Toxic Masculinity in the Music Industry and What It Means For the Representation of Women

At first glance, it appears that 2019 is going to be our year—women are out there leading the charge and I’m here for it. The Democratic run for president is being spearheaded by Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Cardi B brought home Best Rap Album at the Grammys, followed by Kacey Musgraves with Album of the Year. We have a record number of women in the House of Representatives and on my office’s web development team (one… we’ve officially hired one woman). It’s important to understand, though, that just because we’re seeing and hearing from more women, we’re still largely missing behind the scenes. Music, in particular, is an industry that continues to be completely dominated by men. Where’s the representation and what can we do about it?

Allow me to rewind the clock briefly. The year was 2017—Gucci Mane was newly released from prison and walking down the aisle, Bodak Yellow was sitting #1 on the charts—it was a time so distant, yet so familiar. Complex Magazine was tweeting praise for rapper XXXTentacion’s freshmen album, amidst his horrific sexual assault allegations. No stranger to a twitter argument, to my detriment at times, I hopped into Complex’s  mentions and expressed my concern with their repeated acknowledgment of the serial abuser. I argued that by giving abusive platform, we’re telling other men that they, too, can get a pass for violence and sexual misconduct.

And then, it happened. Like Bernie Bros flock to a centrist democrat, 21 year old men with deeply questionable morals and soundcloud histories came for me. No, I don’t enjoy being called derogatory names by guys named Chad, but I do love being right. Within less than 5 minutes I’d been called every name in the book for simply suggesting that rapists shouldn’t get a nod from a worldwide publication. This lit a fire in me and I decided to do some digging into Complex’s mission and readership. Their website boasts that their outreach expands to 120 million people, and sitting at over 1.5 million twitter followers, it goes without saying that they have a solid platform to sway people’s thoughts on certain issues. They define their content as a “call to action,” and aim to highlight people with the “power to shift American pop culture, and reshape the face of the mainstream.” And yet, they can’t publicly denounce artists like XXXtentacion and Chris Brown? In an industry that seemingly survives on masculinity, women are no more valuable than an impression and a “click.”

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a study in February 2019, “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” which dissected the inclusion and diversity of women in music. The results of this study were dismal at best — based on 700 songs in the Billboard Top 100 (from years 2012–2018), only 17.1% of artists in 2018 were female. I’ll also note, that while we’ve improved from 16.8% in 2017, this is down from 28.1% in 2016. To break this study down further, 12.3% of this sample were female songwriters, and a whopping 2.1% were producers. Even more upsetting? 4 out of 871 producers were women of color.

These discouraging numbers aren’t because women aren’t making music—this is the direct result of the toxic masculinity that thrives within the industry. You can’t tell me that the same people who proudly work with known abusers and rapists, also support the idea of equality. When I sat down to do some research,  I thought that finding music that was largely written and/or produced by women would be easy — a quick google search of my favorite albums would read like an empowering anthem of women. I started with SZA’s debut album, CTRL; not one credited female producer, and out of 31 credited songwriters (aside from herself), only 2 women make the list. CTRL continues to be one of my favorite albums; it makes me feel comfortable and proud of my womanhood. It’s upsetting that behind the scenes, less than 7% of the albums contributors were women. Similarly, out of 82 songwriters and producers on Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, only 4 women besides Cardi B are credited. We’re at a pivotal moment where action is what will ultimately shift the toxicity of the music industry to be in favor of women. It’s up to us, the listeners, to make the women in the background impossible to ignore.

I’m not by any means suggesting that we completely stop listening to music where women aren’t fully immersed in the creation process. I cannot and will not give up CTRL, nor will I ever forget the first time I listened to Be Careful With Me and suddenly felt every heartbreak I’ve ever endured all over.  Instead, I want to encourage people to go the extra mile—to do their research on women in music and make an active choice to listen, purchase, and stream their work. Your favorite male artist released a new album? Great, we can still love that! Find the songs with with female features and credits and stream them so much now you’re choreographing dances alone in your room. Giving women tangible support through streaming numbers, album sales, and ticket sales, translates to louder voices in conversations that they’re unfairly excluded from. It should be our goal, moving forward, to give women in music voices so loud that they cannot be ignored any longer. We cannot leave these them to work alone.

Do you know Macie Stewart? She’s one of the songwriters (aside from SZA herself and Donna Somers) credited to CTRL. Macie was a co-contributor on Drew Barrymore more specifically, which is a hit that absolutely sticks like grits. She is a classically trained pianist and violinist, and while she’s worked with many talented artists (see: Chance the Rapper, Whitney), she also joined forces with Sima Cunningham to form the band Ohmme. I can guarantee any one of her songs is better than Mo Bamba by Sheck Wes.

Chloe x Halle are a more well-known name in the mix, but I think it’s worth noting that they wrote and produced nearly every song on their debut album, The Kids are Alright. At only 19 and 17 years old respectively, Chloe x Halle are poised to inspire a new generation of female singers, songwriters, and producers.

I’ll leave you with this: next time you feel like listening to Run It! By Chris Brown, or Ignition (Remix) by R.Kelly, play literally any absolute banger by a kick ass woman. You literally can’t run out of options. In the meantime, I’ll be here when we’re ready to talk about how Kiss Kiss was really Chris Brown’s only good song, so let’s just stop acting like he’s too good to quit okay.

Want to get even more involved? Check out Women In Music, the industry’s leading non-profit helping to amplify the voices of women in music worldwide.

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