The music industry from the perspective of women

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The music industry from the perspective of women

These are the stories of two African women, living in a Muslim country, but more important is that these are the stories of two musicians and feminists. Above all, the author would like to point out that there are many similarities between these women and other women musicians all over the world. There are cultural differences and also differences between feminists, all depending on the specific context within which they live and are active, but these could actually have been the stories of any woman.

By Kristina Funkeson

“You’re a woman more than a musician”, says Myriam, a rapper from the Senegalese group ALIF. “The fact that you’re a woman affects everything.”

“When they ask the man to do ten, the woman has to do twenty”, says Ajah, an established singer, also living in Dakar, Senegal. “It’s like everywhere in the world and within all sectors. It’s up to us to fight and prove that we are as good as them!”

Myriam tells me that there are CD compilations on which she participates only because she is a woman: “They didn’t want me because of my talent but because they were looking for a woman’s voice to cheer it up. So they called me. Unfortunately and fortunately… I manage to earn some money but I don’t like to be treated like that. I want people to forget that I’m a woman.”

In an ideal society men and women would have the same pre-conditions and they would also be treated the same way without apprehensions from record-companies, producers, managers and media. Since this is not the case, I have chosen to listen to the stories of Myriam and Ajah to picture the music industry from the perspective of women.

Sexual harassment
One of the most important issues is the need for more women within the music industry. There are very few female producers, managers, sound engineers and so on. The fact that these positions are occupied by men puts female artists in a very vulnerable position. Women are often abused by men who are supposed to help them.

Ajah tells me about one of the experiences that hurt her the most and still is haunting her: “One day a famous artist in Senegal gave me a proposal to produce a record. We set everything up and there was just the signing of the contract left. Then one day he called me at home and asked what I was doing and why I had not called and so on. I didn’t understand what he meant because I was working on the project and we had just finished a demo. Then he said: ‘If you want something you also have to do something.’ I told him again that I didn’t understand what he meant and then he said that I sure was old enough to understand. That’s when I really understood the meaning of sexual harassment. I told this man that I would never do such a thing and that he should take a good look at me and remember me because one day he would meet me somewhere else on other stages.”

Love or business
These kinds of situations are the beginning of the end of many women’s careers. Myriam is giving the example of women rappers who seek advice and end up being pregnant with male rappers. Most often this leads to the woman quitting making music. This was what happened to several Senegalese women rap groups appearing at the same time as ALIF and this is why Myriam is planning an association for women rappers, called la rap (a female version of the word rap as opposed to the male le rap, as rap usually is called in French). She says: “We have to stay away from the men not to get into trouble. And it’s very important that women support each other.”

Myriam also points out that a lot of women musicians are married to their manager or producer: “If these marriages took place because of love or because of pure business reasons we can never know. But one thing is for sure and that is that it’ll never be easy if you are a woman and all alone without a man to support you in this business.”

Exploitation of the female body and beauty
Not only men in the music industry try to take advantage of women’s bodies, but also women can exploit their own bodies to get more publicity and sell CD:s. The exploitation of the female body is very much debated all over the world. This is a subject where people’s opinions often differ a lot, and Myriam is very sure of where she stands: “It should always be the woman who decides. Every woman is capable of reflecting and choosing her own path. If a woman makes the choice of exposing her body she should be free to do that and other people should never judge her because of that.”

The debate is very much affected by religion. This is the case in Senegal as well as in many other parts of the world. In the name of religion women are oppressed by others trying to decide what a woman should and should not do. This is what Myriam is reacting to: “Here in Senegal we always say ‘Il faut pas’ (‘One should not’). But there are too many ‘Il faut pas’, there are too many things that one should not do and I think this is very unfortunate since it’s limiting the art, the music.”

In the same time as it is very important to respect women’s choices, it is also important to ask why women musicians are turning into pin-ups in video-clips, magazines and on stage. This beauty and body fixation is not coming from the women, but from the music industry and that is why one should not condemn the women but the industry.

“You have to bring photos before signing with a record label and for a woman musician it’s very important to be good looking”, says Myriam. “Maybe they’re right when they say that beauty is selling, but I think it’s wrong. Your looks have nothing to do with your voice. If you’re not beautiful, you won’t get anywhere and to me this is a kind of censorship.”

Self-censorship
According to Myriam, the greatest threat to the freedom of expression does not come directly from the state or the government: “The problem in Senegal is self censorship. We’re educated to say certain things and not to say other things. Religion and tradition is shaping our education and this is very obvious in the lyrics. People are limiting themselves.”

Ajah avoids taking about religion in her lyrics: “It’s like walking on slippery ground and I prefer not to take that risk. I’m also avoiding the politics. Instead I prefer singing about people’s lives and experiences. I sing about specific social issues like poverty, people starving and the importance of children going to school. This is my way of engagement.”

What I find remarkable is that the topics Ajah sings about in fact are very political and even religious in a way. One may ask the question if a man singing about the same issues would be considered being political or not. This is also an interesting aspect of how a message is differently interpreted depending on if it is coming from a man or a woman.

Taboos
A very tabooized subject is polygamy. “You cannot say that you’re against polygamy”, Myriam tells me. “Because that would be the same thing as criticizing our religion.”

The way to get around these kinds of taboos is to lyrically picture problematic social situations that make listeners associate to the real subject. The scenario is a more subtle way to transmit the same message and this is how both ALIF and Ajah have actually made songs about polygamy.

”We, since we are three rappers in ALIF, are each taking the role of one wife”, says Myriam. “The three of us are arguing and trying to prove that the husband loves each of us the most. This is our way to show that it’s not a good thing to marry several women and put them together in the same house, because no woman wants to share her husband with others. Of course it would have been easier simply to say that we’re against polygamy and maybe there are people hearing this song, dancing to the rhythms of it, who doesn’t get the message and who only think the song is about three women backbiting each other.”

Fight
“Women have to believe in themselves and fight”, says Ajah. “Before we could not even be on a stage but now things have changed. We’re entering all the stages in society and even in the places where decisions are taken. If you want things to change you have to fight, that’s what people have always done.”

Today there are several generations of active women artists in Senegal and both Ajah and Myriam are positive about the future. But a big part of the fighting takes place through learning. “It’s our responsibility to learn”, Myriam says. “If you want to play the guitar you have to take guitar lessons and if you want to be a manager you have to learn how to do that. And it’s only up to us women to do this.”

I ask Ajah where she finds the motivation to keep on fighting and she says that it is the audience that inspires her: “Sometimes people come up to me saying that a song of mine could have been about them and that hearing it has helped them in a difficult situation. I have realized that people listen to my songs, that they need me and also that I can use the fact that I’m an artist to actually change things.”

“Musicians have a lot of power”, says Ajah. “People listen to us more than to the politicians. We enter the private lives of people, we sing in their living room as well as their bedroom. It’s up to us to use this power to change things.”


About the author
This article is based on interviews which Kristina Funkeson made during a seminar on Music and the Freedom of Expression in West Africa, organised by Freemuse in Senegal in March 2005. She has translated the interviews from French into English.

Kristina Funkeson is a freelance photographer and presently a student at the KSM programme – Culture, Society and Media production – at Linköping University in Sweden.



Myriam is one of the founding members of ALIF (Attaque Libératoire de l’Infanterie Féministe), the Feminists’ Infantry Liberation Army. The group was founded in 1997 and was the first all-female rap-group to release a tape in Dakar.


Ajah Sy has made a couple of records. Her music is a mix of traditional Senegalese music and more international influences and she has collaborated with the National Orchestra as well as Jamaican composers.

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