We live in the 21st century. Areas like music, visual art, and dance have pretty much equal representations of both sexes, right?
In school, my art classes were filled to the brim with young talented girls and occasionally (maybe once in two years) an equally talented boy would join. At school and college fests, I'd see all-girl dance teams and perhaps one or two dance teams with boys. Singing in various choirs over the years, I noticed that for every fifteen girls there was perhaps one boy (if we were lucky).
At the professional level, something very different is seen. It's like we lose the plot somewhere along the way. You guessed it: males outnumber females and continue to dominate various fields of the arts. Wish to differ? Here's a thing to do: Name five contemporary bands that don't have any males in them. Did you name more than two? You can try again with anything: groups with at least one female, female visual artists, female bassists et cetera. Now do the same, but replace 'female' with 'male'. Easier?
There is no denying that sexism manifests itself in various forms when women attempt to establish themselves in the music industry. From condescending technicians to ugly double standards and over-sexualization, there are several barriers within the industry. Add to that, social factors and mindsets, where parents dissuade daughters from picking up guitars or scoff when they dare to touch digital audio workstations, and you have a sizeable chunk of potential female musicians losing out just because of sexism.
What's that? There aren't as many talented female musicians out there? Therein lies the problem. They aren't allowed to realize their talent. Females are generally considered vocalists, not instrumentalists or producers (which explains why you have the 'female fronted band' tag). Most females who dare to break barriers and stereotypes are reduced to sex objects or stereotypes by the general public. Every year, there are several popular music magazines (Guitar, Revolver, Spin) that have cover stories dedicated to the 'sexiest women in music', completely undermining their hard work and reducing them to semi-nude full-page photos. Of course, this isn't to say that women should not be allowed to portray their sexuality, but they shouldn't be forced to stick their chests out more by directors or managers. Ideally, they should have autonomy regarding their personal style and image. Alicia Keys talks of a photoshoot early in her career where she was told to 'unbutton her shirt a little more and pull up her skirt'. She quickly realised that she'd have to stand up for herself. (Link in footnotes)
Sample these covers:
I mean, it isn't like these women have braved condescension, demanding tour schedules, and sexual harassment among other things to be recognised as musicians, right?
Here's an absolutely brilliant cover on a magazine supposed to sell gear for musicians. Yep, we can totally see the incredible detail on this guitar and its specifications. Female model? Where?
Sample these YouTube comments:
Here are a few gems from another video:
There are silver linings though:
But these linings are few and far between. American photographer, film director, and writer, Stacie Huckeba wrote about her experiences of sexism in the music industry; something she's faced for over thirty years. (Link on footnotes)
But we aren't here just to focus on the ugly side. We're also here to celebrate stellar female musicians who've carved niches for themselves and worked hard to get where they are.
Here are two lists of both Indian and international solo artists and bands that you should check out if you haven't already.
1. Mohini Dey Mohini Dey
Time Traveler (Knower cover) - Mohini Dey
At all of 19 years, Mohini Dey is arguably one of the world's best bassists. With finesse in her technique and impressive ability to play seemingly impossibly fast music without mistakes, she's already a virtuoso. When in school/college, she'd practice five to six hours a day. Now as a professional musician she gets around three hours. She's been playing with big names like Guthrie Govan, Gino Banks, AR Rahman...whew! Rise, electric bass. You are no longer a forgotten instrument when there are magical hands like Mohini's.
2. Soulmate Tipriti Kharbangar
Voodoo Woman - Soulmate
Soulmate is a blues rock band from Shillong that was formed in 2003 by Tipriti 'TIPS' Kharbangar and Rudy Wallang. They've spearheaded the revival of blues in India with the two permanent members mentioned and several temporary session and touring musicians. Tipriti is a musician with pizzazz and power, delivering raw, soulful vocals and magic on her guitar. If your business is blues, then Soulmate will give you fabulous business.
3. Tritha Sinha Tritha Sinha
Nizamuddin - Tritha Electric
She's been trained in Hindustani classical vocals, but her art spans many other genres. From rapping about fish markets in Bengali to singing about women's empowerment, she's done it all and is still doing more. She has three projects: Tritha, her solo acoustic project; Tritha Electric, her ethno-punk outfit; and Space, a band that plays Hindustani trip-hop.
4. The Ska Vengers Samara Chopra
Rough & Mean - Ska Vengers
Don't let the name fool you: this eight-member band plays much more than ska, including dub, jazz, and smatterings of latin, reggae, psychedelia, and punk among other things. Samara Chopra aka Begum X delivers the band's politically charged lyrics in a unique and powerful fashion; sometimes jazzy and other times opting for more reggae-style vocals. If that wasn't enough power, she has another full time job: being a yoga instructor!
Rough & Mean is a song that could make aunty over there gasp. The video? Aunty has fainted. But it delivers a message about the double standards held when it comes to male and female sexuality.
5. Suman Sridhar Suman Sridhar
Punk Bhajan - Sridhar/Thayil
She's a playback singer. And a punk rocker. And a rapper. And a jazz singer. And a Carnatic vocalist. Suman Sridhar breaks rules and she does it beautifully. She's the voice behind the Shaitan version of 'Hawa Hawai'. Her voice is spunky, girlish, and fun; definitely one of the most unique voices we've been blessed with. It's impossible to come up with a genre she hasn't done, even if you mash them all up. From reggae and hip-hop to funk rap and ethnopunk, she's done it all.
1. Epica Simone Simons
Deep Water Horizon - Epica
Epica is truly epic. This Dutch metal band is one of the contemporary mascots of symphonic metal, as they utilize orchestral arrangements and feature choirs on compositions that usually exceed four minutes. There are elements of gothic, power, and black metal in Epica's music. The face and clean vocalist of the band is the classically trained mezzo soprano, Simone Simons (growls are performed by guitarist Mark Jansen). With lyrics about everything from quantum physics to global warming and economic crises, your ears and brain are in for a treat!
2. Sevdaliza Sevda Alizadeh
That Other Girl - Sevdaliza
Minimal but bass-heavy beats. Jazz inflected vocals. Rich visuals in her videos. Iranian-Dutch musician Sevdaliza is nothing a celebrity is expected to be and everything she herself wants to be. She is at the forefront of all her creative ventures, from writing music, teaching herself how to sing, and conceptualizing her visually rich videos. Most of her lyrical content contains socio-political themes. Her videos and lyrics are vague, but in the descriptions of all her videos, she adds a little quote that helps listeners and viewers understand a bit of what she's trying to convey. She released her debut album 'ISON' earlier this year.
3. Eivør Eivør Pálsdóttir
Í Tokuni - Eivør
Nestled in a small corner of Scandinavia (Denmark, to be more precise) are the Faroe Islands, which is where versatile musician Eivør Pálsdóttir is from. She's aced jazz, rock, folk, and European classical to name a few. Her more recent work is heavily influenced by traditional Faroese ballads with minimal electronic elements. She had a distinct voice and great vocal control. Most of her music is performed solo; no backing musicians (yes, even those troll growls are done by her)!
4. Hiatus Kaiyote Nai Palm
Shaolin Monk Motherfunk (live) - Hiatus Kaiyote
What is a genre? Hiatus Kaiyote will not provide you with an answer. Perhaps 'neo-soul' can vaguely describe this Australian band's mind-bending sonically pleasing music. Naomi 'Nai' Palm puts a layer of soulful vocal melodies over complex instrumentals. The whole band is incredibly talented, and words cannot describe them. One thing is certain: They are the ultimate musical group.
5. Lianne la Havas Lianne Charlotte Barns
NPR Tiny Desk Concert: Lianne la Havas
La Havas is one artist who is effortless yet meticulous, playful yet serious, and graceful yet raw. Her soulful vocals and lovely harmonies are complemented by rich instrumentals and unique lyrics. Her live performances are probably better than her studio versions and linked here is a great example.
NPR Tiny Desk Concerts are a unique concept in live performances and it's here that we see la Havas at her joyous best.
6. Marina and the Diamonds Marina Diamandis
Sex Yeah - Marina and the Diamonds
Welsh-Greek musician Marina Diamandis has carved a niche for herself in the pop world. Self-described as an 'indie artist with pop goals'. She is totally self-taught; from vocals to piano and producing, she's figured it all out herself and worked hard to get where she is now, without sacrificing authenticity. Her music and image are of retro, off-the-wall, happy things but her lyrics frequently explore human behaviour; things that take on social significance in today's context.
Sex Yeah is a song about sexual freedom (for both guys and girls) and the importance of good sex-ed. In this track, she encourages her listeners to start conversations about sex and question what's been handed down to them.
7. Once Human Lauren Hart
Eye of Chaos - Once Human
Ex-Machine Head guitarist Logan Mader wanted to create a melodic death metal band after a bunch of projects and began scouting for musicians. Thus Once Human was born. In the line-up are relatively unknown musicians, such as lead vocalist Lauren Hart. She's a fresh face and videos are replete with their fair share of trolls and unwelcome sexual comments but that doesn't seem to deter her or the band. One of the few truly brutal vocalists out there, Lauren has brilliant hellish harsh voclas and more mellow clean singing. Fierce stage presence? Check. Commitment? Check. Talent? Check. Enthusiasm? Check!
Of course, this list is not exhaustive at all because there are a plethora of talented musicians out there, both upcoming and established. This is just a window into the wonderful world of musical and artistic creativity.
All art has always been inexorably linked with social change and issues. Music is no different. Each artist has something to bring to the table and share with the world, whether it's heartfelt and personal or uncomfortable and political. The past few years have seen plenty of females make their mark in music and one can hope that this continues.
Music is a language that ideally shouldn't have barriers to creativity. Entire sections of society shouldn't lose out on opportunities to create and share pieces of themselves through their art.