Are All-Female Stages The Answer When It Comes To Sexism And Music Festivals?

Grazia talks to DJ and radio presenter Julie Adenuga about women’s progress in music, Wireless Festival’s initially disappointing line-up, and rectifying the gender balance.

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by Jazmin Kopotsha |
Published on

‘Men have had all the time in the world. Men have had the time to be rubbish, to get better, to improve, to work with bigger people, to earn more money. They’ve had the time to do that’. Women, as we know, have not.

While DJ and radio presenter Julie Adenuga’s words ring true when you're thinking about most industries, here she’s speaking specifically about music. Over the weekend, Julie hosed Smirnoff’s House Stage at Wireless Festival. In an applaudable response to the festivals initial disappointing line up featuring just three women, Smirnoff joined forces with Rinse FM to put together an all-female stage. Chatting to Grazia ahead of the festival Julie explained that while this, the positive result of a negative situation, is brilliant, one of the things that the fight for an equal playing field really needs is time.

When Rinse FM manager Sarah Lockhart brought her on board to host the festival stage, Julie says they discussed the difficult balance between promoting female artists as tokens just because it feels unbalanced without them, and promoting female artists because they’re actually great artists. ‘I’m not into forcing people into a space because it looks like we need it’, Julie explains. ‘I’m not into forcing women into spaces because we need more women and so we should force artists in there who don’t feel like they’re ready, or maybe don’t feel like they want to be in that space and maybe feel like they need some time to really develop who they are. Because what I would hate to see is having loads of women on stages but them not feeling like they have progressed to the space, or that they shouldn’t be there. For me, it’s about giving women the time to develop themselves.’ It’s about giving women the time that their male counterparts have already had.

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Julie Adenuga Grazia

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CREDIT: Tom Johnson

Julie Adenuga Grazia

There’s an undeniable pressure to respond quickly and decisively to our acute (and totally valid) awareness of inequality these days. And we are then sometimes too quick to assume that, in 2018, everything is fine purely because we’re now more likely to talk about, question and protest against instances when women are assigned the short straw. And though its still crucial to continue talking, questioning and protesting these things, (Julie's just as sure that people step up and take action to proactively change the gender imbalance), the truth is that progress takes a hell of a lot longer to achieve. ‘And I know that the public can be frustrated by that’, Julie says. ‘but let’s give these women the opportunity to be the best that they can be’.

That’s not to say we’re without incredibly talented women smashing the game and making their marks in music. Julie names familiar female artists such as Raye, Jorja Smith, Stefflon Don, Ray BLK who are all waving the flag for incredible British music by British women. But where we’re at now, as the Wireless line-up demonstrated, is of course far from perfect. This influx of celebrated female talent took a while.

Julie, who is now a presenter on Beats 1 radio, came up in the underground grime, hip-hop music scene. ‘At the very beginning, yeah, it was very rare to have women anywhere’, she says. ‘From working on pirate radio sets… I wouldn’t hear women on pirate radio’. When she first started at Rinse FM Julie could probably name the women on there with one hand, but as time went on, the arena opened up more.

‘Just from where the genre started, [pirate radios] lent themselves to men more. You’ll find that a lot of hip hop and grime stuff sort of comes from these hard, raw stories of young men growing up in London and what that felt like, so naturally men gravitated to that. But as it went on to become a skill, a talent, you had people performing and it became an artistry. That’s where you saw it open up to more women.’

These once underground genres that evolved into a sound that was more readily played on mainstream stations and grew to be championed at London-based festivals like Wireless, Julie describes as becoming almost 'entertainment'. She explains: 'You have people who are rapping and writing lyrics and performing because they want to entertain, and so as that has changed, we’ve found more and more women are able to comfortably be involved.’

It's a transition that you see across anything, Julie adds. 'I think these genres of music are so popular right now that we see it more.’ The frustration about the Wireless line-up was by no means a new frustration. Last year Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage was headlined by three men and Reading and Leeds' initial 2017 line up contained 57 men and just one woman. Fast forward to February 2018 and there's finally the International Keychange Initiative, a scheme that intends to reach a 50/50 gender balance across festivals by 2022, although only 16 UK festivals have pledged to the four year plan so far and no, it's not enough.

So Smirnoff's all-female stage was born out of a less than ideal but all too common scenario, and while the stage proved expectedly popular and Wireless now are able to boast 2018 as one of their most welcoming of women ever, did their increased presence and pointed celebration make a real difference? Julie anticipates that it will.

'The good thing about it immediately is that you have loads of women, loads more women, getting a chance to perform at Wireless festival', she says. 'I'm not a festival person but I know Wireless. I didn't really grow up in the festival environment but I know what they mean to music and I know what they mean to music culture.' It is understandably a big deal for all of the festivals' artists, much more so the women stepping out to perform at Finsbury Park for the first time. 'And then I think at the same time, for the amount of people who are kicking up a stink about it, it gives Wireless the kick up the bum to make this a priority next year. Don’t have this as an afterthought, this is at the top of your list and I think it will make a lot of people think that it’ll be at the top of their lists as well.'

Julie adds that she mentality across the board should, hopefully, change. 'For me, I think lessons are learned from a negative experience and I think the lesson here is that people need to have the way they book artists and professionals in any field, they need to have that at the front of their minds. There needs to be some equality in there, man! Otherwise, you know, someone’s not going to be happy. And you can’t please everyone but you can definitely make an effort to try and please the majority…', 50 percent of them being women.

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