Female DJs tackle gender bias

Electronic music artists want equal recognition for their skills
Photo: Decibel Festival

“A while back I thought it was the accessibility to technology that was the problem,” says Jen Pearson, a Vancouver DJ who encourages mentorship of female electronic music artists. “But technology is mostly gender neutral and accessible now. So I’m not sure why there aren’t more women in electronic music production.”

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Like other women in the industry, Pearson, who performs as Nancy Dru with Vancouver crews Subversive and, wonders why men continue to dominate the scene.

“Boys are usually socialized to play more with electronics, but as technology becomes more ubiquitous, I’m not sure why more girls aren’t encouraged to go into electronic music,” says Pearson.

The genre has gained mass appeal, yet women are not visible.

As more people have begun to appreciate the talent behind electronic music, and the genre has gained mass appeal, DJs have become celebrities and some of the top performers earn six figures for a single night of entertainment. Yet women are not visible.

There’s disagreement on whether it’s a problem of numbers or recognition. Some writers suggest there are few women in the industry. Others believe that women have been a central part of pioneering electronic music, but are not celebrated as often as men.

Anyone who frequents electronic music events knows that male headliners are the norm. Music festivals, which draw international crowds and feature popular artists or acclaimed innovators in music, are consistently dominated by male DJs. The appearance of female DJs is less common, and sometimes when they are included it’s as part of an all-female bill sold as a novelty.

Concealing or dropping gender is one strategy for being seen as equal.

All-female sets are useful for promoting women in the industry, but also come at the cost of making female DJs feel their gender is more recognized than their talent. Concealing or dropping gender is one strategy for being seen as equal.

“I don’t want to sell myself with my gender. I want to be recognized for my skills,” says Lyndsy Brow, who performs as Myte, also with Vancouver crew Subversive. She used to DJ as Miss Myte, then dropped the “Miss” in order to have a gender-neutral name.

Likewise, when Pearson first started learning the equipment and was seeking help on community forums, she avoided using a gendered identity because she did not want to be treated differently as a woman. “Back then there were avatars. You didn’t have to reveal what gender you were. I knew I was a rare one,” she says. “As an avatar you could ask all the questions you wanted without judgement. I wasn’t afraid of harassment, I just wanted critical feedback and I didn’t want people to treat me any nicer or afraid to hurt my feelings. I wanted to be treated as an equal.”

According to Vancouver-based DJ Jenny Reid (Jennifer Bass, Night Vision), “An artist should be free to express themselves and not be exploited.” But when curating their identity as a DJ, many women are forced to consider their gender and the sexualization that comes with it.

“At the end of the day it should be about skill and skill alone.”

“None of this is an issue for men,” says Brow. “At the end of the day it should be about skill and skill alone.”

Skill, however, is something that is much more consistently applied to the assessment of men than women in the industry. Last year, DJ-producer Nina Kraviz was subject to harassment after being featured in an episode of Between the Beats, a program focused on the experience of touring DJs. After the appearance, critics accused her of being talentless and using her sexuality to sell herself. Rather than criticizing the camera crews who followed her on tour or the all-male producer and editing crew, criticism fell on Kraviz for exposing her body. Much like in any profession, in electronic music femininity is often seen as detracting from professionalism.

Women also run into barriers because of the behaviour of their fellow DJs.

“Sometimes something happens to you and you question whether it would happen to a guy,” explains DJ-producer Nikki McLean (Lola Vutru). “One time another DJ came up to me and he turned my volume fader down. . . . I doubt he would have done that to another guy and if he had, that guy certainly wouldn’t have accepted it quietly.”

Men are often socialized to feel more confident and entitled to promote themselves in the workplace, which gives them the advantage in electronic music, which “is a very self-promotional business,” Pearson admits.

Conscious of gender representation, the organizers of Decibel Festival, one of the world’s premier electronic music events, realize that women do not apply for spots as frequently as men. This year Decibel has lined up 28 female DJs and female lead live acts, representing 20 per cent of the musical performers. Women represent a growing share of the bill, but this doesn’t negate the other barriers that female DJs come up against.

Some of the standout female talent at Decibel Festival this year includes Dance Nostalgic with Avalon Emerson, Opening Gala with Natasha Kmeto, Rhythm & Bass with Tokimonsta and Hot Creations with Anabel Englund.

Increased female participation in electronic music production is encouraging, but celebrating female talent and promoting their visibility will help ensure women are given equal credit for their contributions to the electronic music community.

Seattle’s Decibel Festival, September 24 to 28, is one of the premier electronic music festivals in North America bringing together electronic music technicians, producers and fans. Ricochet is pleased to partner with Decibel for a special ticket giveaway: enter to win two tickets to Rhythm & Bass with Tokimonsta (Jennifer Lee).

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Enter before September 16, 2014. The winner will be contacted through Facebook or Twitter.

Follow Melissa Fong for more coverage of the Decibel Festival 2014.

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