#WCW: Mysterious Powerhouse Janelle Monáe Monáe

Welcome back to #wcw (aka Woman Crush Wednesday) on my blog for Women’s History Month! I’m featuring  a musical artist every Wednesday who has inspired me and driven me to expand and develop my own art in new ways.

This week I’m smitten with the enigmatic, colorful, sharply intelligent, Afro-futurist musical icon that is Janelle Monáe.


Ms Monáe first caught the public’s attention in 2010 with the release of her critically acclaimed album The ArchAndroid, the follow-up to 2007’s Metropolis Suite I (The Chase). She revealed a plot line largely inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, in which Monáe, as the android messiah Cindi Mayweather, provides a mirror to the representation of Lang’s android twin Maria. In Monáe Metropolis, Cindi represents the segregated “other.” Monáe was inspired not just by Lang’s film, but by sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner,  in which the android alien was maligned and separated from society. As she says: “I could relate to that, the idea of being the minority within the majority.” (source)

poster for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Monáe’s signature early look, a fitted tuxedo, has won her the admiration of many for its gender-bending approaching to femininity and style. 

Born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1985, Janelle Monáe studied drama in New York, and eventually found her way to Atlanta, Georgia, where she and like-minded artists founded the Wondaland Arts Society, bringing innovative pop culture beyond the studio and producer machine. With the release of Metropolis I, Monáe attracted the attention of big name artists like Sean Combs and Big Boi of Outkast. She’s been awarded the Vanguard Award by ASCAP. In 2016 she appeared in both Best Picture Winner Moonlight and nominated film Hidden Figures. 

She released the third album in her Metropolis concept ouevre, The Electric Lady, in 2013, and continues to follow Cindi Mayweather in her quest to liberate Metropolis’s citizens from the suppressive forces controlling their freedom of expression and love.

Her answer to the rising awareness of police brutality is the 2015 anthem Hell You Talmabout: 

Monáe music draws influence from so many genres and styles including classical & orchestral, hip-hop and soul, rockabilly, jazz, and 60s-era pop. Her latest single, Make Me Feel, bears the stamp of Minneapolis Sound legend Prince, and in fact he contributed compositional elements to the finished product before his death in 2016.

definitely NSFW, but still awesome. 

Janelle Monáe strong, unabashed voice and presence in our music scene is a breath of fresh air. She’s empowered and liberated, unconcerned with your opinion of her and willing to take risks to make great art. I eat up just about every new creation of hers, as well as her incredible style and poise. She’s, in  word, goals.

Women’s History Month: Ways to Address Bias or Sexism on the Gig

If your career working as a female-bodied or -identifying musical performer or as a student has been anything like mine, the negative experiences you’ve had have ranged the gamut from subtle instances of patronizing behavior all the way up to outright sexism and harassment.  It’s taken me many years to build up an arsenal of comebacks, attitudes, personal strength, and knowing where to take the fight to feel like I’m on somewhat solid ground in my industry. Today I want to tackle a few of the things that have worked for me, and ask for your suggestions of what you’ve done to address situations as they arise.

A few of the things we can expect to encounter as women on our musical journey:

  • Dismissal/Gaslighting
  • Being interrupted frequently/not being allowed to complete thoughts
  • Distrust or Disbelief in our level of competence and abilities
  • Being patronized/belittled
  • Expected to do a group or studio’s emotional labor
  • Sexualization
  • Harassment/Assault

Some of these are of course more scarring than others, but all can leave a lasting impression on us that is often easy to internalize. I know for many years I struggled to see what I had accomplished and what I was capable of because I had written attitudes about female performers deep into my musical DNA. I had to work very hard to unpack & unlearn certain behaviors, and there are still many ways to improve.

I want to pass on to all generations of young female musicians, and especially up and coming young performers, a few ways to get out of the cycle of keeping quiet and feeling like it must be your fault or that it’s just the way it is. It starts by acknowledging not only  your own skills but also how you want to grow as a musician and how you want to get there. We’re not perfect, no matter how much we practice, and that’s a good thing. There can always be something new to learn, and we can also be proud of what we can do.

Disclaimer: These steps are intended for offenses outside of the realm of physical harassment/assault. If you’ve experienced something like that, you have every right to take that information to the proper authorities.

Step 1: Don’t Internalize. Take Notes. Talk it Over.

You’re at a gig/in rehearsal/at class and someone says something that strikes you in a weird way. You’re not sure if you just got patronized or dismissed in some subtle way, and you don’t want to say anything about it just yet. That’s okay! When you get a chance, jot down the situation and how you felt about it. Or call a friend you trust and relay it, and see what they say. It might just be enough to put you on guard for the next time it happens, so you can start to notice a pattern.

Step 2: Ask why

You’ve definitely heard something kind if icky directed at you this time. One of the best ways to immediately address a sexist joke or comment is to ask for clarification. I’ll use an example from my past that I didn’t address in the moment, and speculate how I could have handled it with a question.

In my new lab band at UNT (I think it was the 5 O’Clock) one semester, the TA running the band gave us a chart that featured the two bass trombonists. I was playing 5th. We read through it and it was okay- a few mistakes and the other bass (a guy) and I traded a few section where we each equally got a little turned around, but we never got lost. Once we’d finished, the TA solemnly looked us all up and down and then stated “I believe in the masculinity of this band. If you don’t have a pair, grow a pair.”

This was clearly directed at me for…not reading perfectly? Seeming unconfident? Existing? Even though the other player and I equally messed up in the reading. I was angry, but I didn’t say anything. Afterward I and  the other two women in the band approached the chair of the jazz department and reported the incident. The TA was forced to apologize to us, but other than that, nothing really happened to change his behavior. He was just more careful about what he said.

Today’s Lauren definitely would have piped up in that moment. “What do you mean by that, sir?” “Can you say that in a different way?” “I beg your UNBELIEVABLE PARDON?!?” Usually, when someone is called out for saying something questionable, they’ll have to reconsider their words and actions. It may mean they apologize or rethink immediately. They may double-down, in which case you have more ammo to take to some of the later stages in this blog. But usually, you can call someone out and they’ll backtrack. Now, in a perfect world, you, the female performer, wouldn’t be the only one to say anything, but you’d have male colleagues that objected to the incident as well. Men reading this, speak up. This is really your problem to fix.

Step 3: Talk in Private

If you feel comfortable talking alone to the person who’s offended you, arrange to do it. Take your notes from the various encounters and be prepared to speak calmly and rationally about how you feel, but don’t be afraid to be a little fired up if need be. People are more likely to see eye-to-eye with you if you speak in person. One word of caution- don’t go overboard exaggerating your own faults or mistakes (I know because I do this). Have confidence in yourself. Think about what they say when you’re in a car accident: Don’t admit fault at the scene. If someone is truly and intentionally biased against you they will use that as ammo to knock you down again later. Been there, experienced that. Just state what you’ve heard said/what actions were taken and how you feel that might be inappropriate or how it has affected you. I always ask to be treated with agency, to be seen as someone with valid motivations and ambitions: i.e. the default way we treat men in our society.

Step 4: Say No 

Similar to the situation in step 3, be able to turn down a suggestion, comment, or opportunity that you feel puts you in a bad light or place. Someone might suggest you wear something more sultry at a gig, and whether you would or not, that’s not their place to comment. You can say, “I know how to dress myself” or “No, I’m not comfortable with you suggesting that.” Clap back if you need to. I’m not the strongest sight-reader (although I’m not terrible) and there have been a few occasions where someone’s come swooping in to ask me if I know what I did wrong. I’ve developed a pretty good script of “Hey, I screwed up, and it’ll be right the next time, but I don’t need you to explain music to me” that usually makes my point for me.

Just saying ‘…nah’ to something you don’t feel is right is not going to jeopardize your career. You don’t need to put yourself in situations where you’re put upon or looked down on. There are better, more equitable opportunities for you out there.

Step 5: Escalate it

Ok, so nothing’s worked, and you’re pretty sure the behavior directed at you violates some rule of the establishment, job, or just basic human decency. Is there someone above that you can talk to? At school, it’s your departmental or school advisor, or a conflict center. On the gig it might be the band leader (if the band leader is not the perpetrator) or the person who hired you. Whoever it might be, schedule a meeting and prepare your notes. Just like in the private conversation above, be calm and insistent that you think something is wrong. Offer some solutions that might work for you if you can see them. Follow up on the meeting; take it from experience, sometimes they will listen to you sympathetically but hope that you’ll go away after that having ‘therapized’ your problem.

Step 6: Spread the Word

Ah, my favorite step, the ‘burn it all down’ moment. Higher ups have not been helpful and the issue is not going away. It’s time to ORGANIZE. Find your community and see if other people have stories that relate to yours about your harasser or situation. There might be someone with some legal experience who can advise or direct. There might be a public or private forum you can use to document your tale and get the word out that someone is behaving badly. And again here: Don’t internalize. It’s likely at this point people will say some pretty nasty things to you or insinuate that you are somehow responsible. Again, this is NOT YOU. This is an endemic, societal struggle that men and women alike have to fight. You are doing your part to further the success and recognition of women in the music industry.

What other ways have you addressed a bias while on a gig or other situation? What’s worked and what didn’t? Share in the comments!

#WCW: Indie Rocker Neko Case

Welcome back to #wcw (aka Woman Crush Wednesday) on my blog for Women’s History Month! I’m featuring  a musical artist every Wednesday who has inspired me and driven me to expand and develop my own art in new ways.

Today I want to highlight probably my all-time favorite rocker (of any gender) and songwriter, whose music has given me strength, vulnerability, and beauty, and who drops amazing truths on Twitter when I’m least expecting them. Please welcome to the blog, Ms Neko Case!

seriously look at this boss babe, #goals

Neko is best known for her solo career, and for her part in the indie rock band The New Pornographers. She started off as a drummer, joining the punk scene at the tender age of 14 and playing the scene in the Pacific Northwest. She dived into country early in her solo career with the 1997 album The Virginian,  with her vocals being compared to Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.

She teamed up with The New Pornographers in 2000 on their debut album, and remains a staple lead & backing vocalist with the band. Personal note: NP is where I first heard her voice, but I had no idea she had a solo career until much later.

I discovered her solo work in 2006, when someone recommended I pick up a copy of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. I could hardly believe a human could have such a clear, expressive voice.

I remember bus rides in winter, Minneapolis, on my way to work downtown, immersed in this open and mysterious sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. I would often get so tied to hearing a song all the way through I would frequently be late to my destination.

It was easy to delve into the rest of her back catalogue from there, and continue to follow her career. 2009’s Middle Cyclone was an absolutely godsend.

As a songwriter, Case intentionally writes poetic lyrics open for the listener’s interpretation:

“My intention is often to get people engaged in the story, and maybe be able to put themselves in the story, because that’s what I really love in other people’s songwriting,” she says. “A lot of classic pop songs are written about things that are as popular as love or whatever, but they don’t give you a time or place, and they remain kind of magical somehow. Unfortunately, I’m a little wordier than somebody like Cole Porter, so mine are definitely little black holes of stories, little rabbit holes of stories.” source

Neko Case is also an outspoken feminist and champion of women’s voices, but she also fights to be seen as a musician first. Famously, when Playboy reviewed her 2014 album The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love You with the lede “Artist Neko Case is breaking the mold of what a woman in music should be”, Neko fired off a tweet reading, “Am I? IM NOT A F*ING “WOMAN IN MUSIC”, IM A F*ING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!” and took off on a tear from there. Her point? First off, look at the artist first. Understand the value of the music for its humanity and depth. Secondly, ‘should be’ is such a prescriptive, horrible, backhanded compliment. There is no one way to be a woman working in the music industry. It’s part of a larger problem in society that tries to mold female expression into particular boxes that can be segmented off from one another, can be seen as ‘other’ and therefore either an exception or somehow less valuable than the default male musical voice.

Neko is about to release her first new solo album in nearly 5 years in June, and I couldn’t be more excited. A clip of the first single and title track, “Hell-On” has been released and features Case (and some slithery friends) singing lyrics about God in her trademark mysterious and erudite style.

You should tap into her catalogue, and follow her on Twitter (@nekocase), right this minute! It’s music for any time of day or mood, but it’s perfect for right now. Enjoy!

Women’s History Month: Women and the New Gig Economy

“It’s who you know, not what you know.”

Networking has always been a part of the music industry to the great advantage of some and the overlooking of a great many more. Women and other underrepresented minorities often struggle to find footing in the different branches of professional music, from classical to popular styles, and it can feel like there are extra mountains to climb just to get noticed, much less hired.

In psychology, this feeling reflects a trend toward “in-group bias” (the proverbial ‘old boys club’), in which the dominant members of a profession or group select new members based on how well they relate to them. I don’t necessarily think there is always intentional discrimination involved, but that as men in our society have been socialized primarily to interact equally with other men, this can feel like the most comfortable route to take when booking for a gig or filling a position. There’s less risk of conflict and less need to ‘speak a different language’. The end result is that a whole swath of the population that is looking for work or recognition is left out, or feels marginalized.

The fight against sexual harassment through campaigns like #metoo and #TimesUp are incredibly important, and I think go hand in hand with the ways women in the music industry are fighting for equal representation and the ability to be authentically themselves without fear of repercussions. Besides seeking visibility for the issues women and other marginalized groups face in the broader industry, I also see and participate in so many powerful internal movements that, behind the scenes and in the public eye, are changing the game for female performers. I want to highlight a few of my favorites.

Binders Full of Women

As a Minneapolis-area local, the whole game changed for me the day Andrea Swensson started a private Facebook group called “Binders Full of Women in Minnesota Music” (a spoof on Mitt Romney’s 2012 unfortunate comment about the number of female applicants he’d seen for cabinet positions).  Someone added me, and suddenly the whole diverse, beautiful community of women, female-identifying, and non binary folks in my music scene was at my fingertips. Immediately, I knew we could all use it as a place beyond networking- a place where we all felt safe, seen, and valued, a place where we could complain about an incident, spread knowledge about things going on, tell people who to avoid and who to watch out for, and most of all, HIRE EACH OTHER. A whole community of people in love with music and performing, ready to each other up.

Since becoming a part of that group, I’ve hired and been hired, attended a free clinic on sound engineering hosted by one of our members, started a roster of local freelancers, and added exponentially to my list of cool local music to listen to and support. And that leads me to my next feature…

Happy Hour! 

Last year, my good friend and collaborator Rebecca Hass and I decided to go beyond digital networking, and starting doing semi-regular happy hour meet-ups for female-identifying folks in our local music scene. Since then, we’ve hosted 3 or 4 of them (I’ve lost count!) in which a collection of women both diverse in background and musical genre have attended, trading cards and war stories, and agreed to keep in touch and promote one another. Our next venture is to host a jam session, and Rebecca has plans to do composer-specific meet-ups. It’s informal, friendly, and fun- and I’m so glad to have a colleague to coordinate it with.


Sarah Schmalenberger, horn & musicology professor at the University of St Thomas, and another good friend and colleague, started BrassChix ten years ago as a way to bring multiple generations and ability levels of brass-playing women together for a day of music and camaraderie. She hired me in 2012 to be the “Celebrity Trombonist” and I was delighted to present my experiences and educational philosophies to the trombonists in attendance. Since then I’ve presented or participated every year. Women are a minority in brass performance at most levels, but having a community to draw from is so important for the next generation, and so soul-fulfilling for us ‘old guard’ that are paving the way for more women to pick up brass instruments.

The Art of Asking

It’s not necessarily a community (although AFP’s fans would argue differently), but an idea- in 2013 performer Amanda Palmer presented a TED talk on “The Art of Asking” detailing the ways a new, digital marketplace could be a humongous asset to artists and musicians. She had just crowdfunded an album through the most successful Kickstarter in history to that date, and people were listening.

In some ways, I find the approach simplistic, and perhaps not the route everyone would go, but what really hit home for me is the idea that asking for what you want is not a bad thing. I think we are afraid to ask/trained not to. “American exceptionalism” tells us that we should do it all ourselves, bootstraps, etc etc. But what if we made our goals known, showed clearly how we wanted to get there, and then asked for help?

Last year, my student Caroline did something I never would have done in high school. She had an audition for her fall band assignment and it didn’t go the way she wanted to. She was convinced that she could do better, that nerves got in the way of preparation. So she went to her band director and asked for a second chance. He said yes, and after re-audiitoning, she was told she’d made it into the next level band. I was so proud of her for knowing her ability and her power that I could barely contain myself. I think maybe I cried a little bit.

Years ago I was back in my hometown of San Diego having a beer with Sean Reusch, who taught me in high school and continues to be a friend and mentor to this day. I was going through some stuff, really discouraged by the music scene in Minnesota and feeling like no one saw me. I was ready to burn it all down and do something else, ANYTHING, where I didn’t feel like a ‘woman in music’, power- and gig-less. Sean acknowledged all my concerns and then said, “You deserve to play; you’ve done the work. Now you need to ask for what you want: an opportunity, an audition, a lesson, whatever. But you need to ask, you need to be available for it.”

When I got home I messaged a few ‘power players’ on the trombone scene and asked to get together for coffee or lessons or just to be considered on a gig list. I started my professional Facebook page and started marketing myself more as an educator and unconventional performer. It hasn’t all been up from there- and I wouldn’t say I feel like the biggest trombone success on the scene, but I’m happy with the opportunities and experiences I can now rely on getting regularly.

So for #womenshistorymonth my message to you is: Go out, find your people. Ask. Share. Give. Hold each other up. The new gig economy is all of us, creating  and sharing our humanity through art.

#WCW: Sitar Star Anoushka Shankar

Welcome to the first edition of #wcw (aka Woman Crush Wednesday) on my blog for Women’s History Month! I’m featuring  a musical artist every Wednesday who has inspired me and driven me to expand and develop my own art in new ways.

Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised by the first honoree. For the past month or so since discovering her music I have been absolutely immersed in it, listening to little else in favor of catching up on her back catalogue and live performances. So without further ado, please meet Anoushka Shankar!

Sitarist Anoushka Shankar performs at blueFROG Amphitheatre, in Pune on Friday. PTI Photo

You may recognize the family name, and the instrument: she is indeed the daughter of famous sitarist Ravi Shankar, who came to fame in the Western music scene through the influence of the Beatles in the 60s. Anoushka was born in London in 1981 and grew up between London, Delhi, and California. Her half-sister, Norah Jones, is also a musician.

[When I say “Woman Crush Wednesday” I really mean it here: Anoushka and I are the same age, and we both went to high school in San Diego, which means WE TOTALLY COULD HAVE BEEN FRIENDS AHHHH]

She began studying sitar with her father as teacher at age 7, and grew up performing with him on stage. By 17 she had released her first album, Anoushka, and others quickly followed. She became the first woman and the youngest-ever nominee for a Grammy in World Music in 2003.

In her recent career, Anoushka has blazed a trail through modern music, combining jazz, Western classical, flamenco, electronica, and pop with her Indian classical training. She frequently performs her father’s works as well as her own.

Right this minute, you should make some time to listen to her 2013 album, Traveller. 

Combining Indian classical traditions with Spanish flamenco, Traveller is built around the idea that flamenco may have had origins in India.

“In Indian music, we call it ‘spirituality,’ and in Spanish music, it’s ‘passion,'” Shankar says. “It’s really the same thing in both forms, that reaching at the deepest part of the human soul.” -Interview for the LA Times, April 21, 2012

I’ve been most captivated by her newest work, Land of Gold, dedicated to the victims and survivors of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and refugees from other embattled nations. Central to the compositions are women’s voices:

Separate from my desire to have an established core sound at the musical heart of this album, thematically, I wanted to integrate the authority of the female voice, and the drive for women to establish personal autonomy and dignity in situations where the female perspective is often, sometimes forcibly, subdued.  –Land of Gold album notes

Guest artists on the album include hip-hop artist M.I.A and actress & activist Vanessa Redgrave reading the poetry of Pavana Reddy.

Favorite tracks: Crossing the Rubicon, Remain the Sea]

More than anything what has drawn me to Anoushka Shankar in recent weeks is the pure passion and creativity with which she approaches her work. She sits comfortably on stage, brings her in collaborators with smiles and moments of shared groove, and invites the audience to feel the music with her- it is art and love and joy.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

[Shankar is touring the US this month & next: find her at the Big Ears Festival in Tennessee, playing Philip Glass with the Pacific Symphony in California and at Carnegie Hall in NY]

Women’s History Month 2018

Women are always making history, of course, but we get official about it in March. Next Thursday, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. Originally observed by suffragettes in the United States and factory workers in Russia, IWD now convenes internationally to celebrate the cultural, political, social, and economic achievements of women worldwide.

On the blog this month I’ll be celebrating musical women; highlighting not just brass and classical players but a wide variety of ladies making strides in the music world. Over on Facebook you can find a link to the Women Composers Database, a resource for finding your next performance piece. On Wednesdays we’ll celebrate #wcw – that’s ‘woman crush wednesday’ for you non-hashtag-hip folks- by showcasing a woman in music who’s really inspiring us. I’ve got a great one for this week and I can’t wait to share her music with you.

And Fridays are challenge days. Watch my Facebook page for a prompt from me asking you to share something or seek out some knowledge and report back. Let’s all grow our knowledge of women in the music industry and help promote their visibility!

Happy Women’s History Month!

Black History Month Roundup

Here on the blog and over at my Facebook page, it’s been great fun exploring the dynamic and depth of music from African and its diaspora. As a roundup, today’s blog is a master post of all the things I’ve shared and you’ve shared with me!

On the blog

February- Black History Month 

A discussion about whether or not Justin Timberlake can adequately play homage to Prince, a man with whom he had a noted feud.

Black History Month: Getting Ready for Black Panther

Representation and music inspired by Black Panther- the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack; Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and current politics.

Black History Month: African Inspiration

Covering the score & soundtrack to Black Panther, and where the composer,  Ludwig Göransson, got his inspiration.

On Facebook

Thread– Your favorite musical artists of African heritage. Some shares:

Re: Donald Glover

Resources & Challenges:

Jazz & Its Feminist Future

Test Your Implicit Bias

What’s Your Magic? 

Coming in March: Women’s History Month!

Getting geared up to celebrate women in music (and in all things) in March. Stay tuned!