In March 2020, I moderated a Women in Music panel at the Minnesota History Center as part of the “First Avenue: Stories of Minnesota’s Mainroom” exhibit. I brought together three women whom I look up to in the local music scene: Kathleen Johnson, vocalist with Best Kept Secret and Musicians4Musicians; Desdamona, hip hop and spoken word artist, teacher, and B-Girl Be co- founder; and Andrea Swensson [see related story], author, radio host, and music journalist.
These women have great talent, integrity, and staying power. They are all heavy hitters in the local scene and beyond, and manage their own careers as entrepreneurs.
I wanted to have a poignant conversation about what we do for a living and posed two back-to-back questions to the panelists:
All four of us immediately began talking about the roadblocks that we face as women in a male-dominated industry. We spoke about how sexism and racism can lead to a lack of respect and professionalism. We all agreed that we have to collectively push back in situations when we are being mistreated while booking events, in rehearsal, or when interviewing musicians.
When I was younger, I was sometimes taken advantage of by “producers” who tried to exploit my talent for personal gain or who used studio time as a way to hit on me. I worked hard, but was not paid what I am worth, as much as my male peers, or at all. I have learned many lessons throughout my career. As a Black woman, it is important for me to run the business aspect of my art so that my dignity is maintained. I control my own destiny.
I am fortunate that my band respects that I handle the business, and that they direct inquiries to me. Often, however, people will still approach the men in my band about business or scheduling, ignoring my presence as a leader.
I have had to check folks about how they speak with me, especially when I am asking for what I need. I have heard men refer to me as difficult — a diva — because I advocate for myself.
This is not an “it is what it is” situation. I know I have power as an artist and as a human being. If a venue does not treat me with respect, I can choose to play elsewhere. I am resourceful, ambitious, and unafraid.
In order to change the narrative, we need to continue to demand respect from the industry and the people who dominate it. We need more pay for gigs, to check misogyny, and call out uncomfortable situations with club owners, other musicians, and bookers. We need to decide whether to play venues that do not treat all artists well.
We linked our conversation about bias to achieving a work and life balance. Women carry a lot of responsibilities, such as working a day job, parenting, and tending to the health issues of others. It can be overwhelming at times, so my last question to the panel was: “What are your needs navigating this industry?”
We found commonality in our experiences, and were able to speak to hurdles that are hard to articulate. It is a breath of fresh air to know that there are other powerful women like me who are still having to break glass ceilings.
We closed our conversation by discussing what a collaboration between women artists, writers, musicians, bookers, agents, and managers could look like in the future. Supportive collaboration could be anything from coalitions to festivals, where the central focus is on women artists coming together to celebrate our work.
I have worked with many all-women artistic groups. These experiences have been some of the greatest shows I have ever participated in. It is amazing to be in-process with women who do what you do, empathize with your experiences, and have the common goal of working towards change.
I am honored to have shared that History Center stage with those brilliant women. It gave me renewed ambition, and a greater sense of pride, to be a woman in music.
• It is extremely important to call out bias if you witness it, especially working in the club scene. I have seen awesome club owners step up and rectify biased situations.
• There are women-led open mics, radio shows, podcasts, and curated spaces all over the Twin Cities. Support us by sharing our music with others. Buy merchandise.
Kathleen Johnson hosts the Greats Gone 2 Soon series at the Dakota.
PaviElle French (she/her) is a composer, vocalist, and interdisciplinary artist born and raised in the Rondo Neighborhood of St. Paul. She has performed locally, nationally, and internationally, and won an Emmy Award and a Sage Cowles Award for Dance and Choreography.