexism when you are a person of color, female, and trans. There's so much misunderstanding about trans people, and black people also have to deal with sexualization. I think the important thing is for people to tell their story because there's not one way to be a trans person, a black woman, or white. Everyone has a journey, so telling your story will hopefully make a difference.
JS: My partner and I started the agency as young black women, and oftentimes we would prepare to go in for a meeting and felt like we needed to bring one white worker with us. You're just thinking, "Maybe don't wear my cornrows today" and things like that. If more young black women had owned creative agencies, maybe I wouldn't have felt that way. Again it goes back to exposure. If something becomes normal, it removes the challenge out of it.
HD: I hate the word normal. One of the reasons I got into dance music was that it was a creative world and you could be whatever. You didn't have to worry about the shit that you have to deal with in the everyday world. I don't want someone else to validate my existence or normalize who I am. I'm just looking for opportunities like everyone else. Normal to me is the worst word in the world because no one is normal. It means that everyone has agreed to a set of ideals chosen by someone else that says they need to be this or that. I think everyone should decide what's normal for them and be able to be accepted for their merit and skills, not what's between their legs.
RS: I think publications have a big responsibility to listen to a wider range of people than the things that land in your inbox. Obviously, the vast majority of stuff that lands in your inbox is from a white guy, someone who's established and has someone behind them. I think that we all, myself included, have the responsibility to listen wider and deeper and tell stories that aren't being told.
LF: One of the great things about social media is being able to have these voices. I don't need a Mixmag or DJ Mag or any of those male-centered publications to have a voice now. Twitter and Instagram give us different channels to be validated, and that's been the most amazing thing in the last ten years for women and trans people and anyone who has been marginalized.
FDH: Michaelangelo Matos did a profile on us for NPR, and the comments were great. Our favorites were, "They all look like lesbians," and "Feminism has ruined everything it's gotten itself into." Just really absurd stuff.
LF: I wanted to shoot my face off when I was reading the comments, but then I thought it's like talking to Republicans on Facebook and it's just going to go fucking nowhere. So I closed my laptop and went to bed, and I'm fine.
FDH: You can tell that these people haven't even read the article. They were just reacting to the word "feminist," which ignites this insane reaction and makes men so mad.
LF: They also don't know the true meaning of it. Feminists are fighting for things like paternal leave. It's not just a women's issue—it's about equality all over the board. It's really not a hard concept.
To wrap up, would you mind shouting out some female DJs, producers, or anyone in the music industry that you're digging right now?
RS: Laurel Halo, Holly Herndon, Jlin, Um Fang, Via App, Black Madonna, Honey Dijon, Uniique.
HD: Grace Jones, Yvonne Turner, Lori Branch, Maya Jane Coles. I think the one who made the most impact on me was Grace Jones—just to see another black woman's who's not conventionally pretty, and is masculine and feminine too. Black women are hyper-sexualized in a hetero-normative way, and here's someone who's challenging these gender norms and being an artist, writing her own music and choosing her own images, because most black women aren't seen as artists. She showed me it was possible.
FDH: Paula Temple, Xosar, Juliana Huxtable.
JS: Star Eyes, Tokimonsta, Black Madonna, PJ Harvey.
RS: Grimes—Grimes making a point about showing women using technology and seeing hands on technology is really great.