Opinion

Balancing the Scales: On the Erasure of Femmes in House Music

Balancing the Scales

The genesis of house music dates back to the late 1970s. A product of the marginalised black LGBTI community, the genre has journeyed from its origins in funk and the disco of the bathhouses and nightclubs of New York City, and on to Chicago’s Warehouse era. It gave rise to techno when it found the industrial decline of Detroit and was then exported to Europe and back to Africa. In all its travels, house music found a firm footing in South Africa, the world’s dancing nation, which holds pole position as its biggest consumer per capita in the world.

So it was fitting that the inaugural Dance Music Awards South Africa held a category for House Record of the Year among its 20 dance music accolades. A long overdue development for the genre, one of the songs nominated in the category – Jullian Gomes ft Sió, ‘1000 Memories’ – was included on the list sans credit to Sió. At the time of writing, three weeks after the announcement, DMASA had corrected the omission on Gomes’ nomination promotion photos, but not on the official website.

One might think this is insignificant. But, as DJ Scholar Lynnée Denise points out: “Throughout the history of the migration of [house] music, women are missing from the story. There are no names whom we can call the way we call Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Larry Levan… Women are largely absent from the discussion of house music outside of our roles as nameless/faceless vocalists.”

Our erasure is not a new concept.

For me, this realisation is seared in the memories of my teenage years in 90s Zimbabwe. On the cusp of house music’s invasion of South Africa, Rhythm Centric’s ‘Come To Me’ and Blue Six’s ‘Sweeter Love’ played often on Channel O. I danced to Blue Six’s ‘Pure’, oblivious to the fact that it was Monique Bingham singing the luscious lines, nor that Janelle’s voice beckoned in ‘Come To Me’ and Lysa Aya Trenier sang the saccharine ‘Sweeter Love’.

But this was the 90s: a time when the use of models instead of the actual vocalist in original videos was rife. Bands like Black Box and C & C Factory replaced fuller figured vocalists like Martha Wash with slim models, or conventionally attractive front women who lip-synced during performances. It seemed Wash was good enough to be heard but not seen. Turning to the US courts, Wash sued Sony in a landmark case that led to the creation of federal law “mandating credit on all videos and albums.” She reclaimed her time, on several occasions, and etched in history the directive that no vocalist should go nameless or faceless again.

Nowadays, unless you’re Avicii whose entire albums omit featured vocalists, credits are standard fare and we have a black woman to thank for this. The fact that Wash’s little known monumental contribution is not the stuff of legend or a caveat on the perils of neglecting to credit vocalists begs the question, why?

In the main, the “presumption that female vocalists are only muses to a studio of (usually) male producers” buttresses the undervaluing of women’s work in dance music. In 2015 Bjork disclosed how, after producing 80 percent of the critically acclaimed Verspertine, male co-producers were often ascribed substantial credit in coverage of the album. Producers Arca and Matmos were erroneously credited as sole producers “everywhere” in a trend that has duplicated itself all through her career time and again.

In the case of “1000 Memories”, Sió not only sings, she also composed and arranged the lyrics and melodies. Unlike in hip hop and RnB where appearances are limited to a verse or hook, a feature in house music often means a vocalist is responsible for half the song – in a return to the traditional music industry principle of a 50-50 copyright right split between music and lyrics.

Yet, it is not uncommon for producers to claim they own in a song in its entirety (even sometimes/often without payment or agreements in place to guarantee royalties), because their name comes first. While this can sometimes be chalked up to ignorance about how copyright works, stories about the exploitation of vocalists persist unabated and unaddressed. Save for the ongoing saga between Nothende Madumo and Lulo Café, many stories remain anecdotal as vocalists opt not to share their stories of exploitation out of powerlessness or fear. This silencing further contributes to erasure, as proverbial liner notes remain distorted and history – once written – is difficult and/or expensive to correct.

Not only are women’s contributions excluded from the narrative of house music we continue to be locked out financially through marginalisation in the dance music economy. A cursory look at any of the upcoming music festivals, or a weekend’s worth of gig posters will reveal a dismal showing of women as headline or supporting acts. Internationally, women account for only 10% of festival and club bookings.

World-renowned EDM DJ, Black Madonna, believes that balancing the scale is only possible if we “reconsider how we value the roles different genders play and why we value them the way we do.” We wax lyrical about ‘Godfathers of House’ but little is said about the women who have been integral to the growth of the movement behind and in front of the scenes. Women are not just a face or voice. We produce, write, DJ, create events, design synthesisers, curate projects and spread the word about house music far and wide. We have been here since the very beginning and deserve to take our rightful place in the annals of house music history. 

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