M8alla, Diaspoura, and Erica Eso talk inclusivity, working as women in music, finding inspiration, and leading by example.

Music

9.18.2018

Women of Color Are Bringing Inclusivity to This North Carolina Festival

Last week we sat down with a few of the many female-identifying acts that played one of the best under the radar music festivals in the south: Hopscotch. The event booked more than 50 female fronted and inclusive acts this year, far more than other corporate run festivals across the country. We chatted with some of these artists about inclusivity, working as a woman in music, finding inspiration, and leading by example.

M8alla

M8alla, née Mballa Mendouga, is an immigrant from Cameroon. She creates trap tinged hip-hop that she blends seamlessly with R&B and beats influenced by her African roots. She opened for Miguel at the festival, backed by a female DJ and dancers.

Tell us about your upbringing.

My dad was Ambassador of Cameroon to the US but the thing that happened was he retired and went back to Cameroon so I fell out of status how I was undocumented for a little bit.

But I grew up mostly in Washington, DC.

I feel like I went through different types of identity crisis just trying to find myself it affected me you know it was everything like dating or like building relationships with people just not knowing exactly who I am, not having a full starting point. Even if I knew, sometimes you feel like, you forget. I like to reconnect with my like my roots. That goes for connecting with family just as much as that goes for connecting with myself.

Do you find that your culture influences your work?

Absolutely. the one thing that we did take around with us was the music from where we’re from. It inspired me to look for different things when I listen to music. I tell people a lot, music for me is a universal language. It’s THE universal language.

When I did go back to Cameroon even though my cousins didn’t speak English, it’s the one thing that we can connect on the fact that we’re listening to the same music and we enjoy the same things.

I like to lead with melody lot because it’s the one thing that I know that everybody will understand.

You managed multiple male hip hop acts while in college before deciding to pursue music yourself. What challenges did you face?

I always have had to navigate in male spaces, but on behalf of men, there were a lot of times where you know I had to I had to just be more prepared, I had to be more prepared and more on top of things because I need to be taken seriously especially in like the Hip Hop Lane. I mean I think now we’re a lot more open to the idea of women navigating hip-hop spaces and having opinions in it. But I was in a space that I needed people to understand that I know what I’m doing, I know what I’m talking about and I studied it.

As an artist you kind of deal with the same thing they just kind of picture of me as like, ‘Okay this is just the female artist or whatever’, so I do get in the situation where I have to prove myself both on the management side but then also on the artistic side. So I do it all. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted all the time.

I have to remember to talk to the venue, I have to coordinate with the people who are going to be here today, my band, my dancers, book them, looks for them, tell them what to do and then I have to order my merch. All of these things and other things that I have to do on my own.

I have to do it because I want to go further in my career and for me the goal is to be in a place where my art will kind of like bring opportunities to my country. I want a different perspective about what it means to be from Cameroon. I want to be able to bring even basic things like water. Things like education- it’s not that they don’t have it I mean but they’re not available to every single body.

There’s not the same kind of system or infrastructure or importance or even the concept of just the ability to follow a career path in art is so so taboo because I’m from a culture where it’s like, you’re either going to be a politician or you’re going to be in finance or a lawyer or whatever. I mean, I know that’s kind of similar here, but there is just that idea that that’s kind of the only way I got you’re going to be well received or acknowledged.

There’s so many people who are so artistically inclined, but there’s not the same amount of value placed on this thing. I would love to be kind of a vessel for people to recognize art as a genuine path to success and sustaining yourself and your family and you know, your happiness!

What would you tell a young female musician who is trying to navigate the industry?

I think the most important thing for me has been to learn not to doubt myself because it’s obviously super anxiety-inducing sometimes to always be talking to men about things you might you might be trying to accomplish. People will always try to make you second-guess yourself.

Just stand firm in your in your abilities and cultivate them.

Diaspoura

Diaspoura is a queer artist from South Carolina who has found a place for her ethereal tracks by engaging with local and global communities. Her music is full of serene soundscapes, but to those actually paying attention, there’s plenty of political layers beneath the surface.

Listeners might hear your music at face value and interpret it as, ‘Oh, it’s just some more dream pop’, but there’s definitely more to that in your work.

I think regardless of whether or not you’re able to hear my lyrics, my music making in my body is a political act in nature, just as the booking of femmes and gender nonconforming people at Hopscotch brings inclusivity inherently. I would hope that people look into the lyrics, but at the same time I believe that the layers and dimensions of the sound are also informed by my experiences, with my last work reconciling with being perceived as too confusing or two dimensional.

I understand that music can be about universal truths and finding personal connections are very important, but there are certain topics that I write about such as experiencing racism, misogyny, and queerness that are not relatable for everyone. Obviously they should still be listened to, and more so because issues like racism do affect everyone in how these systems have distributed structural power.

How did you being to find your voice and share your art as a queer person of color in the South?

It was sometime in the midst of mobilizing, doing gender justice and racial justice work once I escaped the deep South to go to college and find some kind of community. I was a core organizer specifically with a group which believed in music and art as a vehicle for social change. Volunteers would work to provide girls, trans, and gender non-conforming youth with tools and lessons in music and art while also having discussion on identity, movements, and culture changing. I realized got involved because it was something I would have liked to be a part of while I was in high school, having grown up without any programs like this or feminist community whatsoever, but I was a volunteer trying to get these program going.

Eventually I realized it wasn’t too late for me to do it too, I mean, fuckers still think I look 16 anyway.

Being connected a real ass community essentially was the way that I was able to make music and find my own voice. If I didn’t get the support from fellow organizers, from even community I found over Internet – realizing someone my age with my background could be celebrated for doing what I want and for expressing myself, then I don’t think I would be here at all. Hopefully I can be that kind of person for other people.

Erica Eso

Erica Eso is an experimental globalized pop band comprised of Rhonda Lowry, Weston Minissali, Lydia Velichkovski, Angelica Bess and Nathaniel Morgan. Together they create visceral music that challenges listeners to evaluate what the formula for a song that makes you really feel is. Their sound is hard to pinpoint, but feels extremely familiar, drawing from jazz, funk, pop, and lots of electronic elements.

Is there anything you feel is exciting about being a female identifying artist in 2018?

Rhonda: We live in a confusing time. We have a fascist, white nationalist, rapist leading a increasingly conservative and repressive government, global capitalism’s ever-increasing insidious reach, and impending climate catastrophe; but we also have a collective groundswell of marginalized identities claiming their voices and their right to the spotlight in a range of fields and disciplines.

I feel a sort of split consciousness where in my life and in my immediate communities I see such inspiring, exciting work taking place, but then I read the news and remember that we have to stay vigilant; that rights disappear gradually, not all at once; and that global capital is constantly adapting to take what we see as genuine, turn it around and sell it back to us for a profit. But that’s also part of the human experience, holding hope and despair in the same breath and recognizing that neither are the whole truth.

I feel very aware that within our generation and especially among artists, feminism has higher visibility, consensus, and cultural capital than it ever has in my lifetime. It’s super exciting to be a woman artist in that climate, and to see space being created for a diverse range of voices, but the work shouldn’t stop there. I want to strive to live a feminist life, and that means not reducing feminism to an aesthetic, body type or a t-shirt, and not being satisfied that nice American middle class white women like me got all this good stuff going for them. How can we embody intersectional feminist politics not just in what we say, but in our relationships, in the very fabric of our lives? The work is never over, and yes, its very very exciting! 

Erica Eso is fueled by an inclusive spirit, how do you bring that to spaces you play on the road? 

Rhonda: I think there’s only so much one can do as an artist to bring inclusivity to a venue while touring; our band brings what it brings in terms of the uniqueness of our sound and the identities of our players, and it’s up to the venue to be a welcoming place. That means promoting to diverse audiences, employing women, POC and queer folk, curating a wide range of artists, and most importantly, not doubting the intelligence, talent or expertise of those of us who aren’t cis, white, or male. I know its a tired trope at this point- the know-it-all, condescending sound guy- but its so real! Hopefully a dying breed though!

I came up in the DIY scenes of Atlanta and Chicago, and my favorite places to play have always been venues that feel more like community centers than bars. It’s a special feeling that’s hard to name, but when it’s there it so special! Ideally what we’re doing by playing in a band is building community with people who like what we do, and cultivating an environment for the exchange of new musical ideas. Playing places that already have a feeling of openness and respect makes that creative exchange easier and more fruitful for everyone, I think.

Images courtesy of Audrey Melton; M8alla’s outfit was styled by Evita Loca and Diaspoura was styled by Zuri Amidu with Hair by Kerisha Tosseram. Erica Eso wearing their own clothing.

Stay tuned to Milk for more festival coverage. 

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