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Girl Talk: A conversation about being a woman in the music industry

The ratio of male to female producers across 400 popular songs 47 to 1 according to Dr. Lacy L. Smith’s “Inclusion in the Recording Studio” report for USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Institute. 

The study, published in February 2019, sampled the 700 top songs on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 charts from 2012 to 2018. The study also reports that 4 out of 871 producers were women of color. 

While the nominees for the top four categories at the 62nd Recording Academy Grammy Awards featured a diverse list of artists, male and female, there is still a conversation to be had about the representation of women, and specifically women of color in the music industry. 

Hannah Boissonneault, member of Detroit’s indie-rock band Blank Slate spoke with colleague Jordyn Davis regarding the topic; specifically women of color in jazz, commercial music, and contemporary composition.

Davis is a graduate student at Michigan State University, where she graduated with a double-major in Music Composition and Jazz Studies last year. She also performs and records with her singer-songwriter project Composetheway.

Davis solidified her educational career in music after attending a film scoring workshop in San Diego where she was mentored by Larry Groupé and Roger Neil. After the support and guidance of her professors, she found a passion in jazz.

HB: How do you navigate such a busy schedule with so many different interests and trajectories? 

JD: *laughs* That’s a great question. I honestly just kind of take it day by day. I’ll schedule one week to specifically be like, “Your priority that week is to focus on writing compositions.” It’s just that I’m a human being, and all the things that I do are a lot and I’m doing them mostly by myself.

I also don’t really have a model for what it’s like to do all of these three things as a student, as an entrepreneur, as a black woman, and as a black artist.

HB: You’ve been involved in a lot of different projects like Composetheway, and have had a lot of different commissions in the Detroit community and beyond, and even worked in Paris for a month over the summer! If you could choose, what is your personal favorite musical project, commission, or performance that you’ve pursued thus far? 

JD: At this point in time, my favorite one is the project that I just finished working on, my commission for the Detroit Chamber Woods and Strings. The commission was to write twenty minutes of music telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood. [It was] was great because string quartet was the first piece and instrumentation I ever  wrote for. 

HB: You’ve had a lot of experiences performing outside of the Michigan State community in many different places. Throughout your musical experiences, have you ever personally felt that you were treated differently than a male counterpart while performing at a gig, etc.? What was this experience like for you, and how did you address it? 

JD: Yes. It’s not something that happens every time I go to a gig, or every time I have a performance. But it definitely has happened, and continues to happen, and will continue to happen, unfortunately. As a female bass player, every time I go anywhere with my bass somebody is asking me about it, and everybody wants to make a joke about it, like, “Oh, that thing is too big for you!” or “Oh, that’s too heavy, why are you carrying that?” or “Oh, where’s your boyfriend at? Is that your dad’s bass?” It’s never my bass. Never. It’s never ever my bass.

Oftentimes, if we’re doing soundcheck and we’re at a new venue in a different area where the people don’t know who I am …the sound guys usually only talk to the guys in my band. They never ask me anything. it’s like, this is my project! This is my gig! Guys never ever have to deal with that stuff.  It’s always instant respect for the guys.

It’s like we have to earn our respect and earn our place in these spaces, just because we’re women. The things that I deal with mostly as a composer are racial. It’s the best and worst time for composers of color and women composers of color because everybody wants to give you an opportunity. But, mostly people want to give you an opportunity because they want to  check that box. I don’t think it’s the best practice, but I’m also not going to be mad about it. I want my work to be heard. I want my voice to be heard. 

I hear stories all the time of other women who go to gigs and deal with the same thing. I think the hardest thing about being a woman and being a new artist, especially in the local scene, is that if you’re an attractive male, all of the young girls in the area will know. It doesn’t even matter if your music is good-if you’re hot, then they’re going to be at your show. As a woman, you get that a little bit, but it’s not at all the same magnitude. Look at Ed Sheeran. So many of his fans are there because he’s a heartthrob. Not to say that his music isn’t good, but he definitely has that playing to his advantage. 

H: Yes! To add onto that, how do you believe that these experiences that you’ve had have shaped your artistic work?  

J: I understand how my presence in a musical space, in the industry (and in the community) impacts the way that people perceive women of color, and how they decide they want to support us based on how I represent women of color. I oftentimes have to work a lot harder to get noticed and work a lot harder to be heard. That’s just the nature of the time that we have been in. It’s often said that women of color, specifically black women, are the least respected being in society. 

Black women get the least respect, encouragement, and attention. Positive, healthy attention that’s not sexualized. It’s really important to me to share my musical voice and my ideas in a way that detracts from all of  that, and from the negative sides of the ways in which women of color are perceived. Angry, hypersexualized, not intelligent. There aren’t a lot of positive things that are projected into society about black women. 

For me, my fight is to let the world know that black women are more than just these three things and to let other black women know that you’re more than [what society says.] You can do whatever you want to do, because you have the ability and the capacity to do it. Nobody has to give you permission to do it; you’re allowed to do it.

HB: I really appreciate everything you just said. Do you have any specific aspirations for yourself as an artist as a result of these experiences, going forward? 

J: Yeah, absolutely. [I want to] create an opportunity for younger girls. I’ve spent a lot of time in school doing a lot of outreach and working for different organizations, like Girls Rock Detroit. I worked for them for three years; directed two camps, taught bass, coached camps, and taught songwriting. There were no programs around like that for me. If they were, they weren’t in my area, and it wasn’t like my family could afford them. Seeing year after year, the ways in which experiences and opportunities like that have impacted these young girls; to see them now, four or five years after I’ve worked for the organization, they’re getting ready to put out their first albums and they’re not even 18 yet! That’s incredible to see that they felt like they had a purpose, and that they were able to use their skills to create something and be proud of it, and do it themselves.

HB: What advice do you have for young women of color looking to pursue music in general? And what advice do you have for young women of color looking to pursue composition, songwriting, or jazz?  

JD: Call me! *laughs* I’m just kidding. I will help you. I mean yes, that, but also, find what you love and never stop doing that thing. Never stop wanting to learn more about that thing. Never stop wanting to get better at. And most importantly, don’t let anybody tell you that you’re not supposed to be doing it, or that you can’t do it, or that because you don’t have the experience you can’t do it. There’s so many things. But as a short answer, all of those things, and call me. *laughs* I will support you.

HB: What advice do you have for those  in a position of privilege looking to support communities of color? How can we help create a more inclusive community? 

JD: This is a great question, because I feel like right now, if you are active in any creative space, and you are not a person that is a part of an underrepresented group, it is a part of your job to be supporting those people. 

It’s 2020, we have had hundreds of years of the white male voice, and acknowledging the white male voice, and the “greatness” of the white male voice, the “genius” of the white male voice. There’s enough of that, okay?  There are other people on this planet, and their voices deserve to be heard. If you are a current creator and you’re not supporting and uplifting those other voices, then you are also a part of the problem. 

The best way to create an inclusive community is to include people! *laughs* If you see something missing, it’s not because it’s not there, it’s because you’ve decided not to include it in your community or in your space.

HB: Exactly. 

JD: If you have friends who are creatives of color… it’s your job to be supportive of them. It’s not their fault that they are not white. Share the work of underrepresented groups; it doesn’t even necessarily have to be just people of color. Women, people with different gender identities, and all of these different things. Just include them and support their work; that’s all it comes down to. It’s not a hard thing to do. 

Put your money where your mouth is, and support people. It shouldn’t be a huge debocale, and we shouldn’t have all of these divisions. “Only support women.” How about you do a concert of great composers who just happen to be women?

It’s not to say that your identity is not a part of your artwork, but that shouldn’t be the only reason why you’re getting opportunities. The reason you’re being included as a part of the conversation should not be because it’s trendy to talk about underrepresented groups. Support a person and support their art because you think they deserve to be supported.  It’s not for your Instagram or your Buzzfeed article titled “20 Female Composers.” *laughs* I’m all here for acknowledging certain groups of people, but it shouldn’t just be about that. They deserve the same recognition and opportunities as people who don’t have to have those things as a part of their identity to be talked about.

H: Throughout all of your experiences, and everything that you have given thought to-where do you see yourself ten years from now?

JD: Definitely doing everything I’m doing now, just with a lot more people behind me, making a lot more money, and really getting to realize and do all of the things that we just talked about. To really have people paying attention not just because I’m a black woman, but because they believe in what I have to say, and they want to help support other people. 

Everything that I do to a certain extent is yes, for me and my creative expression because I am a human being. But, most of the work that I want to do, and the reason that motivates me to do all of this, is not solely because of me. It’s because of how much it’s going to benefit other people. How many opportunities it’s going to provide and create for other women of color, other women, and different people that are not white men, who don’t think that they belong in certain spaces.

I want to be in every space that I’m told I don’t belong in in ten years. Or every space that a black woman is told that she’s not supposed to be in, or every job that she’s told as a musician that she can’t do. I want to have done it, or be getting ready to do it.





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