Whenever I walk into a newsagent’s in search for a music magazine that appeals to my wide ranging tastes, the wall of white male rock faces always leaves an overwhelming taste of disappointment in my mouth. Is it a long running joke or a seething hatred of all that is different that has resulted in the music industry’s refusal to represent the true diversity of talent in the music scene? That taste of disappointment quickly changes to proactive, forceful questioning of why isn’t there more on offer.
The usual defence thrown back at us is that music magazines that showcase more people of colour, women and trans people do not sell. Of course this is not true, as we have seen through the success of independent magazines that reflect the truly diverse nature of the artists creating our culture.
One such magazine is the free arts and culture magazine, BEAT, founded by DJ, writer and editor extraordinaire, Hanna Hanra. Since its inception in late 2010,BEAT has gone on to feature artists such as Grimes, The xx, Sky Ferreira and Dev Hynes, with Hanra behind the wheel. In an era where it is hard to decipher what music magazines truly stand for, an independent, exciting magazine driven by new artists is most welcome, so I was pleased to take the opportunity to have a chat with Hanna about BEAT‘s longevity and also touch on topics such as her experiences as a DJ and her thoughts on the 1990s grrrl revival…
This article has been adapted from a talk given at the event, Off the Shelf in Sheffield, October 2014
I am lucky and I know that. I am lucky that I found a semi-comfortable place to be. I play in feminist punk bands as part of the London punk scene that encompasses everything from riot grrrl to hardcore, post punk to noise pop. Growing up in Wolverhampton, there was a music scene of sorts it was nothing like the one I am currently involved in. As a shy teenager I never had the confidence to start a scene by myself and I’m not sure how other teenagers could either. It was too much and I thought it was easier to leave.
So that is just to say that I know that both the time we’re living in and the London and UK punk scene in general has improved. Nevertheless as inclusive as the London punk scene aims to be it is safe to say that it can fail in numerous ways. Not in an actively aggressive way but more in a passively ignorant way that is almost worse. We live in an age of UKIP, regressive politics, Islamaphobia and class snobbery so it would be a miracle if these attitudes did not seep their way into every aspect of our culture including the people within our music scene.
I have told people examples of things that have happened to me before but it’s so hard to express the insidious nature of, to quote bell hooks, the “Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” that sometimes my friends could not understand it or perhaps I could not understand fully. When the weapons of the enemy are all around us it’s hard to recognise them as anything but normal.
We all know the obvious ways women musicians are treated within the industry. We probably should be pretty but not too pretty, talented but with the knowledge that you’ll never be fully recognised for it and white men with half the talent, who sometimes stole your creative ideas (cough* Led Zeppelin,Rolling Stones) will make the magazine covers, line bedroom walls and be crowned the kings of rock n roll. What’s missing from that list is to be crowned the perfect indie songstress, and that’s an indie songstress that appeals to male music journalists as well, you had to be white.
This was integral and it’s something that even as a teenager I noticed immediately but no one talks about the racial element in the music industry. The most popular women in music that I admired when I was younger were PJ Harvey, Brody Dalle, Kathleen Hanna and Karen O. They were all talented, brave and if they were men would have been made into Gods. If Alex Turner can get into NME every other week for accomplishing seemingly creative endeavours in-between tax evading than surely Peej deserves more than a quick look in every few years.
They also embodied a girl next door beauty that was welcoming, alluring and most importantly non threatening. This was because it was a beauty based on conventional beauty standards that value whiteness and Caucasian features. While I admire these women no one ever discussed the fact that whiteness, sexuality and gender were so heavily intertwined when I was younger. I would look at these talented white women and look at the men and I could not see a place for myself in that world.
I did not grow up in a household that was openly creative. I was not popular, confident, I had no innate talent for anything. I needed validation or a visual cue to give me the go ahead and say “yes you could be in a band, here’s your spot, make your mark,” but that did not happen. I decided that since I could not look as beautiful as my idols, and I did not know whether I could play like them either, that I probably could not be a musician.
I changed my mind later, but it is important to note how these images and codes can affect our way of thinking. I eventually joined a band and began to play music in places other than in my room with the door closed and my headphones on but it was hard. Having the confidence to believe in myself, my music or even turn the volume up too high took a long time to come and in certain situations it still fails me completely. I have realised that still at the back of my mind those early images are holding me back and telling me I don’t have authority here.
So when we think about how hard it is for white women in the music industry when their role models are sidelined by white men, think how hard it must be for black women when our role models rarely get a mention. If black women do make it into the spotlight they are unfortunately white washed by history likePoly Styrene, vocalist in X-Ray Spex. What I saw as my first ray of hope, a slightly kooky mixed race girl, many white people saw as another white woman. Seeing a black and white image of a woman in a punk band the assumption is made that she must have been white so just like that an entire aspect of her life is erased.
It took me years to learn the true history of rock music and fill in the blanks that had been rubbed out and replaced with a conventional white man. The canon of music history that we are taught is flawed and incomplete. For example Led Zeppelin’s classic ‘When the Levee Breaks’ was actually written by the black female guitarist Memphis Minnie and her husband Kansas Joe in 1935. This story is well known, mainly because Led Zeppelin are well known for stealing songs, but nevertheless Memphis Minnie is rarely as celebrated as Led Zeppelin.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the most popular blues and gospel singers in the 30s and 40s. Her guitar style was incredibly unique and she was a huge influence on stars such as Chuck Berry and Elvis who would have seen Tharpe was a hero. Chuck Berry and Elvis went on to influence bands such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Nevertheless Tharpe’s name is rarely mentioned in everyday circles. When we discuss the mainstream history of rock it is important to remember the styles and influences have been garnered from a confrontational black femininity that has been put into a white male space to make it more conventional.
Sometimes I lie awake at night and think about all of the amazing black women who formed bands and wrote amazing music that we’ll never know about because they were written about of history before they could even get properly started. I refuse to believe that they did not exist. I know they did because I exist and I am not an anomaly.
I think we need to consider ways to make the music industry a better space for black women. To start we need to take more time to consider the black women who paved the way. Being able to fill in the canon of rock history with women such as Nina Simone, Betty Davis,Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marlena Shaw, has given me more confidence to continue in music and knowing that other women have done it before me gives me hope for the road ahead.
In James Spooner’s now legendary 2003 documentary Afro Punk, which looks at race and identity within the punk movement, punk musician Tamar Kali stated: “Being caught in a system that you can’t identify with, that you can’t support and just being contrary, that’s the true energy of what punk is. I think one of the punk-ist people i can think of in history is Nina Simone.”
I have to agree with her that Nina Simone is probably more punk than everyone. If you don’t think so, know that at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 she asked the majority black crowd if they were ready to kill for the revolution.
If being punk mean being “caught in a system that you can’t identify with, that you can’t support” that I believe that the main group of people that experience this from birth are black women. Black women, by our very nature, by getting up every day, having confidence in ourselves, wearing what we want, smiling when we want or not, being loud, gregarious or shy and retiring; by being ourselves black women are the definition of punk.
We need to reclaim our space and title in a world that, as the great jazz musician Charles Mingus succinctly put, is constantly “singing your praises while stealing your phrases”.
I don’t always get paid for my work, so if you’ve liked my pieces and want me to write more you can donate a couple pennies to keep me going in between paid work.
It happens every year; the same time every year. We know it so well; the lead up, the commotion and the eventual indifference. Awards season is upon us and with that star-filled month in our calendar comes the annual moment members of the white arts industry shake themselves out of the blinkered daze that envelopes them for most of the year, look around, and realise there are few Black faces around them.
This is also the time of year that a small number of other white members of the arts industry decide that there are no issues with diversity in the industry and, if anything, there needs to be more opportunities for straight white men, as they need all the help they can get, poor mites. Oh yes, those kinds of white people exist (cough, cough Blunty), but we’ll save another article for their kind.
White people are waking up, only for a few weeks, mind, but it is happening. A few weeks ago, rent-a-posh actor Benedict Cumberbatch found out that there are rarely any Black people on his film sets. A fact that is certainly true, and needs to be said, but whilst making that statement he managed to refer to Black people with a word so archaic that it actually adds another piece of evidence to my theory that Benedict Cumberbatch is actually from the past, and has been brought here to our timeline to trick the world into liking the upper-class! In response to the Baftas overwhelmingly white cast of nominees, MP Chris Bryant wrote what I can only assume as an intentionally ironic comment piece about the lack of diversity in the arts.
I took part in a panel discussion called Women Make Noise as part of the Off the Shelf festival in Sheffield. The discussion focused on women’s experiences of music culture and the industry and featured myself, Julia Downes, Alanna McArdle and Sarita Karr.
Here is the audio of the whole event which covered many interesting topics including the exclusion of black women in music, the experiences of being a woman in a male dominated band and the experiences of being a female house and techno DJ.
I don’t always get paid for my work, so if you’ve liked my pieces and want me to write more you can donate a couple pennies to keep me going in between paid work.
Sway to the right, sway to the left. Uniform in motion and occasionally in style, the gentle dance that occurs in the pit can be a mesmerising experience, that is until a hurricane of hyper aggression cuts through the room; displacing the good time and good people.
Stage front at the Shacklewell Arms all dayer, despite a great atmosphere, signs promoting ‘Girls to the Front’ and a host of brilliant but un-mosh-inducing bands, by the time US hardcore band Perfect Pussy and noise pop favourites Joanna Gruesome came on, the crowd was in full throbbing mode. JG’s lead singer, Alanna McArdle, made several attempts to calm the crowd but to no avail. Left with the only option to monitor the crowd, McArdle kept a close eye on the pit; her voice filled with emotion and determination, her face steely and focused. The signs seemed like a mere joke afterwards but the good intention was certainly there.
Like most people stress can get the best of me. Project after project, priority after priority: it can eventually become too much. I started to look for ways to tend to my depleted emotional wellbeing and put an end to the monotonous cycle of stress I had become caught up in; but what should I choose? Yoga just confused me and meditating made me sleepy. I thought I was at a loss until I discovered a local women’s singing group.
While it may be a pastime usually relegated to the stage or the shower, depending on the singer, singing is proven to be incredibly beneficial to your mental and physical well being. The Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health recommends singing as a way of promoting mental wellbeing and researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have discovered that choir members’ heartbeats synchronise when they sing together. This brings on a calming effect similar to yoga.
When it comes to documentaries on women in punk, the topic is usually given a brief five minute recap. A few token women are name-checked in between various dog-toothed male veterans discussing whether Lydon or Strummer influenced them the most. So when I see The Culture Show has a special half hour feature on women in punk I immediately sit down to see what it is all about.
In Girls Will be Girls, presenter Miranda Sawyer documents the history of women in punk during the early era of 1976/77 when it was limited to squats and small shows across London. Focusing on the stories of veterans Viv Albertine, guitarist in The Slits, and Chrissie Hynde, Sawyer inquisitively asks whether the female punk spirit still survives today. The answer is obviously yes, but let’s move on.
Here we go. The not all men brigade strikes again. Legend has it the army has soldier posted near every woman, primed and ready for the moment she questions any part of the patriarchal nature of our society.
In the firing line this time is noise pop group, Joanna Gruesome’s singer Alanna McArdle who in an interview with Drowned in Sound made a few observations on misogyny in music. The article was posted on Drowned in Sound’s facebook page and in response readers wrote varying degrees of offensive comments such as “There’s nothing like blaming your own lack of success on imaginary things”, “Get over yourself, love” or the ever faithful “Now get my tea on”. No matter what your saying about misogyny it always boils down to ‘that’ comment in the end. Like an ever faithful dog that always returns to shit on your carpet, some form of the “get my tea” line will be repeated till the end of time.
I’ve spent the last few days researching my black female guitar foremothers in an almighty playlist that I’ll share with you all soon. In the process I discovered Lady Bo, lead guitarist in Bo Diddley’s band from 1957-1961. Lady Bo, real name Peggy Jones, was the first female guitarist to be hired by a major act and was a huge influence on Diddley and his sound.
Jones’ life was changed after a chance encounter with Bo Diddley before a gig at the Apollo Theatre. She was carrying her guitar with her; Diddley who was so stunned to see a beautiful woman with a guitar invited her to the dressing room as Jones recounts in an interview with Lea Gilmore:
After a while he opened his guitar, asked me to grab mine and play something. When I opened my case he laughed louder than anyone I’d heard before. I wanted to know what’s funny? Hysterically he said what is that? He had never seen a Supro guitar. I said, “Now that’s a dumb question! First you probably never saw a girl carrying a guitar down the street before and want to know if I played it, did you think that was funny?” He said, “No!” I continued, “then you insult my ax and I listen to Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Charlie Parker and I think I’’ve heard of you! Do you think that’s funny?” He said, “No, but I like your attitude, let’s play something.” I said OK and the rest is history.
Although Jones had only been playing guitar for two years she had shown a talent for music from a young age. Growing up in the Sugar Hill district of Manhattan she enjoyed tap dancing at an early age and studied opera and learnt the ukulele at age 9. She graduated from New York’s High School for Performing Arts studying dance, drama and music theory.
Skinny Girl Diet/Ethical Debating Society, Split 7″ EP, HHBTM Records
When exactly did riot grrrl die again? Someone said it was in 1994, when it got too big and disillusioned. Some say it was when Bikini Kill broke up. Some say it was as soon as it began; a star too bright it obviously had to fade away. Why do things have to die? Can’t they rise and fall, hibernate for a few years and then re-emerge in a new form ready to fit into the time, culture and political landscape they find themselves in. In an age where Pussy Riot proudly declare themselves riot grrrls and the 90′s – and everything that came along with it including terrible comedy rap songs – is cool again, it is safe to say that riot grrrl is alive, fierce and focused on the road ahead.