How Nigerian women are changing the narrative for producers in the studio

"We need women to know that certain opportunities are open to them."

In the last ten years, it can be argued that women musicians have made more inroads in the music industry generally. On the global scene, Beyoncé has risen to become one of the most compelling auteurs of the 21st century while Adele’s cathartic music was as popular—if not more than—anything released over the past 15 years. In Nigeria, progress for women musicians has been forthcoming: Tiwa Savage moved from upstart to undeniable pop presence and global force in the space of 10 years, Yemi Alade transcended the quirky messaging of “Johnny” to become a pan-African superstar and, in recent times, younger stars like Tems and the Ghanaian-American singer and rapper, Amaarae, have shown that international success is not a pipe dream but a strong possibility given the right opportunities and connections. 

Yet, despite all these successes, women remain critically under-represented behind the boards. One study found that less than 3% of producers operating in the United States of America are women. While Nigeria does not have credible stats for this sort of information, a simple eye test of the most popular Nigerian songs on a variety of streaming platforms shows a recurring pattern of them being produced by mostly—overwhelmingly so—men. Some women (including Simi and Dunnie) have found success producing for themselves and others but the numbers remain abysmally low, hinting at a more systemic issue for their exclusion. 

London-based Nigerian producer Aderike Sodeinde, who produces and performs as Babyrix Burger, chalks up the glaring absence of women producers to the larger mistreatment of women by society. “I think we can all see that women are treated differently in the music industry and it really reflects how men treat women in general,” she explains. “So, it’s not really about the industry, it’s just how Nigeria is as a country. And it’s like an elephant in the room because people like to say, ‘Oh, keep going,’ and all of that. It’s almost like they are ignoring the difficulties women face and not doing anything to make it better. I think everyone needs to stop for a second and figure out how to deal with this elephant in the room. It’s just so annoying that people are acting like these issues don’t exist and if they do acknowledge it they don’t want to do anything about it.” 

Babyrix Burger, who grew up in Nigeria before relocating to London at eight, has loved music for all of her life and dreamed of being a rapper, eventually resorting to making beats for herself to translate her ideas into reality. While her production has brought a spotlight on her, it has also placed her in proximity to situations that reflect why many women are discouraged from pursuing a career in production. “I didn’t realise that I would be an anomaly while making beats,” she offers. “I was just doing it for fun but I started getting noticed, and when you start getting noticed you realise that you’re not always being treated fairly.”

“It’s not something I braced myself for because I didn’t really think about it when I was making beats for fun. But as I started to interact with more people that weren’t just my friends, I realised that this is really messed up and not okay!”

Oladunni Lawal is an artist, songwriter, and record producer professionally known as Dunnie. An alumnus of The Sarz Academy, the Ibadan-born producer has created a niche for herself as one of the few Nigerian musicians who is as known for their production as they are for their musical output. In 2021, she followed the minimalist palette of her 2018 project, ‘Seven,’ with the party-starting vibes of her ‘Amazon The EP,’ headlined by the airy, Amapiano-influenced Mosafejo. While Dunnie has produced for acts such as Niniola, Becca, and Busiswa and represented brands such as Ciroc, Oppo, Maggi and Kotex Sanitary Pad over the last three years, her path into production was fraught with complexities. While completing her high school-leaving exams, she took a shine to production but was disheartened by unwanted propositions. “I’d go and meet people to teach me but something would happen,” she says, laughing at the sad memory. “It would either be that one person wanted to marry me or a wife would say I was trying to snatch her husband, it just didn’t work out.”

These experiences pushed her to largely learn production on her own, determined to make a success of herself with her music. “I talked to some of my producer friends and they gave me some software for production and I went on YouTube,” she offers. “This time around, I was determined to not have to meet anyone so they won’t proposition me. I watched a lot of tutorials on YouTube and that’s how I started producing. I gave myself a target of making 10 beats daily and I learned how to produce in one month. I knew that if I made 10 beats daily, one would make sense and before I knew it I got better at production. By 2018, I had a major record, ‘Pempe,’ with Sean Tizzle and that’s what my journey has been like.”

Dunnie mentions that one of the biggest challenges she faced when she started was the lack of visible female producers to serve as inspiration. “To be honest when I wanted to start production, there were no women in Nigeria to look up to,” she confesses.  “The only person giving me consolation was Missy Elliott who was American and also Lauryn Hill who produced parts of the ‘[The] Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ but locally, there was nobody in Abuja or Lagos to look up to. I was on my own for most of that phase.”


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A post shared by Dunnie (@officialdunnie)

When Phebean Adedamola Oluwagbemi started Audio Girl Foundation with her partner, Bada Aramide, in 2018, the goal was to let young women interested in positions behind the boards in the Nigerian music industry know that others like them existed and provide some mentorship for these women. Describing the NGO’s objective, Phebean says: “The whole point of Audio Girl Foundation was to create a platform where young African girls can get support from us and network into the music industry, especially for those interested in the audio technology side of things, music production, live sound engineering, and also live productions. Stage management, production management, road management, and talent management,  everything that has to do with the back-end of the music industry.”

In the five years since being established, Audio Girl Foundation has trained over 500 women and hosted six workshops, two boot camps, and a major accelerator program all from funds raised within their network and with little support from corporate partners. The Creative Accelerator Programme known as CAP ‘19 was organised with support from Femme Africa and was Audio Girl Foundation’s last major programme before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 

“The interesting thing for us is that we are not focused on people already in the industry, we want to train young girls in high schools and at the tertiary level because we believe that’s where we can actually shape minds,” Phebean explains. “It’s where we believe we can effect change the most. We want it to be that more than 1% of those working as engineers or producers are women.” Of the 500 women they have trained, there are already success stories. Some of their trainees have secured internships with frontline music label Mavin Records, while others have also interned with Audio Girl Foundation. One former trainee, Anwuli Roseline, is now a sound designer for films and works with EbonyLife. “We have a long way to go but these are some of the highlights of what we’ve done and seen our people move on to better things in their careers,” Phebean says. 

Phebean, who works as a recording, mixing, and live sound engineer, is quick to dispel the myth that women are not interested in getting behind the boards, pointing out that Audio Girl Foundation has been getting responses to its call that are way beyond its present capacity. “For our last program, we had over 200 women register and we couldn’t take them all, we could only take about 100 people and we could only attend to 50 of them physically,” she says. “The others had to join virtually. It showed us that there were girls who were interested in learning to be engineers and producers. I think a fundamental problem is that women don’t see more people like them out there and people like to make it seem like it’s not a profession for women and it fuels that disparity. That has to change.” 


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A post shared by AUDIO GIRL FOUNDATION (@audiogirlafrica)

When I ask Babyrix Burger about the role of male producers in helping to achieve a more representative industry, she says, “Not many people want to acknowledge it because the system benefits them the way it is right now.” The rising producer doesn’t necessarily think that the situation of women working exclusively alone is a panacea to the micro-aggressions of navigating the industry as a woman. “I really feel like that would just be boycotting and it would not help,” she says. “We just need accountability. I love when women come to me and feel safe with me because I’m a woman, that’s part of the reason why they say they come to me. I think having more female producers will probably be better but I don’t think we should boycott because that won’t solve the problem. It’d just still be there.”

Phebean believes that educating women would play a critical part in empowering the new generation of would-be producers, making them knowledgeable about the options and paths available to them. “We need women to know that certain opportunities are open to them and that’s where Audio Girl Foundation comes in,” she says. “We need to keep educating young girls and let them know that their dreams are valid and that we’re here to support them. Specifically, there’s not enough support for women in the industry. I know that men will say there’s not enough support for them but it’s even worse for women.”

For Dunnie, her success has opened her up to more opportunities but she is sceptical of chances that come to her based on her gender, instead hoping to be recognised for her artistic merits. “Initially for me, in the 2017 era, I could feel that people didn’t take me as seriously until they got into a studio with me,” she says. “They’d have the reaction that says, ‘She’s actually good.’ I feel like it has changed now, a lot of people don’t remember that I’m a woman now because the quality of my work leaves no doubt.” 

Despite these inroads in the industry, these women don’t want to be handed roles simply based solely on their gender. “I mean if I’m given such opportunities I’d go for it but I don’t want people to come to me because I’m a woman. I want my work to stand out for me,” Dunnie says. “If you hear a great song, the gender of who created it doesn’t come into question. If it’s good, it is good and that’s what my major focus has been.”

Featured image credits/NATIVE

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