East Africa’s Women Executives Are Challenging The Music Industry’s Male-Dominated Narrative
Women are the present.
Women are the present.
The music business has mostly been a space dominated by men. Across history, the top brass positions were reserved for men while women were seen as cheerleaders on the sideline. Although women have long dominated the airwaves with widely loved hits, from girl groups to solo acts, their essence in boardrooms was reserved for menial tasks such as serving cups of tea. However, in 2020, the global shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic served as a turning point for the scene. What were once stones that were cast away ended up being the cornerstones of a revolution in the music business.
While it is undeniable that East Africa struggles to find its definitive role in Afropop, women executives have stepped in acting as guides towards effective business models spearheading music in East Africa. From PR consultants to label executives, women have opened gates to gender equality. From Seven Mosha, Marketing & Artist Manager at Sony East Africa, Camille Storm, PR Consultant and Founder of Camille&.Co/C&C Distro, to Bilha Ngaruiya, the country leader at ONErpm, there are now more women in senior leadership positions that pave the way for women who look and talk like them, challenging the archaic music narrative.
View this post on Instagram
When Spotify announced its entrance into the African market, the main question on everyone’s lips was how would the brand would support and promote the East African market given that it’s largely been left out of Afropop conversations on the continent. Monica Kemoli-Savanne was one of the first woman to take up the role of Spotify’s Artist & Label Partnerships Manager for East Africa. Opening up the gates for artists to easily share their art worldwide, this caused a whole paradigm shift as Kenyans who initially relied on YouTube to share their music, had a new option for having their songs on platforms and receiving support which could catapult them to the world–only with the talent, of course. Not long after, new programs supporting artists such as East African curated playlists, and artist support from platforms like Boomplay and Spotify with Equal and Radr began popping up on the platform.
This is largely replicated across the music industry. In 2023, celebrating women entering first-time roles in the industry is not the intentional representation we’re looking for. It was not until one week ago the Kenya Association of Music Producers (KAMP) elected Ms. Angela Ndambuki as the first female chairperson since its emergence. KAMP also elected Suzanne Gachukia as its Chair Licensing and Operations Committee while Faith Kithele was elected as the Chair of the Finance and Human Resource Committee and Monica Kibayu as its Chair Audit and Legal Committee. Despite these recent changes to their board, KAMP is the only collective management organisation (CMO) whose board has the highest representation of women that commands the majority number of four out of seven board members.
“I don’t know why but even when in gatherings with music executives, the men are always trying to pitch the women against each other. I mean, yes there is competition but it’s all friendly competition. We are all trying to elevate the game,” Bilha Ngaruiya shares with the NATIVE. It’s only been less than a year since Bilha stepped into her new role and already, ONErpm has signed two leading Kenyan acts Buruklyn Boyz, who are the face of Drill in the country, and Boutross, a key player in the rise of Shrap. The results of these partnerships bore fruitful results as Boutross’s tape ‘Mawingu’ trended on Apple Music’s Top 100 while the lead song “Angela” hit No.1 on Youtube.
For other women such as Camille Storm, a journalist and PR Consultant in Kenya, bringing more women in the door is a top priority. “I am trying to put more women in the industry into power. You can walk into a meeting and everyone thinks you are a secretary. The constant undermining of women is something that needs to be stopped.” The challenges African women face are mostly borne out of bias and societal misconceptions major in as well. A lot of the time, there are often sneaky comments made directed towards sexual harassment, and whether women could handle the pressures associated with the industry. At the moment Kenyan DJ and artist, Janice Iche is fighting a tumultuous court battle after she was assaulted by her producer.
“As a woman, you need to work twice as hard and be street smart. Music is not an easy business and there’s a lot of men. Some people are driven by certain desires and will see you as an object rather than an executive. You always have to stand your ground and make it purely professional,” Camille Storm echoes. At each stage of these women’s careers, they faced an obstacle they had to surmount. They had to put work in, face their fears and also stand out from their male counterparts, going through several hoops to prove they are worth their salt.
Compared to ten years ago, the music industry has made major moves, especially in East Africa. Women are now filling all the spaces that they haven’t traditionally filled and they’re fitting in well. The more we’re seeing women in all these spaces, the more doors we open for other young women looking to break into the industry. In 2022, Boomplay held an all-women dinner under the theme “breaking the bias,” one the first-events of its nature by a music streaming platform. While this is not a magnanimous feat by any means, it’s a step in the right direction for the industry who has spent years maligning women and pitting them against each other.
Now, we need to collectively create space for more women to emerge in leadership roles and to be represented in higher numbers across the industry which is happening, slowly but surely. Soon, the interior of the music industry will catch up with the progressive and diversified roster of women it supports on the outside. Till then, more African women in music are making more positions for themselves at the table rather than waiting for the crumbs to be handed down to them.