May 27, 2024

Website about Jazz and Blues

Black women struggle to get heard if they don’t conform: Videos, Photos

From drummer Jas Kayser to saxophonist Nubya Garcia, female artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

When jazz trumpeter, multi-instrumentalist and label founder Emma-Jean Thackray arrived at one of her own headline shows, a sound engineer asked if she was the performer’s girlfriend. In the face of this kind of crushing sexist attitude, perhaps it’s no surprise that a disproportionately low number of women perform the genre.

While gender inequality is an issue across the whole of the music industry, the stats remain more striking in jazz: a 2016 study revealed that only five per cent of jazz instrumentalists in the UK were women. That’s partly why Louise Paley and Nina Fine set up Women In Jazz in 2018, to champion and nurture female artists across the UK.

In the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s chart-topping third album, To Pimp a Butterfly, on which he collaborated with saxophonist Kamasi Washington, a slew of British acts have emerged: saxophonist Nubya Garcia, drummer Moses Boyd, the band Sons of Kemet, and the jazz-flavoured soul singer Celeste. Last year Celeste won the Rising Star award at the Brits, was crowned the BBC Sound of 2020, and has just released her classy debut album Not Your Muse.

“It’s a really exciting time for jazz. Even the term has become really broad,” says Paley. “Artists are combining traditional elements with other genres, and this has also played a huge role in inspiring young women – the ability to explore new elements and bring their own flavour to jazz.”

Antwerp, BELGIUM - August 17: Nubya Garcia performs at Jazz Middelheim Festival on August 17th, 2019 in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo by Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns/Getty Images)
Nubya Garcia performs at Jazz Middelheim Festival in 2019 in Antwerp (Photo: Getty Images)

Through their work in music, second cousins Paley and Fine discovered that many women in jazz were experiencing a crisis in confidence, mainly due to lack of role models to look up to. So they teamed up to create a platform to support these women’s talent in the hope of inspiring the next generation. Their online community is now 8,000-plus.

“Many didn’t have role models growing up,” says Paley. “And they didn’t have the confidence to actually pursue a career in jazz, even though they got into the top jazz music colleges across the world. It was a recurring theme for many years. I got to a point where I thought, I really want to do something about this.”

Fine adds: “Often we hear stories of when people have been underestimated. Visibility, community and mentorship are so important in countering this. When you see someone similar to you, doing the things that you want to do, it’s permission granting. It inspires and builds confidence.”

One artist they have supported is Jas Kayser, who has drummed for Jorja Smith and Lenny Kravitz, and last year released her debut EP, which draws from the late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. The 25-year-old recalls looking at old jazz recordings as a child and seeing only male performers, while her overriding teenage memory is of auditioning, blind, as drummer for her school’s big band and failing to make the cut – because she was a girl.

“It was me and three guys auditioning and afterwards I was taken away by my percussion teacher who said, ‘OK, here’s the situation: you did win the audition, but we’re actually going to give it to the guy who came after you’. Maybe so as not to kill his ego… which is horrendous. I wish I would have spoken up back in those days.”

Jas Kayser Women in Jazz Credit: Jameela Elfaki Provided by
Jas Kayser has drummed for Jorja Smith and Lenny Kravitz, and last year released her debut EP

Later, when she was a student at Berklee College, in Boston, and beyond, Kayser felt she had to make an extra effort to be on the same level as her male peers. “I know now that it affected me subconsciously. I guess the reality is, as a female drummer, you are always trying to prove yourself without even realising it.”

There are other organisations working to improve diversity in jazz, such as Tomorrow’s Warriors, and those giving a platform to new talent, such as London-based label Jazz re:freshed and the Roundhouse, while Phaiste Cymbals supports women drummers.

In addition to running a radio show, producing live events, workshops and career development programmes, WIJ have now added a digital platform featuring intimate gigs and interviews, to increase visibility and inspire others. The first online Uncovered show earlier this month featured LA-born, Brighton-raised Celeste, who began her career in 2014 singing for electronic producer Avicii, released her debut EP on Lily Allen’s label in 2017, and whose star has risen rapidly since Mercury winner Michael Kiwanuka spotted her and brought her to his label, Polydor.

Of her ascent, the 26-year-old feels “a sense of accomplishment in the fact I stuck to making the music I always wanted to. Although it took a long time, it feels worth it now.”

While her sound is more commercial than traditional jazz, Celeste, whose father is Jamaican, observes that it’s still harder for a black woman singer in jazz, soul and blues to break into the mainstream, even though these are genres that originated in black culture.

Lou Paley and Nina Fine Founders of Women in Jazz Credit: Ayshe Zaifoglu Provided by
Louise Paley (left) and Nina Fine (right) set up Women In Jazz in 2018, to champion and nurture female artists across the UK 

“It’s only recently become apparent to me how few black women there are in the mainstream singing soul and jazz, especially from the UK,” she says. “I think we get too used to a mainstream ideal of what black women represent/present as, look like, speak like, dress like, so when the gatekeepers are faced with nuance and individuality there’s no box to be found that says ‘this is what sells’.”

She points, too, to film and television where “we’re only just beginning to see black women as more than just one dimension, and not just creating roles for black women in society that adhere to the stereotypes we have gotten far too used to”.

When it comes to music, it’s certainly not just an issue for jazz and soul. “The more we can break stereotypes, the more space there will be for black people to break through, across all the genres,” says Celeste. “Black women struggle to get a place and get heard in the indie world, folk world and pop world if they don’t conform to what’s expected of them.”

It’s something that WIJ are also conscious of in their work with women, says Fine. “We have a responsibility to listen, share stories and create opportunities that move for change.”

Celeste Singer Women in Jazz Credit: Jameela Elfaki Provided by

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