Despite its constant mutation, Québec’s hip-hop scene is still a male-dominated affair. Systematically relegated to the background, female rappers are still hopeful that things will change, and that the industry will lend them a strong hand in the near future.
“The time for female rappers to get more exposure is long overdue,” wrote journalist Yasmine Seck in VICE Québec back in January 2018. “Have women been left behind during Québec’s Golden Age of rap?” wrote La Presse journalist Stéphanie Vallet in an exhaustive special report that instantly turned into a hot-button issue on social networks.
For Frannie Holder of rap trio Random Recipe, this sudden media frenzy around women’s place on the local rap scene can only be beneficial. “We need to talk about it constantly,” she says. “If you ever hear people saying they’re fed up hearing about this, tell them that we’re even more fed up of having to endure this situation.”
Rapper Sarahmée has recently launched her second album, Irréversible, and she wants the current debate to turn into concrete action. “All has been said in the media, now is the time for bookers to show us what they’ve got,” she says. “Things are moving very slowly, so far… It’s always the same headliners at festivals. When I look at what all those events are offering, it feels like we’re three years behind. In the long run, it’s going to get boring for audiences. A lot of people have written to me saying that I’m not getting booked enough despite the excellent media coverage I’ve been getting.”
This situation also bothers Frannie Holder. “Festivals argue that they’re at the tail end of the production chain, and that they depend on what’s on offer, but ultimately, they often book only popular artists in the hopes of seeling as many tickets as possible,” she says. “I find that hypocritical, because if a booker only goes for what’s the most popular, they could easily be replaced by an algorithm. How does that deserve public subsidies [grants]? In Canada, there is an educational duty that comes with the arts. The arts must embody social change, and meet the needs of the people. I performed in an equal representation festival in Brazil, and I saw a ton of great female rappers that inspired me.”
Gatineau-born, Montréal-based battle rapper Honie B is also preoccupied by the issue of female representation in hip-hop. However, the 22-year-old rapper – who’s working on her first solo project – says she wants to avoid any kind of positive discrimination. “I wouldn’t want to be booked for a show just because the promoters have to meet a female quota,” she says. “I’d find that insulting.”
To her, it’s only a matter of time before women take the place they deserve. “Rap is still in its infancy here,” she says. “We’re slowly getting accustomed to the culture, and that means women need some time to emancipate. Whether you like it or not, it’s still a rough scene. You need to be very self-assured to stand out.”
That’s precisely what’s happening to Naya Ali. As the only rapper signed to the heavily hip-hop-oriented label Coyote Records, the Anglophone Montrealer has enjoyed new-found success since the release of her debut EP, Higher Self, last fall. Label President and founder Rafael Perez was instantly on board. “She’s fresh, she has a strong personality and a lot of drive,” he says. “As soon as I heard her demo, I was like ‘Wow! Where did she come from?’ We weren’t looking to sign a female rapper, but when you’re as impressed as I was, it’s awesome.”
But he’s the first to admit he doesn’t get a lot of demos from female rappers. “There’s probably a lot of great music that never makes it to my ears, young artists doing exceptional music in their basement,” he says. “And quite frankly, try as I might, I don’t find a lot of new female rappers… I believe keeping the conversation going in the media is a good thing, because it might inspire others to want to showcase their music.”
“We need projects that correspond to the reality of women… We need to consolidate this mentoring and career development into actual programs.” — Frannie Holder
All this talk has gotten the ball rolling. Recently, Fondation Musicaction – a Québec-based organization that supports the production and marketing of a fair share of albums by Francophone artists in Canada – launched a pilot program supporting the mothers of infants (0 to 2 years old) in the development of their international careers. “This initiative came about because a lot of women musicians felt hindered professionally because they had a child; going on tour became way too expensive,” says Anne-Karine Tremblay, Musicaction Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs, about this exploratory measure that “allows the expenditure for an assistant entirely devoted to caring for a child while travelling.”
Sarahmée welcomes such an initiative with open arms. “I was told time and time again that having a child when you’re a female rapper is difficult,” she says. “People close to me were told stuff like, ‘Are you sure? How are you going to manage?’ It’s a truly great idea that’s in sync with the lifestyle of women, which is a lot less sedentary than it used to be.”
Frannie Holder agrees: “It’s like telling women that they don’t have to give up their careers to be a mother. I’ve seen many women delay their career way into their thirties, while men are often at their peak by then.”
According to the 34-year-old singer-songwriter, it’s through such initiatives, centred around women’s needs, that female rappers will be able to stand out more. “We need projects that correspond to the reality of women,” she says. “Helping each other out as female rappers is great, but we need to consolidate this mentoring and career development into actual programs.”
One source of financing for the development of a specific skill – whether it’s through a conference, a course, a workshop or a seminar – is the SOCAN Foundation’s Professional Development Assistance Program. Just as accessible to young female rappers, the Foundation’s Travel Assistance Program covers a sizable portion of travel expenses when participating in a showcase or residency, for example. As a matter of fact, Frannie Holder and Montréal rapper Hua Li have both taken advantage of that subsidy in recent years.
Also available are training sessions provided by the Société professionnelle des auteurs et des compositeurs du Québec (SPACQ), which allow artists to fine-tune their trade (training sessions in writing, interpretation, stage presence…) and develop their business-related skills (legal advice about contracts, and how to protect their songs against theft or plagiarism). The over-600-member-strong organization is constantly looking for new artists who want to “professionalize” themselves.
Otherwise, two of the most accessible subsidies for Francophone female rappers are Musicaction’s emerging artist support and song production and promotion programs. The first program is for self-produced, emerging artists, while the second is aimed at independent or signed artists who want to produce four songs “for immediate promotion.” Beyond that, Musicaction’s grants are often geared towards, and more easily obtained by, established record labels. Bear in mind that currently, the three main hip-hop labels in Québec – Disques 7ième Ciel, Explicit Productions, Joy Ride Records – are recognized by Musicaction, and as such receive a yearly stipend from that organization to produce their roster’s albums. Yet none of them has signed a female rapper.
To counter-balance this male domination, Frannie Holder suggests following in the footsteps of the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), which recently tabled an action plan to achieve gender equality in film before 2020. From now on, a producer can only present two fictional feature-length projects “if one of them is written or directed by a woman.”
“It has made a world of difference in only two years,” says Holder, who’s been sitting of the SOCAN Foundation Board of Directors for about a year. “Now, it’s time to look at the financing offered to musicians by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ), and other such bodies, to gradually move towards gender equality.”
That idea is making progress at Musicaction. “The latest versions of our forms include a male-female survey question, so that we get accurate data on the projects we finance,” says Anne-Karine Tremblay. “Our short-term goal is not gender equality, but we are aware of this issue in top management. We do make an effort to have more female juries. It gives us different ears.”
Without going as far as supporting gender-equal financing for Québe hip-hop, Rafael Perez welcomes change. “I’ll leave that question to the Boards of Directors, because it’s a sensitive issue for me,” says the man who’s signed on Laurence Nerbonne and Marième, two singers with marked rap influences, to his Coyote imprint. “But at the end of the day, I appreciate that the people involved are making more and more efforts [towards the representation of women on the local rap scene]. I think it’s a good thing.”