The third annual Impact Music Conference unified a cosmic group of talent involved in all spheres of the music industry, from across Africa and the world. Held over 26 and 27 April at Alliance Française in Accra, it emphasized women in the sector and how to invigorate the female population in professional ventures of creativity. A powerhouse of presenters shared experiences, challenges, and advice from their respective career vantages.
I spoke with Fleur Macdonald and Adora Mba of TRUE Africa, a platform committed to changing the narrative and championing African voices on an international level. “They’re not necessarily celebrities or the most popular people,” Adora says, of those whom they seek to acknowledge.“From innovators, techs, musicians, artists– anyone that has a voice, we want to amplify it in the diaspora and the continent.”
The challenges Fleur and Adora recognize within the industry for women, specifically, stems from a lack of confidence — the majority of submissions TRUE Africa receives are from men. “There are some women who are pushing through and are doing it and are amazing,” Adora says. “But it’s not enough.” Fleur agrees, also noting that the content women submit is generally of higher quality. She theorizes that perfectionism is one obstacle that could be suppressing a major population of burgeoning, raw talent from contributing work. “Women are more talented than they think, so maybe it’s just a matter of having the self-assurance and the confidence to do it.”
Travel has granted the TRUE Africa team perspective of contrasting cultures and how those differences affect the way women participate in the industry. “Africa is still catching up. It’s still patriarchal,” Adora says. “The western world is more modern, they have equal rights, they have gay rights. We’re still trying to get women on the same level as men, let alone gays and straights. It’s just more old-school.”
Also addressing the conference was TRUE Africa’s founder, Claude Grunitzky, who likewise created TRACE and TRACE TV. After selling this successful enterprise five years ago, Claude was offered a position as the CEO of Universal Music for Africa. Research into this potential business venture disclosed that all the reporting would be to the head of the office in France, “Meaning the African continent would be perceived as a subsidiary of France, which didn’t really make sense. So I turned the offer down.”
Claude, a citizen of Togo, France, and the United States, had also discovered that marketing was where the continent fell short. Recognizing the conundrum between Africa’s monumental amount of talent and minimal business and industry through which it could be funnelled, Claude founded TRUE Africa. His vision seeks to promote confidence and spread marketing knowledge to Africans and the diaspora in the quest to export African music and culture internationally. “I feel like we are on the verge of something really, really big,” Claude says. Ugandan music producer, DJ Rachael, is the dance-inducing product of self-promotion and persistence. She was the first female DJ in East Africa, a position which inspired her to facilitate free workshops to teach girls the art—and technicals—of the turntables. With a hefty 20 year career under her belt, DJ Rachael has endured verbal and physical abuse, negative media attention, and the frustration of managing her own career. She even gave up for a year, but the lion-hearten DJ has drive, and that’s what brought her back. Just this year, Smirnoff and Vice Media partnered with her and the Black Madonna from Chicago for the Equalizing Music initiative, a project dedicated to increasing the number of female headliners at festivals. The documentary, Women Equalizing Music, resulted from it.
Other industry heavyweights addressed challenges that women face in a male dominated industry. Nomndeni Mdakhi, founder of Edits Talks in South Africa, offered her personal approach: “Don’t be the loudest person outside the room trying to change people inside the room. Get inside the room. Get them to like you. Don’t enter any situation as a victim. Come into it strategically knowing how to gain trust, and once you’ve gained trust, then you have people’s ears and you can start changing people from the inside.”
Miss Naa, radio presenter and self-proclaimed tomboy, has found herself comfortable amongst a sea of men in the industry, but noticed those who had a tough time maneuvering. Women often fall into roles outlined by societal pressures which, Ms Naa says, suppresses their passions, and is “stereotypical garbage”. She suspects that a low presence of women in the industry can be attributed to cultural influence, where women are often expected to be waiting around at home, preparing themselves to get “wifed”.
ACCRA [dot] ALT founder, Sionne Neely, noted the challenges her home interacts with specifically. “We are living in, one, a very conservative culture here in Ghana, a very hyper-religious culture, patriarchal culture, a culture that doesn’t allow young people to speak independently to critically express themselves and to imagine.” She countered this with a question: “How can we create spaces where women feel confident and bold enough, and supported and encouraged by their communities to be expressive?”
The solutions are there. A foundation of practical knowledge of the industry as a business is fundamental, from pitching ideas to self-marketing. Today, social media plays a major role in free promotion. Some successful business moguls offered both their tips and warnings about the world of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Wiyaala, Ghana’s candid, outspoken Afro-pop star, attributes her popularity to social media, but sees it as a tool for education. “I’ve used social media to change the perceptions of people back at my home when it comes to music,” Wiyaala says, who comes from a small village in northern Ghana, where following a musical career path was considered mad. “They come to wake you. ‘Wake up, wake up! Stop this nonsense you are doing!’” For her, social media is an opportunity. “Some of us use it to educate the people. It has worked positively in a way I have never seen before, to the extent they will name a street after you.” Yes, Wiyaala Street is a real thing.
Fashizblack creator, Paola Audrey, advised that people should be wise in how they portray themselves online. “Be yourself,” Paola says. “That way you can keep consistency on different platforms and also, people are watching. The internet is unpredictable and can be dangerous.” Social media also offers the opportunity to connect with creative heroes—talented people who seem ‘untouchable’. “Engage in conversation with the people you admire online,” Jepchumba, founder of African Digital Art, says. “Get in touch if you want to talk to them or collaborate. Be persistent.”
Then, like a train changing course, Jepchumba tossed out a radical idea. “How about just don’t do it? Just don’t get online. Try that as an experiment.” Wait, what? “As much as being online has benefited me, I can also make the case that I can do without it. I think it’s about balance. It’s not the answer for everything, and don’t let people try to convince you that it is. The more crazy we are and the better ways we can think outside of the box, the longer we’re gonna last. In five years, Instagram won’t be there, and those likes aren’t going to be liking you then. Try something else.” For a society of internet junkies, this concept is out there. But whoever is familiar with Jepchumba’s African Digital Art platform would probably agree that such ‘out there’ ideas are working in her favour.
Success in the music industry won’t just come from lots of ‘likes’ or thousands of ‘followers’. “At the end of the day, you can’t escape from hard work,” Jepchumba lays it down. “You can’t escape from actually making something that people will buy and enjoy.” Ms Naa’s advice was addressed to the ladies, but I believe it transcends gender. Her simple, universal hint? “Basically chicks, you just gotta fight. And get up off your butt.”
By: Dayna Mahannah