Women in music – not just ‘the singer with the band’


August is South African Women’s Month: another excuse for opportunists (from all political parties, and none) to celebrate deeply stereotyped gender roles, shed crocodile tears about gender violence, and ignore South Africa’s ingrained, institutional patriarchy. Elle magazine has chosen to mark the month with a special edition on Women in Music. That’s a decent gesture, and, within its limitations, the magazine does a decent job.

Linda Tshabalala, reed player

Unsurprisingly, like most of what appears in the consumer/lifestyle media, any feminism is fairly lite. Paging through, we encounter Amanda Black as cover star; the fashion editor’s reflections and riffs on Ma Brrr’s sartorial style; an interview with US showbiz stylist June Ambrose; and mini-profiles of 13 other female musicians including Thandi Ntuli and Zoe Modiga. There’s also some consideration of women poets, and a back-page track listing that name-checks Makeba, Aretha (Respect, of course), Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Queen Latifa, India.Arie and Beyonce.  South African music dominates, there’s demographic and genre diversity, the interviewees don’t seem to have been forced into hideous clothing, and nor are they asked any of the obviously dumb questions, or limited (except by the brevity of the edited stories) in how they might respond. From a fashion magazine, it’s as good as – if not somewhat better than – what we might have expected.

Lindelwa Dalamba: music scholar

Except. (There’s always an ‘except’ or two.) Though the inclusion of DJs and a stylist offers slightly more career diversity than we usually see, Elle still reinforces the role stereotype haunting every female instrumentalist, composer, roadie, sound engineer, music writer, music scholar, lighting designer, organiser, manager, arranger, conductor and producer in the industry: ‘Can you sing?”


There have been many superb female vocal artists in the history of South African music, and in jazz more generally. (Please don’t call them ‘divas’; the term originated in opera but now carries sackloads of unpleasantly stereotyped gender baggage.) But as the small and arbitrary – there wasn’t room for more – selection of images accompanying this column illustrate, song is not the only thing women can do in music, and the singer/band set-up too often places women in a subordinate role, subject to the musical decisions of male musicians  – and also too often compulsorily trussed up in tight dress, cleavage and crippling shoes. Check the boys’ club bias of most instrumentalists’ ‘jokes’ about singers. Ask any women vocalists you know about costume rules and audition practices (“Wear something low-cut”; “Can you bleach your hair”; “Let’s see you from the back…”; “How about we go out later..?”).

©Masimba Sasa
Clare Loveday, composer

In most musical roles women face such pressures, but prejudice and exclusion are more marked outside singing. As blogging sax player Roxy Coss points out (https://roxycoss.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/never-enough/ ) learning to be an instrumentalist demands behaviour that runs directly counter to conventional female socialization. And until at least a third of the people in any band room are female, it’s harder than it should be to fight that. Less than a third of the women featured on Elle’s pages are non-singers; the context itself creates a subtext of ‘odd one out’.

Classical composer Sarah Kirkland Snider (http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/candy-floss-and-merry-go-rounds-female-composers-gendered-language-and-emotion/) also points out how women are pigeonholed as producing only music that directly accesses and expresses emotions – and then dissed for doing just that. In truth, some women do produce personal, emotional music. So do some men (often attracting, as Snider notes, the same kind of gendered disrespect) – and some don’t. Possibly the worst insult offered to women’s music that doesn’t fit the mould is “You compose/play like a man” – particularly when the moron offering it believes he is paying a compliment… Whether music is ‘good’ or not does not inhere in the music’s emotionality, or lack of such, or depend on the gender of its creator.

Roshnie Moonsamy, music organiser

The discourse of the Elle interviews with female artists focuses intensely on the personal and the emotional. It would have been nice if some of the conversations had focused on the ‘how’ questions around music that any skilled professional loves to answer: ‘Tell us how you compose a song?’; ‘How do you shape your sound?’; ‘What’s it like, leading a band?’ and so on…

Interestingly, one producer does seem to have been asked those kinds of questions. He’s a man: Sketchy Bongo, filling the whole of the magazine’s regular ‘Unplugged’ arts page. The same hardworking journalist interviewed both him and the women musicians.

Nothando Migogo, Chief Executive of the South African Music Rights Organisation

Of course, women are in music in offstage roles too, as the interview with Ambrose indicates. We have some extremely high-profile female music executives in this country too, such as Nothando Migogo pictured right.

But some roles never get written about. Think of the kitchen, cleaning and bar-service workers who keep the wheels of club life and live music oiled. It’s unglamorous, hard work, and often extremely perilous, as a 22-year-old, pregnant club worker discovered back in May. Walking home through central Johannesburg in the early hours – safe as she could manage, in the company of her brother – she was dragged off the street and gang-raped in the notorious ‘Mnyama Ndawo’ building. Her boss expressed astonishment: “It’s really painful what happened. She is a nice girl, she hardly goes out…”

And so stereotypes win out again – would it have been any less ‘painful’ if she had not been, by his definition, ‘a nice girl’? But this time, there’s a healthy added dose of willful employer blindness. He himself (or his boss) put the young woman and all her co-workers in harm’s way by not arranging safe transport home for people toiling for highly unsocial hours. Perhaps these other faces of women working in music deserve a few magazine features too?

Wms Day History
Where it all started…

And perhaps they’d get them, if we rejected, once and for all, the pervasive, reductive, pinkification of the collective fighting spirit that ought to be what we remember on August 9. Then we could sing, too…Vukani Makhosikazi

Happy Women’s Day. 


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