The house that women built
A red mist ambles from the distance. It’s Oppikoppi, so it’s early October, and evening is suddening upon the festival. A bass rhythm ignites and pulses against the night. Zimbabwean-born house vocalist Jackie Queens hits the stage, delivering her infectious brand of house music. It’s beautiful, fast-paced and alien. Because, really, how often do you see a solo set from a house vocalist?
“I started making house about six or seven years ago,” says the Johannesburg-based vocalist. “I’ve always thought of the genre as serving two purposes: you can dance to it but you can also get really lyrical and talk about some of what’s burdening you. I’ve always loved that.”
One of her most recent releases, Love Will Wait, is a synth-heavy number that sees her telling Cupid to hold off for a minute. “A lot of times, people tell women they have to marry by a certain age or fall in love in a certain way. I don’t think romantic love’s the most important type of love there is, so that’s what I was saying in the record: love can wait.”
Last August, Queens released a three-track EP titled Women of House, which is equal parts haunting, hypnotic and propulsive. It features vocalists Sió and Zipho, and it forms part of Queens’ larger project of amplifying the voices of women in house music. She’s also the founder of Bae Electronica, a record label she initially set up to release her own music but one that now showcases other black women house musicians. All of her endeavours as an artist ask one simple question: Can women make a home out of house music?
Women vocalists have long been the bedrock upon which house music has been built. Run through any catalogue of house classics and, more often than not, a woman has lent her vocals to the DJ’s four-to-the-floor drum patterns. Finally by Kings of Tomorrow has Julie McKnight on the vocals. Rise by Soul Providers features Michelle Shellers. Moloko’s Sing It Back is helmed by Róisín Murphy.
“Being a house vocalist is a tricky thing,” continues Queens. “There’s this weird notion that if you’re a featured artist, you’re almost lesser than or your work isn’t really work. It’s like, if my name doesn’t appear first on a song, then I’m an appendage or an afterthought.”
And she hasn’t been shy to call the industry out either. Last October, when she was announced as a nominee for the inaugural Dance Music Awards South Africa, she tweeted her disappointment that Jullian Gomes was nominated for Best House Record of the Year for 1000 Memories while the featured vocalist, Sió, was not mentioned at all.
“I just want people to get the respect they deserve for their work,” she says of the incident. “At the end of the day, what we do is labour and we want it to be recognised as such.”
The incident brings another artist, Nothende, to mind. In 2011, she featured on Lulo Café’s hit record I Wanna Love You — a song she claims she hasn’t been paid for to this day. “Not a single cent. But the song is featured on compilations around the globe,” she wrote on a Facebook post. “I wrote the song, I composed the melody but my name was nowhere to be found next to ‘written by’.”
Ultimately, Queens believes visibility and a loud, unashamed presence are just a few aspects of addressing the genre’s insularity. Her Facebook page is one such place, where she hypes women who’ve contributed to the industry. Every Wednesday, she dedicates a post to the genre’s underappreciated vocal talents in a bid to take up space and be heard. The symbolic “man”, typified by the overwhelming male dominance in house, definitely isn’t giving up his seat at the table any time soon, so women are just going to make their own.
It’s a sentiment echoed by actor and house vocalist Hloni Padi, better known by her stage name, Ms Dippy. The 26-year-old has worked with local acts Cueber, UPZ and most recently featured on Thando Lwami by Soulistic Music signee Da Capo. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, Thando Lwami features a slow-moving string section, a rubbery bassline and haunting vocals from Padi.
“It is what it is,” she says, “but there are plenty of women challenging the industry’s gender disparity.” She mentions Thandi Draai, a vocalist, DJ, songwriter and music producer who has worked with some of house music’s biggest names (Boddhi Satva, Shimza and Cueber). “With her, you’re just forced to stand up and take notice because she simply does so much, there’s no ignoring her.”
Part of the problem also boils down to the language used when talking about house music. “We wax lyrical about the ‘Godfathers of House’ but little is said about the women who have been integral to the growth of the movement behind and in front of the scene,” Queens wrote an article for Platform magazine. “Women are not just a face or a voice. We produce, write, DJ, create events … and spread the word about house music far and wide. We have been here since the very beginning and deserve to take our rightful place in the annals of house music history”
Padi agrees with the sentiment and also believes part of reclaiming her place in the genre starts with her insistence on being labelled a house vocalist. “I’m not a vocalist who does house music. I’m a house vocalist through and through. I think one aspect of making house our own is owning up to the title and not feeling like we’re just featured artists. We’re way more than that.”
On the seminal house classic My House, Chuck Roberts opens with the following words: “In the beginning, there was Jack …” and one day while viciously throwing down on his box, Jack boldly declared: “Let there be house” and house music was born. Like so many other creationist myths, creation is brought into being by a masculine energy.
But take a look at the charts. DJ Cndo, one of Afrotainment’s first artists, released a gold-selling debut album. Kalawa Jazmee Records’ Busiswa Gqulu has worked with everyone from Maphorisa to Oskido and DJ Zinhle.
Heavy K’s Inde, a contender for Song of the Year, features two black women. Drake’s Get It Together is a reworking of Black Coffee’s Superman — a song written and initially performed by now-retired house vocalist Bucie. Hell, Charlotte by Prince Kaybee, Rainbow and Imali by Black Motion and local house classics like Kentphonik’s Fly Away, Set Your Mind Free by Sis and Jones and Stay Real by DJ Fresh wouldn’t be what they are without the contributions of the women behind the mic.
Jack might have declared house born but history suggests that women are keeping the genre alive.