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On the “First Lady” Conundrum and Equal Opportunities For Women in Music

  • emma
  • 8th February 2021

While chronicling the struggles she faced in the early stages of her career during her BlackBox interview, Tiwa Savage tells an interesting story. On her return to Nigeria, she met with several label heads to work out a deal and was rejected by every one of them. Their reason: they were already working with a female artiste and could not take her.


A cursory glance at Nigerian record labels and their artiste rosters shows a disparity in how music executives prioritise male artists above their female counterparts. With the exception of Chocolate City, all of the major labels currently have just one – and in some cases, zero – female artistes on their roster. Even Chocolate City has only three of them. In addition to this, female artistes receive less promotion and publicity online and in traditional media. On 21 January 2021, music mogul Don Jazzy announced the signing of Arya Starr, his latest teenage sensation and an additional female talent for his label, Mavin Records. While the music scene is better off for a new voice, it does make one think about how record labels consider female talents.


Here is an exercise for you: think of any Nigerian record label and do a quick Google search with the name of said label and the words “first lady”. The results of these searches reveal a prevalent strategy where female musicians are signed as token hires, without real interest in the furtherance of their careers, leaving everything to chance. Recently, ex-YBNL artiste Temmie Ovwasa went on a Twitter rant, accusing Olamide Adedeji, the label boss, of deliberately sabotaging her career by canceling her shows and letting her release just four songs in five years.


Although Ovwasa later revealed that she had settled her issues with Olamide and things were once again cordial between them, the situation revealed two things. Firstly, the label was unwilling to give her the support it had given to previous artistes. The situation is even weirder when you consider Olamide is respected as a great spotter of talent, with Lil Kesh, Adekunle Gold, and Fireboy DML all coming under his tutelage. Even the greatest scouts make false predictions from time to time, but Ovwasa’s failure to “blow” was not an indictment of her talent but rather an indication of the impatience of YBNL to help her find her niche.


Secondly, the reactions to Temmie Ovwasa’s tweets exposed the burden female musicians have to bear in a male-dominated and misogynistic industry. In the wake of the tweets, YBNL fans attacked her, calling her ungrateful for bringing the issues to Twitter instead of discussing them privately with Olamide. These admonitions appear hypocritical when you consider that the same music fanbase telling her to keep her complaints under the covers gets giddy with excitement when male artistes throw shots at each other on social media. In a space that has seen artistes like M.I Abaga and Vector, as well as Burna Boy and Davido exchange virtual jabs, Ovwasa being policed is just an honest reflection of the larger society where women are expected to behave in a certain way once they are in the public eye.


In the interview referenced above, Tiwa Savage narrated her ugly experiences with promoters, interviewers, and the likes who had unfair expectations of her while accommodating excesses and lackadaisical behaviour from her male counterparts. “Another person (a male artiste) could be three hours late for an interview, but I’m there early, and they complain that I only want to do 20 minutes. Some artistes don’t even show up.”


The deliberate sidelining and limiting of female artistes is not unheard of. The growth of women in the music industry always tends to be sidetracked by conversations of superiority instead of collaboration, and while that seems trivial, it is representative of the toxic environment that female artistes have to endure for the sake of their careers. Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat. Asa and Tems. Even Arya Starr, who made her debut less than a week ago, has already faced incessant comparison to Tems. There is a constant refusal to let female musicians coexist without pitting them against each other. These forced rivalries turn to distractions as the artistes sacrifice their unique sounds for whatever will keep them ahead in the battle for dominance.


Marketing is also an additional problem, as women in the entertainment industry are expected to be conventionally attractive in addition to their talent, to even be worthy of consideration for proper promotion. Recently, a clip showing Rick Ross dismissing a clearly better singer in favour of a less talented one went viral, leading to accusations of colourism.


A seemingly easy solution to these problems is for artistes to explore the option of being independent. With the advent of social media and music streaming services, many female artists can gain an organic following and spread their work without label support. However, there is only so much these independent artistes can do without backing from executives with industry connections and spending power.


In the summer of 2020, protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement rocked the world and provoked conversations on tokenism that corporations and systems practiced in hiring and treating black employees. These discussions led to companies and influential figures making public administrative and structural changes. It is time for these changes to take on a gendered view and affect the music industry. It is not enough for a label to have a woman on its payroll. How are they actively trying to push that woman’s music and promote her compared to the male artistes under the same label?


Conversations around gender inclusivity in the music industry have been happening for years, and while progress has been made in some areas, there is still a lot of room for change and improvement. Women need to be given an equal playing ground, free of hostility and bias. Anything less than that is harmful, and a harmful space will only negatively affect the industry in the long run.


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