Sweet Truth: Honey Jam Founder Ebonnie Rowe Gets Candid About Sexism In Canadian Music

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Ebonnie Rowe, founder of PhemPhat Entertainment Group and the annual Honey Jam showcase has been paving the way for Canadian female talent for 20 years. And in that time, she’s noted it all. Rowe’s company and Honey Jam initiative, responsible for fostering the careers of artists like Nelly Furtado, Jully Black and Reema Major, while providing emerging female artists with a platform and industry preparation, was created in contrast to the misogyny she was witnessing among the budding industry at the time. But two decades later, similar issues remain.

So how far have we really come?

Leading up to the 20th anniversary Honey Jam showcase, preparing to hand over the spotlight to a new batch of Canadian female talent, Ebonnie Rowe gets candid about sexism in the Canadian music industry and the evolution of the Canadian female artist over the last 20 years.

Feminism in Canadian music has always been a hot button issue but even lately, it’s been pushed to the forefront of the Canadian music industry from the Action Bronson petition to the success of artists like Alessia Cara. Where do you think the Canadian industry stands in terms of female equality in music? In 1995, we were very hip-hop focused and the whole reason Honey Jam started at all was in reaction to the misogyny in hip-hop and the lack of respect given to women who excelled in that genre as DJs, breakdancers and emcees. They just weren’t given credit and an opportunity to shine. And so, we created that space for them. There was very much a “casting couch” mentality and I would see a lot of women being taken advantage of in order to get studio time. What I was seeing at that time 20 years ago was more innocent young women who were being preyed upon with that “Baby, I’ll make you a star” mentality and then, with that sexual harassment vibe being expected. It was very much a boys club. There certainly wasn’t any other female promoters, especially not in that genre. I was not welcomed. I did not sleep my way to the top. I did not ask for permission and I wasn’t from any clique and I wasn’t a groupie. I just decided that I was going to do this. There was some resistance and some negativity around that but in general, in wanting to find out more about the industry and in order to meet people in the industry, who were 99% of the time men, I would experience the “Why don’t you come to the studio at midnight” type thing. It was all about how you were seen. Even being in the company of men in the industry, people look at you and assume that you’re probably sleeping with this guy, or sleeping with the band. I found that for my personality, in order to be respected, I would come off a little bit harder edged. I was very specific in how I was going to be portrayed.

But where I feel that we have come far in terms of artists’ opportunities is, technology has opened up so you can be a DIY artist. Everyone can now be a producer in their kitchen. You can take your own photos. There wasn’t any of that when Honey Jam started. When I used to ask people to bring photos to the auditions, they would be bringing me a Polaroid. Now, you can do so much yourself. That has given artists a lot of power to start their own course. It’s removed a lot of dependence and I think that has been the biggest change rather than thinking society has come a long way in terms of respect for women. I think there are more women in positions of power for sure. Women are being able to assert themselves because the technology and digital age is giving them the tools to do that themselves. But there’s still some of the problems that persist and I don’t have an answer for why it’s still happening.VIctoria SolYou mentioned the DIY artists and technology’s influence and you’ve been running the Honey Jam for two decades now, so how have you seen the Canadian female artist evolve over that time because of these things? I’ve absolutely seen a confidence change, for sure. Just the level of talent and the fact that many of them are singer/songwriters, writing their original songs from the age of 15-years-old. I think there’s a lot more fearlessness and gaining the knowledge they need. There’s a lot more opportunities than there were 20 years ago, that’s for sure.

The thing that annoys me the most as a journalist, is watching the international media coverage of Canadian artists and seeing that 99% of the attention they give our artists is placed on men. So where would you like to see the attention placed as someone that works so closely with Canadian talent? I think there should be a meritocracy and I think people who have talent should all be given an opportunity to shine.  I would think that a lot of those men are in the field of hip-hop and so that may be the reason for it. It might be genre-specific. And because Drake is hip-hop, people are looking at Toronto for hip-hop and the types of artists that he would be working with. I don’t know why Drake hasn’t put the Drake touch on a female artist yet. I really wish that he would.

Especially since it was looking like Shi Wisdom was going to be that for a while, a few years ago. They wrote the Rita Ora song “R.I.P” and he supported her events before. Yes and Shi is a Honey Jam alumn. But she is an artist who is so uncompromising. She is an artist who would probably give up $1 million deal just to keep her honour and integrity intact. She cannot be bought. I really respect her for it.

She gives off a Canadian Nina Simone type of vibe when it comes to that. Yes. She is going to be in control and if she decides to change her style of music or look, it’s going to be organic and because that’s what she has chosen to do and not to fit into a certain demographic or get more sales. Very pure artists. I tell the artists, they need to decide what success is for them and what they are willing to do and give up and what compromises they are willing to make to get that. You have to know what your goals are and motivations are and determine what it is that you’re willing to do.Reema Major performing on Honey Jam StageSo we talked a little bit about how sexism has affected young emerging artists but what about you as an event-planner, have you noticed a difference when it comes to media coverage or finding funding for a female-centric event like the Honey Jam? For me, I see group initiatives for young men related to music having buildings, studios, full-time staff and getting a whole lot of funding. Whereas Honey Jam is outside of my kitchen. It’s just me and we hardly get any funding. I think that they are seen as helping these at-risk men and helping them be constructive, which can be seen as a scary thing to society, where young women are just seen as nurturing and non-threatening and there’s no urgency. It’s not as compelling for funders. That’s what I find in terms of how gender comes into the funding process.

I want to congratulate you on 20 years of Honey Jam and ask what people can expect from the show this year. We always are providing a great night of live music. That’s what it always is and that’s what we’ve consistently done and that’s what people can expect. Sarah Taylor is hosting and we are supporting the YWCA program with a portion of proceeds from the tickets. We have some artists from Toronto, Nova Scotia, Montreal and Manitoba.

What are your hopes for Honey Jam in the future? I want to have more funding so we can have some assistance. I’m bogged down in the minutia and the detail of the day-to-day and I want to think about big picture stuff to move us forward. I tell people, it’s like having a baby and breastfeeding and it’s screaming so you don’t ever have time to think about its college fund. I want to have the space to do more long-term planning. A lot of people would have given up by now, because we’re pretty old-school. It’s not a competition. One of our funders said that the moment we turn it into a competition, they’re gone. Everyone else is doing that and it’s not what we’re about. I want to be able to do more post-show development. There’s so much. There’s a lot of potential.Honey Jam Artists at TD Music Event opening for Tegan and SaraHow would you describe the Honey Jam legacy? Sweet.

“Honey Jam is an amazing stepping stone in terms of the goals that I’ve set for myself as an artist. I’m very humbled and blessed to be a part of this experience, this family. The people here are very loving, very giving and supportive. I think for any female artist in Canada, Honey Jam is one of those things that, if you can get there, you know you’re moving forward. It opens a whole new network of opportunities. Honey Jam is where creativity and artistry meets advocacy and support for women. It has given me a lot of perspective in terms of what I need to do, and having those concrete goals really helps when you want to go somewhere. From finances to tax tips to media interviews, it’s all wonderful knowledge, and it’s all very valuable, because I’m just starting out and this is just the beginning of the journey for me. Also, knowing that we all have similar struggles like accepting yourself and building confidence. Knowing that other artists have similar obstacles as you is very helpful so I don’t feel alone, and it’s just amazing to have that kind of support.” – Victoria Sol, Honey Jam Alumni

The Honey Jam line-up will be announced later this month. The 20th annual Honey Jam concert will be held on August 13 at Toronto’s Virgin Mobile Mod Club.

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