Should We Be Shaming or Should We Be Claiming?

After reading a bare-all article recently by a groupie about how she’d used sex to get ahead in the music scene, I found myself finally ready to broach a subject that had haunted me for a number of years – Groupies.

I’ve never assumed that it’s my place to shame another woman for a choice she feels she needs to make to ‘get hers’ but it is time for us to start having an honest conversation about the impact of groupie culture on the women who are trying to make a career in the music industry. From a personal standpoint reading the article, I simply felt it undermined all the hard work many women have put in to counter the ‘groupie image’ when trying to break into the music scene.

For Nicki Minaj the fight has been there from the start – to express our many different, complex and complicated sides, as a strength not a weakness. The need to push that conversation even further, was highlighted after Minaj experienced the wrath of the media after calling out the industry on Twitter for what she perceived to be an example of how women of colour were excluded for their contribution to pop culture.

Its never been a smooth ride for women and fighting to get recognised in the industry is a struggle that requires resilience and self-belief. When we step out to start that journey to try and break through, we always face options – but make no mistake using sexuality vs trading in sex are two quite distinct options?

I’m not a groupie, I never wanted to be one and I love Hip-Hop. I made my start as one of the few female Hip-Hop DJ’s in the 90’s and it was other female DJ’s on the London scene like Misbehaviour, Maura Miller and Tara who had given me the inspiration and courage to push through and try and make a name for myself.

When I first walked into an independent record store in Soho back then, I’d endured the awkward confused stares from the guys in the store who simply presumed I’d got lost. When I asked a question, I got ignored and passed over for a guy who’d come in after me. So when I first saw DJ Tara standing behind the counter at ‘Catch A Groove’, Soho, I immediately felt relieved that I may not be alone in the quest for good music. And so every weekend after that, when I walked into that store, I’d cut through all the stares and go straight to DJ Tara and ask her which hot new 12’s were in that week. I also met Destiny there, he’d been on the scene for years but I could never have guessed that a few years later I would join him to stand behind the counter at Release the Groove alongside Shortee Blitz.

So I can’t pretend that I didn’t cringe when I read statements like this in the article – “There’s no stigma around making connections within a music scene through online or non-sexual networking, but there is lots of stigma around using sex to make those connections, and there shouldn’t be. Why not utilise my erotic capital, whether through flirting, dressing a certain way, or having casual sex? This became an almost necessity when I realised how hard it is to get a foothold in a music scene.”

I’m all for female empowerment but in Hip-Hop you get respected for the effort you put in and there are numerous women in Hip-Hop that you never hear about who work furiously behind the scenes. From managers to record executives, there are women who have been standing shoulder to shoulder guiding the careers of many Hip-Hop artists. Executives like Sylvia Rhone in the U.S Music industry paved the way for many women today and I was fortunate to work alongside many women at Def Jam, who had earned the equal respect that was given to them as peers.

I love the music, I love the culture of Hip-Hop and I’ve been a fully fledged fan of it for years. For all the perceived misogyny in Hip-Hop, I feel ten times more empowered by and through other women in hip-hop – and we’ve been comfortable to remain unseen and unheard of, as long as we could continue to do the work we do behind the music we love.

Being in Leeds for University, had given me the chance to get warmed up away from the industry glare in London, and it was no easy task breaking through and trying to get myself noticed. Turning back the clock today, I feel proud of the breakthroughs we made through sheer determination and passion for Hip-Hop music and I never once felt we had to trade in ‘erotic capital’ to make it. I certainly didn’t shy away from the controversies in the media about Hip-Hop at the time, I felt I could embrace it and be empowered by it. We had the audacity to call our Crew of 4 girls the ‘Gangsta Bitchz’ and we were fierce, posting up flyers for our club night all over the university campus and in and around Leeds. We quickly became the scorn of the feminist groups and we were proud of it because while they perceived our flyers as disrespectful to women, we perceived what we were doing as more of a feminist act by actually running things for ourselves in reality.

The image of Darlene on Ice-T’s Power album was an image of feminine power for us and it was the image we used in our flyers. We strongly believed you could own it anyway you wanted to, no one was going to dictate to us what made a woman powerful – put on a g-string or wear a hoodie – hip-hop was open to all the fly girls who wanted to be a part of it. We loved the brazen and non-apologetic style of TLC and the lyrics to boot were all about knowing your sexuality and being comfortable with it on your own terms.

When ‘Gangsta Bitchz’ got featured in U.K’s premier Hip-Hop publication Hip Hop Connection, we knew we’d started something and we wouldn’t stop now – maybe we could actually get into this scene purely off our own merit and through sheer determination. During that time we secured a regular slot on a Pirate radio station in Leeds ‘Dream FM’ and DJ’d in clubs up North from Sheffield to Leeds to Manchester to Nottingham to Leicester and DJ crews like the Firin Squad, Boogie Bunch and Fat City Crew were accepting our invitation to come up from London and play at our club nights.

When a local magazine in Leeds asked me why I got into DJing, I simply answered ‘DJing got into me’, in the same interview they asked me what I wanted next, I didn’t see any limits for myself as a woman, I wanted to do it all – ‘I want to play out on a major radio station and to be able to DJ and run a successful black music night without management who front on the scene. I want to get heavily involved in the music scene – producing and remixing; and also to work at a record company and record shop and want to own so much vinyl that I have no room for furniture – phew!’

And over the years, I managed to do virtually everything I set out to do in that interview other then producing and remixing. After a career at two major labels in the U.K and having worked with the biggest names in Hip-Hop, there was still one thing that always stood out for me as the hardest part of being a woman in this industry. With every step I made striving forward to be taken seriously as a woman, there was a groupie who made that next step even harder for me.

When the groupie in the article asks why there’s a stigma around using sex in the music industry, I’ll explain why I feel that stigma. I remember night after night the same thing – I’d take Rap artists to a club after a day of press and promotion, and it was a typical occurrence to be mistaken as just another groupie – girls would elbow, push and even swear at me to get out of the way as they were clambering to get to the artist. For every groupie that was pushing herself into the limousine at the end of the night, I remember feeling completely at a loss as to why this was the only way some girls thought they could express their passion for the music. When I got the look of despair from my colleagues I felt embarrassed and forced to explain or joke about how stupid those girls were – anything to create as much separation as I could from them. All those years I often wondered what was in the mindset of a groupie who was willing to be lend her company for just one night but I never dared to ask – I didn’t want to slut-shame anyone – I didn’t think they cared what I thought anyway as long as I was out of the way.

I wanted to build a career in music and I didn’t feel the need to use my sexuality to get there. So by offering the position that austerity can justify this route to getting in, is scary to say the least – “Generally, the people who utilise their erotic capital are those who know their strengths and how to use them to get what they want. With austerity getting harsher and the divide between rich and poor widening, erotic capital is one form of capital available to society at large.”  If times are tougher doesn’t it force us all to  work that much harder collectively, to mentor other women, to make ourselves heard and to use every voice we can as women to push for equality?

I always go back to that interview I gave at the beginning of my career and I still feel like the same girl I was at 19 – when they asked me ‘if I felt I got treated differently by promoters and by other DJ’s because I was a woman’. My answer was this; “Damn right I do! But then people think that’s what I’d say. This is a male dominated industry and to keep your head above water you have to give it to them straight. All I can say is, we live up to being the Bitchz – we know what we want, we’re completely headstrong and we’ll stop at nothing to get where we want!”

One thing I am clear about today is that it never entered my mind to think that I needed to be a groupie to get into the scene. Gender inequality cannot be traded using erotic capital – its won through struggling to bring equality to deserving people who equally merit the rewards that come through their hard work and determination.

So I’ll close with words from Nicki Minaj, “Women in the industry are judged more. If you speak up for yourself, you’re a bitch. If you party too much, you’re a whore. Men don’t get called these things.”