Stories of Black Women in House Music
Despite the fact that Black women have played a significant role in soundtrack that mark our lives, they are often left uncredited, exploited and erased. Conversations about music exploitation have centered mainly around massive stars like Taylor Swift and TLC. What is missed, are the questionable practices in the UK that are riddled with misogyny and racism that rob and eliminate the contributions of Black women.
The Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the unfair killing of George Floyd caused a public denunciation of industries and institutions in the UK. The British music industry was put under the microscope due to many artists, Black British women in particular, speaking about their own experiences with misogyny and racism. Unfortunately, the stories of bullying and racism in the music industry, especially house music aren’t new or scarce.
Although now more people have spoken out, the fight has just begun. The conversations have to begin including colorism, fatphobia and ableism for us to take on the issues at hand.
To gain a better understanding of the cruel ways that women are treated in the industry, here are stories from five insanely talented Black British women. They candidly recount their experience in the industry and the misogyny ever present.
Vula Malinga a vocal powerhouse and a multi-talented artist, a true asset with her signing, engineering and production skills. She is famously known for her vocals on ‘Oh My Gosh’ and ‘Hush Boy’ by Basement Jaxx. In 2019 she released ‘Turn Me On’ with Oliver Heldens and Riton. The song skyrocketed to 2nd in the UK dance charts and to number 1 in the US Dance Club songs on Billboard. It was a hit being played everywhere throughout the year.
However, the success of the song came with the struggles of being justly credited for her word. Eventually though, a viable solution was reached. As a plus-sized Black woman, Malinga was expected to play to certain stereotypes she did not support. This, she experienced directly, “In my twenties I had a quarter-of-a-million-pound deal on the table to be the next Missy Elliot, because I’m fat. I remember that meeting; I told them I’m not a rapper, but they said we can get someone to write the raps for you, you can just sing.”
Natalie Maddix had an idea 11 years ago which came to fruition 6 years ago known as the House Gospel Choir. Her motivation to start this soulful experience was born out of mainstream music trying to separate gospel from house music and her fervent belief that both are intrinsically linked. She has been very aware of the erasure of Black female vocalists on international house hits. But through the House Gospel Choir Maddix has made rigorous effort to ensure that these artists are named. For this very reason in the early days of the House Gospel Choir she ensured that the people spoke of the artists before singing their songs. Maddix has always known that the music industry wasn’t fair, “I was aware that being Black and a good singer wasn’t enough, it’s not a meritocracy at all. You have to question why Beverley Knight is not thought of in the same way as Adele.” The UK seems to have a problem recognizing and amplifying the voices of Black talent but doesn’t hesitate to name Ed Sheeran as ‘the most influential artist in Black and urban music’ while blatantly ignoring talented Black artists.
Having seen the exploitation by the music industry of Black artist, Maddix started a vocal agency to represent Choir members. Aptly naming is REP which stands for “record everything properly”. Despite her long experience in the music industry, people still attempt to shortchange her, “I remember asking for a two grand buyout on something for an artist to cover six singers, and they said it’s too high so we came down, and then I heard for another project they paid one white girl four grand for the buyout.”
“As Black women, we endure so much, we constantly have to bite our tongues, and I’ve had enough.” Nay Nay first tasted stardom at a young age when she went from working on the floor of Selfridge’s Menswear section to performing her hit ‘Body Groove’ with Architechs on Top of the Pops. Sampled by Dizzy Rascal on ‘Body Loose’ the song is a classic frequently played on the radio and even requested at Nay Nay’s shows.
She did not expect ‘Body Groove’ to take off the way it did because of it being repeatedly rejected by big labels with one A&R claiming that dark women didn’t sell records. The repeated play on pirate radio stations was the reason for its success. Ironically, the labels that was initially uninterested suddenly started a bidding war for the track as it started gaining commercial success.
Unfortunately, the success of the group was short-lived and they disbanded after ‘Body Groove’. The group wasn’t supportive of Nay Nay and tried to replace her with a white girl causing problems within the group and painting her as ‘difficult’ to work with.
In addition, her success was restricted by the label’s inability to market her and what direction to take in terms of her look or even makeup.
Nay Nay continues to be committed to her artistry and music but it’s the business surrounding the music, the people involved and the industry as a whole have been a major obstacle. Her determination to speak out in support for Black women is unwavering.
Kelli-Leigh Henry-Davila, artist name Kelli-Leigh’s vocals will always be associated with some our fondest summer memories. She sang on huge Top 10 singles including 2 UK Dance Number1’s. Despite these achievements her contributions have been continually been erased and her efforts severely undervalued.
She has been tapped by producers like Duke Dumont and Tiësto for her beautiful vocals. When it came time for her to grow her career or simply receive credit for her contributions, she was met with harsh push-back. She has been subject to the unfairness prevailing in the music industry, “It is deeply frustrating and sad that mainly men have been making money from the songs that feature our soulful voices. They can buy their houses; I can’t buy mine! How many hits do I have to sing before I am appreciated for what I have brought to the UK music scene?”
The voices of Black women are often used for songs but are nowhere to be seen. The visual erasure of Black women in music videos concerns her. Kelli-Leigh has only been featured in one video which was a lyric video of a live performance. A lot of the marketability of an artist is based on what they look like and Kelli-Leigh is very familiar with these pressures. “I’m a darker mixed race girl, so I haven’t had the stereotypical mixed-race look”
She explained: “that is fashionable for the industry to use. Lighter mixed race girls are more marketable.”
Following the success of ‘More Than Friends’ she released ‘For Love’ with Mario in 2017. This amazing moment was clouded by the misogyny Kelli-Leigh ended up facing when she was told that she was too irrelevant to be on the track, instead they wanted to replace her with a more famous singer, despite her contribution in co-writing and singing the song. All too often women in house music are exploited and then expected to grin and bear it.
When she did ‘Be Here’ for Duke Dumont, he told her that she would not have her name on the song because she was just ‘a session singer’. Too scared to advocate for herself at the time she was naturally disappointed when the song was made Hottest Record of the World by Annie Mac but her name was nowhere to be found.
Sherona Knight has been showing the world her talents in music and dance since the age of eight. At 16 she had her first song signed by Island Records and ever since has been approached by many as a singer, dancer and choreographer to lend a helping hand to vocalists.
She has appeared in musicals like Zoo Nation’s Some Like It Hip-Hop, providing background vocals for artists like Estelle and back up dancing for music videos. Despite her talents in various areas labels disappointed her and struggled to support her music and career. But even when Black women are given a chance, they are swindled out being paid or being given credit. “From speaking to other people who were involved in the industry who have gone through similar things, I found that Black female artists wouldn’t get the royalties, cover of the single or the video.”
The ingenuine and exploitative nature of the industry isn’t a new concept to Knight having been faced with alarming situations herself. When she was asked to write and ‘Still Standing’ by producer Guy Robin she was shocked to find out that the 50-50 deal that she was promised was not what she ended up getting. After questioning the deal and asking to see the contract she found that he was receiving all the royalties from digital and record sales. With the track being played on radio stations and being mentioned in write ups, her name was nowhere to be found.
Unfortunately, she fell in the all too familiar stereotype of the Angry Black Woman for simply demanding what was rightfully hers to begin with. “Eventually, I got an email from the accountant, and at the bottom of the email it said ‘just give her what she wants and never let her darken our doorstep again’. It doesn’t say who it is from, but it was part of the email trail.”
These stories are just the tip of the cruel iceberg of the music industry. With its far-reaching tentacles it has the power to silence and erase the voices of Black women. These conversations are merely the beginning of a dramatic change that must happen in order for mistakes to not be repeated and for everyone to have equity over their craft and talent.