Good Music Has No Gender, Race, Caste Or Religion
“I am femme-queer,” says M. “That means I have chosen to reject the identity of a woman. I choose to be femme. For me, gender is not binary. I don’t just see ‘men’ and ‘women’. I see people who fall in neither category. People who have been left out by a binary gender system. I am queer because I reject patriarchy, and I am femme because I reject masculinity. This is perhaps a radical way of identifying oneself. I understand that. But we need to think of radical changes to break free of pervasive patriarchal systems prevalent around us.”
While sexism and misogyny permeate through the inner machinations of the entertainment industry worldwide, the sector’s propensity of gross under-representation and deliberate infantilisation of artistic integrity has been detrimental to shaping gender discourse within its realms. Stunting traditional paradigms that thrive on the coercion of gender stratification, artistes have been breaking barriers and providing telling perspectives on discrimination, intersectional inequality and prejudices observed in the music industry.
Gender is a set of performances imposed on our bodies; that are constituting the identity it is purported to be, said Judith Butler – a post structuralist philosopher and gender theorist whose contributions have had a meaningful impact in the fields of political philosophy, ethics, feminism, queer and literary theory. These performances, M believes, have been strategically engineered for centuries to create a power dynamic; one that benefits some people over others. “That power distribution is patriarchy. We never chose for ourselves. Yet, we are regimented by them. There are people who have transcended these boundaries of gender performances imposed on them by patriarchy in varying ways and degrees via sexuality, fashion, social revolutions and law amongst other factions. Music too is gendered by association. There is a socio-political history of musical cultures,” says M.
Understanding political reality of ‘identities’
In the tea gardens of north-east Bengal, M explains, workers were brought to Bangladesh by the British in the 19th century. They were bonded labourers. For generations in those lands, songs were written of unrequited love, of colonial oppression, of misplaced identities, of struggles in unclaimed spaces, of home…
‘Chol Mini Assam Jabo’ is a testament to their resilience. It’s an old song, says M. A tea worker asks his beloved to return to Assam with him. “This is an example of how strength is drawn from music and literature, for history and for revolt. There is no external force such as the Internet or corporate agenda or western inspiration that keeps this music and these sentiments alive. Art can transcend languages and borders. And, our art comes from intimate places of our being. It is very easy to point at trends and call them revolutions. But these smaller revolutions must lead to bigger ends for radical change in a collective of people. What I have learned from all of this is that I need to find languages, sounds and media that are more real and relatable to this region. I choose to focus on people — who will be the audience and the artists — in a manner that understands the political realities of their identities,” she explains.
To put it succinctly, M hopes to work with women and femme-queer bodies. That is feminine bodies, she clarifies. However, she reminds herself that a cis-gendered woman is not the same as queer female, or trans-femme. Their class, race, ethnicity, social origins differ and perhaps will even be conflicting at times. “So, the sound that has to come from and for these people will have to focus on their ‘femme-ness’ in ways that transcend these matters but not forgets them altogether. The tools, resources and infrastructure that we will require must function for them which can only happen by focusing on the socio-political realities of femme bodies. You can’t bring forth a revolution by just making music for the sake of it. It has to lead somewhere because it is their music. It isn’t just sounds. They come from real people with real identities and struggles. That is the only way music can be of any potential help to a revolution. That is the only way we can have music like ‘Chol Mini’…” explains M, a journalist, writer and creative director based in Dhaka.
Currently, she is working on a project titled ‘The Queer Archives, Bangladesh’ that aims to gather queer histories and stories of and from Bangladesh. “I am looking for ways to gather resources and skills that can be handed to other femmes and queers in the community who can then use those resources to build their own sounds, music and art,” she explained.
Electronic music has a rich queer history. Yet, femme and queer bodies have always been the underdogs. “Their work cannot be allowed to be co-opted,” she declared affirmatively, “The answer to ‘curing’ sexism doesn’t magically appear when you push femmes into male-dominated businesses to struggle for themselves. It’s a lot like the race of poor countries trying to become richer, developed countries. Rather than attempting to change ‘spaces’, we need to focus on creating new resources that address our problems better. We need to build spaces for femme and queer bodies to make music. And, we need to be more educated of the medium and tools we use. Otherwise, our bodies will always be objectified, and commodified; our sounds will always be co-opted and appropriated,” she says.
Gender imbalance across music industry worldwide
Image courtesy of Raania Azam Khan
“There is a fine line between arts practice and activism. We work in a conflict zone where politics, mob mentality and now social media outrage or propaganda affect everything we do,” says Raania Azam Khan Durrani, an inter-disciplinary artist. She is the Director of Arts for Pakistan at the British Council, and is the co-founder/advisor for Salt Arts. “In my mind, the core of chaos and lack of empathy amongst people begins at home, in our childhood, and shapes our minds and hearts. The lack of exploratory spaces for creative expression, poetic thought, free mental and physical movement, appreciation of the intangible arts – is the root cause for such behaviour. Politics, power and propaganda were able to remove that from the lives of an entire generation in Pakistan – and what remains are memories of when the public was artful and sophisticated, when people read, learnt and sang,” she says.
Although sexism may be nurtured within the boundaries of creative industries, she disagrees and strongly feels that those who have struggled, and choose to be artists are ‘azaad’ from gender politics of the world. Sexism is not rampant within the artist communities, she declares. For, in the music industry, she has rarely witnessed such marginalisation. “When we step out of the artistic space, we realise that not only are we being judged as artistes but also as women; women in the arts. It stems from uncultured thought processes, insecurities, and eventually from what we learn at home. Recently, a video went viral on the Internet where Madonna talks about how the most controversial thing she has ever done is to stick around. She also speaks of how ageing is a sin. How women are expected to behave the way men want, and also in a way acceptable to other women, and what they feel is appropriate behaviour in the company of men. I have been in situations where people would speak to my male colleagues directly while I was the one making the presentation,” she explains and further adds, “There seems to be a general belief that a man closes a deal. But I have also had the privilege of working with amazing men who have directed the balance back to professionalism and not gender. I also think this owes to the fact that the industry especially in Pakistan has suffered so much in the past and people are trying very hard to catch up on lost time.”
Image courtesy of Irina Giri
Raising a boy in South Asia as a single parent, Raania’s greatest pride and privilege, according to her, lies in the opportunity to alter the way society expects him to think and behave. At home, parents must focus on mutuality and collective strength of all genders. However, today, she feels conflicted. While women in the arts must never shy away from their sexuality, it is imperative that they not give in to popular demands of being an entertainer, a solution performer or merely a pleaser.
“There is a trend in Pakistan, and I am sure in the rest of this region of corporate events and retreats where young female musical acts are engaged by large groups of employees of a firm, often mostly men. While the artistes work hard and deliver, they are not chosen based on the strength of their music and art but on the basis of which act is better and offers a more entertaining package. Why this mind set exists can be attributed to insensitivity to the arts and to what we have been exposed to as children. Do we know how to listen? Do we value what we see? Do we care about inspiration, peace and respect? Is the mass regional broadcast of crass vulgarity in advertising, film and television helping?” asks Raania.
Building respectful ‘spaces’ for all genders
While progressive thinking and a fundamental change in the social construct of gender may be in order, M on the other hand believes that unless ‘spaces’ we build and create are respectful and aware of our race, creed, socio-economic backgrounds and histories, the change will never be radical, sustainable and strong. “What is even more insidiously harmful is how females and femmes internalise misogyny and learn to live with patriarchy to an extent that they cannot imagine being a different kind of woman. I was initially asked to host Planet Electronica because the producers of the show wanted a female host to ‘attract more listeners’. This is the world we live in,” she says adding further, “‘Translations’, Bangladesh’s first physical compilation of electronica featured one track from a local female artist, Tin Whiskers. But behind the scenes, there were three other women working as the graphic designer, illustrator and project manager. There are women working in the music industry in different crucial roles that get looked over.”
In Pakistan, Raania ascertains, social agreement, encouragement, training centres, recognition of the arts as a valid career choice for women, and respect are some of the most integral factors that need to be addressed. “Many women in the arts are unable to get the respect they deserve from their own families, partners and even friends. They either choose profession or convention. It shouldn’t have to be so difficult. When I was very young, and about to get married, an affluent and well-known Pakistani woman (visual artist) asked me casually, if I would continue working after I got married. I was in disbelief and could not understand how to respond,” she said and further explained, “As a woman in a leading position I feel it is my responsibility to set the tone for younger female peers. Women in the arts have been stereotyped by generations of insensitive people who have considered the arts as a reckless path leading to destruction — mental, physical and financial.”
In the last decade or so, numerous critiques and musicians have come forth highlighting gender imbalance within line-ups across festivals all over the world. Not only is it the duty of every organiser to represent fairer balance based on quality and not just popularity but it is also important to have line-ups that aren’t dominated by one gender alone, says Amrisha Prasher, a global underground DJ and radio presenter. Under the guise of exposure, gender-based pay disparity exists in performing arts all over the world. While commercial interests may attain monetary benefits, independent artistes occupy the same position everywhere. “The kind of music that we are playing here makes payment difficult for any sex. It almost seems like my friends and I are on a level playing field when it comes to the really little pay if at all that we might get,” said Irina Giri who performs as Flekke and collaborates with different artists under that moniker.
Image courtesy of Amrisha Prasher
Nurturing an ecosystem of musical diversity
Music has the power to break down social, economic and racial barriers. And, Sunara Jayamanne has borne witness to it all. “I’ve seen people from all walks of life coming together and becoming one with music on the dance floor in a country like Sri Lanka where these divides are extremely prominent,” she says. She believes that music could be a tool to bring about a fundamental change in society. But only to those who have a clear intention and purpose. Those who choose to tap into its pure form are the ones who can make a change.
“Though we have our fair share of prejudices and inequalities especially directed towards women, I haven’t felt many of the negative effects of sexism in my journey. However, on many occasions, I was aware that the promoters are trying to book me simply because I’m a girl without even being aware of my sound. In such situations, I try to educate them and tell them that their ways are wrong. Human beings regardless of gender are afraid of change. And, it is not just one gender but all beings who do not care enough to open their hearts and minds,” said the DJ and visual artiste from Colombo who strongly believed that we need to encourage more women and men to do what they love.
Image courtesy of Sunara Jayamanne
Ultimately, it all boils down to infrastructure and the cultural eco-system. However, in Pakistan, Raania says, there have been no set precedents. The bigger and more established names are paid well. And, this stands true for men and women. However, a more sustainable approach includes perpetuating a massive shift in focus towards infrastructure development. “Mainstream women artistes in Pakistan are increasingly getting better representation and in order to thrive as professionals are beginning to follow international standards of artist engagement,” she adds.
A large number of women especially in South Asian countries have certain preconceived ideologies with respect to performing arts and music. At a young age, Sunara was advised against pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. She was told it would neither offer a safe space nor a reputable one where women could make a living. “This was all just circumstantial and untrue. Encouragement and support from all genders would be something that can help make it an equal playing field,” she says.
Nonetheless, there is a fundamental issue in the ways that we arrange and organise our creative realms. There are occasions when femme bodies do penetrate these spaces, but they are expectedly rare. “I live in Dhaka independently without a guardian. So, I have the freedom and access that very few women get,” explains M, “And, I know that because I’ve mostly been the only female in these spaces surrounded by men. On occasions like these, you cannot use such rare presences as a marker of progress; there is no proof of progress here. It is just an individual rarity, an anomaly in the way of things. There may be little progresses here in the cases of the individual femmes who have fought hard. But in most cases we can also see that richer and urban people tend to have more access. It does not carry over in a way that affects woman-kind or femme-kind altogether in a substantial manner and remains limited to individual experiences.”
Creating art versus selling an image
Image courtesy of Tritha Electric
Another practice that flourishes in the entertainment industry includes sexualisation of an artiste’s identity. Artistes, regardless of gender, resort to selling an image rather than creating art. Sex appeal has long helped compensate the lack of talent across the music industry for decades. Moreover, musicians feel that ‘ingrained chauvinism’ engulfing the artistic sector is an alarming indication of what the future of the industry entails.
“The challenges of a true artist include making a space for herself or himself fighting against the majority — ‘commercial’ arts which succumb to the demands of the market. It is often mediocre. True artistes would think beyond commerce. They try to observe society from a distance and reflect upon it,” says Tritha Sinha, the driving force behind Tritha Electric and SPACE who fervently believes that artistes today every so often end up focussing on many other aspects of the art apart from creating it.
While ‘Kali’s Forest’ spoke of domestic violence and ‘Zindagi Bitani’ delved into the perils of forced marriages, ‘Up in the Air’ was about sexual harrasment. Every word is important, she says. Whether it’s a dialogue or a discourse, whether it’s an argument or a protest, women need to be true to themselves. Like her peers, she too feels that there could be more support from music patrons and government to put a greater emphasis on budgets for the unsupported and oppressed gender in the form of music festivals and productions.
Apart from women, there needs to be art and music from the third gender — the transgenders. “We absolutely have no documentation of their work or their feelings apart from when they protest. It proves that they have probably had such a tough time that they don’t even think of music as a career. Maybe there could be some only women or transgender only music festivals to get more care and attention and space in the society even just to be heard,” she says but quickly adds that these efforts should not be seen as a source of entertainment or be engulfed in a feminist paradigm but just identified merely as a sincere and honest attempt at seeking a solution; one that requires us to acknowledge the existence of a problem.
Good music does not have a gender. Nor does it have any caste, creed, race or religion. Such limitations only hinder our progress in the long run. It is individuality in music and artistry, that needs to be celebrated not baseless standards of beauty or popularity that have been normalised today. Equality of genders must transcend into art. More importantly, into our lives.
Perhaps, it’s time we change the dialogue…
written by Akshatha Shetty