4 Artists Discuss the Realities of Being a Black Woman in the Music Industry
Kiana Ledé, Mahalia, Abby Jasmine and Muni Long open up about their journeys.
Whether in blues, rock, gospel or jazz, Black female artists in the music industry have made historical impacts over the years. From pioneers like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, to modern-day icons Missy Elliott, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Rihanna, numerous women have paved the way for young Black girls aspiring to be singers or rappers one day. Like women in many other professions, however, female musicians — especially Black women — still have a different experience at their job than their male counterparts.
The lack of recognition and representation given to Black female artists is an ongoing concern. The long-neglected issue has even led one of the industry’s best talent to retire from music early. Teyana Taylor, previously signed to G.O.O.D Music/Def Jam, released The Album back in June 2020 and landed the No. 1 spot on Billboard‘s Top R&B Albums chart the following month. Despite its success, Taylor’s record did not receive a Grammy nomination under the Best R&B Album category, in which all nominees are male — a questionable move considering the Recording Academy’s pledge to improve its diversity efforts. “Y’all was better off just saying best MALE R&B ALBUM cause all I see is d*ck in this category,” the multi-hyphenate expressed her thoughts on Twitter out of frustration. By December, Taylor officially announced her retirement from music due to feeling “super underappreciated.”
At a time when diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of conversations, will music finally address its woeful lack of female representation? In honor of Black History Month, we spoke to four artists — Abby Jasmine, Kiana Ledé, Mahalia and Muni Long — about what it’s like to be a Black woman in the music industry. From what they think the Grammys can do to create positive change, to the challenges they’ve had to overcome in terms of opportunity and recognition, read on for our conversation.
Take us back to the beginning, how did you jumpstart your career in music?
Abby Jasmine: With my parents both being musically inclined, I’ve always been around music. However, growing up, I was only allowed to listen to gospel. Then once I found Future, it was over. I did Vine videos for fun where I would write my own content. Through that, I met Jonny Shipes and the rest is history.
Kiana Ledé: When I was 14 years old, my mom entered me in a talent competition. The prize was a record deal and I ended up winning.
Mahalia: I always knew I wanted to do music. Ever since I was able to walk, my mom and dad captured countless home videos of me singing into toy microphones, making up dances in the living room for the whole family to watch and strumming my dad’s guitar while sitting on his lap. When I was 12 years old, I started writing songs. It was poetry at first but then I realized I might be able to sing, so I began making music. At 13, I signed to Atlantic Records which was a much bigger opportunity than my little mind probably realized. From that point on, it was go, go, go – from making music in tiny studios in London to touring all over the world. Everything really jumpstarted for me when I released my debut single “Sober” at 18 years old. It went viral through a YouTube platform called “Colors” and the rest is history. I’ve been pushing forward ever since.
Muni Long: I started out making videos on YouTube when it was beta in 2004. I used a terrible Walmart webcam. The quality was grainy and the audio would distort, but no one cared at the time because no one else was doing it. From 2004 to 2006, I spent almost every day in front of my computer singing covers and uploading three to four videos of myself onto the platform. In 2007, I got my first guitar from Sam’s Club that I begged my dad for. Afterward, I wrote a song called “I Fell In Love With You” playing only the top string of my guitar because I didn’t know how to play it. That video went viral and got over one million views. After that, I was addicted and you couldn’t keep me away from YouTube. By the time I caught the attention of Capitol Records, I had over 15 million streams on my YouTube channel and close to 20,000 subscribers.
“Every single artist, male or female, that pushed against the strongholds of racism and colorism in the music industry has paved the way for me to exist the way that I do.”
In your opinion, which artists helped pave the way for Black female artists to thrive today?
AJ: Definitely Nicki Minaj. She’s the rap and pop king and queen that none of us could dare to be. But even going back a little to Missy Elliot and Queen Latifah, they definitely made a way for my generation to be able to fully express themselves.
KL: There are so many, but some of the Black female artists that inspired me to get into music are Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Nina Simone, Alicia Keys, Rihanna and of course Beyoncé.
M: Though I can’t speak for everyone, there were so many Black female artists who I feel helped pave the way for me as a young woman. Corinne Bailey Rae, who is originally from Leeds, inspired me greatly growing up. Being from the UK, there weren’t many Black British female artists for me to look up to. Corinne was from a dual heritage background like myself and created “acoustic soul,” which was what I was also trying to make as a young artist. My mom introduced me to some of the greats who continue to be my favorites today. From Lauryn Hill to Erykah Badu and Jill Scott to Angie Stone. These are just a few of the names that I think allowed artists like me and other Black female artists to thrive today.
ML: There are so many artists who came before me that don’t get the kind of recognition or honor that they should. There is no one artist especially when you think about the overwhelming amount of oppression and obstacles that any Black artist had to face to express themselves in America. Every single artist, male or female, that pushed against the strongholds of racism and colorism in the music industry has paved the way for me to exist the way that I do. There are a few artists that come to mind like Josephine Baker, Donna Summer and Janet Jackson who were incredibly brave, honest and fearless about who they were sexually, which was not only unheard of for women, but especially as Black women during the time that they were expressing. If I were to highlight anyone, it would be them because my music is definitely risqué, bold and unapologetically loud.
As a Black woman working in a male-dominant industry, what sort of challenges have you had to overcome?
AJ: Whenever I enter a room, it’s with mostly men. So I have to demand being respected for my art and ideas versus anything else that shouldn’t matter. I have to repeat myself a lot, which can be frustrating, but I am appreciative of my team that’s able to hold me down.
KL: One of the biggest things I had to learn while trying to maneuver in a male-dominated industry is how to distinguish the loudest person in the room from the smartest person in the room.
M: When I first started, I think I was still naive to the fact that there are clear differences in how male artists and female artists are treated and the opportunities that we’re given. Whether it’s the way we must present ourselves at award ceremonies, the way we must answer questions in interviews, or even the things we should or shouldn’t say. The lack of female artists on many festival bills and line-ups still confuses me, especially here in the UK. As a young Black girl growing up in England, it was no surprise to me that my parents would tell me and my brothers we must work “twice as hard.” I find that as a Black woman in this industry, that message is still firmly in my head. I think it’s important that we all recognize our privilege in this industry. Being a lighter-skinned Black woman means my experience will be different from my dark-skinned sisters. When it comes to overcoming these kinds of challenges, I’ve made it a point to try and be authentic and clear with my intention. Hopefully, like-minded people will hear and see that.
ML: There’s so much to unpack with this question but I’ll say that the microaggression, the mansplaining, the assumption that if I’m here and I am beautiful that I must have arrived for the pleasure of the men present, are just a few things that really get on my f*cking nerves. But I think the biggest issue I have is that it’s really difficult for a man to digest that a woman is really this powerful. That I have the ability to manifest the world around me, direct it, shape it and finance it, as well as also afford a luxurious lifestyle that isn’t financed by a man. I can do it all with grace and class, and I don’t have to be a b*tch if I don’t want to. It’s very difficult for a man to believe that a woman is autonomous, that she has more to offer the world than just her body. I think this is because we have not been allowed the space to tell our own stories. Even if we see examples of these glorious women in film and television, ultimately and historically, the credit has always been given to a man. And also when we point this out, it’s seen as an attack on men instead of as a simple observation.
“I think the biggest issue I have is that it’s really difficult for a man to digest that a woman is really this powerful.”
Mental health is always a priority and we’re sure there are days where you’re in need of a breather. How do you keep your focus away from all the noise?
AJ: Music is the job but also the release, so I’ll vibe out to a record that I don’t have expectations on becoming anything or even listen to music that may not exactly sound like my own. I also chill with my dog, boyfriend, friends, cook and smoke.
M: I’m in need of a breather most days, especially right now. I spend a lot of time on my own whenever I can and I normally do something simple that I don’t get to do every day because of having a busy schedule. Whether that’s watching a new series on TV, reading a book I’ve been meaning to read, or just listening to someone else’s music other than my own demos, I try and escape from “normal life” as much as possible. When I do that, I feel like I can breathe easier and think clearer. Escapism is a huge part of staying sane for me.
ML: I think until you experience enough pain, you will not be moved to change. I have experienced enough to make me take my mental health seriously. There’s a lot of things I no longer tolerate and I do lots of things every second of every day to protect my space. I am always in gratitude mode. I catch myself quickly if I get into complaining, criticizing or anything that doesn’t help me manifest the future I desire. I listen to my audiobooks, my guided meditations, rain sounds and crackling fireplaces. I stop and smell the roses, and I love my crystals and candles. I take hot showers and steam baths for my Yoni. I get my hair and nails done, and get massages. If the day ever gets really bad, a long silent hug from my hubby erases all the drama.
Do you think it will ever get to a point where the music business will actually make an effort to facilitate real change?
AJ: I have hopes that I’m a part of that change. Understanding myself more and researching what it takes to make my own terms. Artists like Tyler, The Creator is proof of being yourself and changing the game.
KL: Honestly, my expectations are low but my hopes are high.
ML: Realistically, and I say realistically because this is the reality that the majority of us live in, no one is going to change a system that is working for them. Currently, the only ones who want to change anything are the ones without the power to do so. I’ve said this many times before that the real answer is to create the future in the present and be ready to fill the space when the castle walls fall.
What are your thoughts on the Grammys’ recent diversity efforts? Do you think they have been effective in any way?
AJ: I think they’re fake-trying and should have their ear to the culture as leading representatives of music. Going back to my mention about Tyler, he should’ve been up for Album of the Year, period. But he’s in the conversation now, so I guess we can gracefully say “thank you” while knowing more work needs to be done. It’s effective because there’s more conversation about how we continue to get to where we need to be.
ML: It’s hard to answer this question without answering the real question, which is “When are we going to see proper representation in these kinds of spaces?” Right now hip hop and R&B are the voice of the culture. This is the music that is shaping our younger generation and it’s not reflected in the spaces that are making the decisions about what music deserves to be preserved in the history books. To be honest, it has been this way for many years. For example, we’ve heard people like Freddie Mercury say Little Richard is responsible for shaping his sound and persona. If the Grammys is based on what music is popular, much like a presidential election, we would vote on the names that we recognize. If Black and brown artists do not have the same opportunity for advertisement, marketing, radio and promotion, how would anyone ever get a chance to be familiar enough with their names so that they might be voted on when the time for voting comes?
What more do you think they can do to make a better impact?
AJ: As I said before, just actually have their ears to the culture to understand all of our talents and not throw all Black artists in this box of hip hop and R&B. Yes, that’s our bag, but we’re so much more and continue to be innovators in all kinds of music.
KL: I think they should target more new young Black artists, songwriters and composers to include them in the conversations so that the decision and nominations reflect the creators in our industry.
ML: We need more people who look like us to help make the decisions.
“The real answer is to create the future in the present and be ready to fill the space when the castle walls fall.”
Winning a Grammy certainly does not define an artist’s worth or work. What is your definition of being a good artist?
AJ: Good artistry is about people-connecting and growing through the art.
KL: Being a good artist means bringing all of your emotions to life through your music. I don’t think there are any rules to being a good artist. As long as you feel like you’re healing yourself and in return healing others.
M: For me, being a great artist has always been about being true to myself, putting out music that I’m proud of, writing lyrics that are true and honest, and never losing myself in this confusing industry. Awards are a great way to feel a sense of growth and success, but they are not defining and we shouldn’t be defined by them. Being an artist is about connecting with your fans but more importantly, yourself.
ML: Of course winning a Grammy helps solidify you as a household name. It’s an incredible honor and is more of a mark for the world to acknowledge the greatness of your work than for you to use it as a benchmark for your own success. To be a good artist means that you are able to be your fullest self and share your perspective of the world through your artistic expression. It’s literally you translating what you see, feel, hear and experience through your own frequency and recording it through whatever medium you use.
Finally, can you share with us how you are celebrating Black History Month?
AJ: Loving on my friends and family. It’s rough out here and it starts with how we treat each other.
KL: Actually, Black History Month is every month.
M: In truth, I grew up with incredibly “woke” parents – one white and one Black, who were very aware of what they had to teach us. Every month was Black History Month in our house. We had the original “Red Table” where everything was discussed. I was named after a famous gospel singer. My mom would read Maya, Alice and Toni, while my dad would blast Kurtis, Marvin and The Neville Brothers from the turntable. One of the games we played on long car journeys was recognizing and naming different Black artists’ voices. More recently, coincidently what I’m doing is learning about our lost legends. I’m exploring the films of Cicely Tyson and the work of Mary Wilson. Bob Marley’s birthday also just passed and that’s always been a celebration in our family.
ML: Black History Month is every day for me. As an adult, I am constantly learning about my history in this country and on this earth. I’m amazed to find that there is so much richness that was never shared with me in school. It’s a never-ending process and I am so grateful for my Black ancestors who took the risk of recording their own stories when it was illegal to do so, so that I could learn and grow. I celebrate my Blackness every day by being as Black as possible in every situation and showing the human beings around me how different I am from what they might expect me to be.