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Céline Vonlanthen
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November 4, 2021
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Aya Nakamura and the music industry: sexism, racism & colorism

Whether or not it is your go-to music genre, you have inevitably heard of Aya Nakamura. With 8M monthly listeners and her album ‘Nakamura’ that has been listened to more than 1 billion (BILLION yes) times, she holds the record of the most listened to French artist of all time on Spotify. This is HUGE. But despite this worldwide success, Aya is still despised and humiliated in the media, and especially in France. Why is that? Well, the answer might just be misogynoir...

Today, we are the 4th of November. Which means we are exactly 3 years and 2 days after the release of ‘Nakamura’ which gave us the inestimable ‘Djadja’, ‘Copines’ and ‘Pookie’. A real gift to humanity, if you ask me. November seems to be a good month for Aya, because her last album ‘Aya’ came out in November last year. And here is your daily reminder to listen to ‘Jolie Nana’. If you play it and focus on the clip only, you can pretend it is still Summer for a little while. 

But, despite all Aya has done for humanity, it seems that people, and especially French men, hate her and everything she stands for. Well, this is my tribute to Aya. And I will say it straight away: if you hate on her music because it is not ‘proper’ French or because of her looks, congrats you are classist, racist and sexist! Let me tell you why. 

NB: this article is rather binary, primarily focusing on categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’, because studies on the subject have only accounted for these two categories, unfortunately.

Photo credits: Joël Saget / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

‘Good music’: a little history of sexism in the music industry

Before talking about Aya’s case, I think it is necessary to underline just how much men have taken the monopoly in music: they receive considerably more prizes, recognition and attention than women or other marginalized genders in the music industry. And not only that, but they also have the monopoly on what is good music and what is not. If you are a woman/femme, chances are people often dismiss your opinions and tastes in music. Or, you do not feel confident enough to voice your opinion. Have you ever worn a band t-shirt, just to have random men asking you if you really know the band and then to prove to them that you really do? Yeah, me too. Strangely, though, it never happened to any of the men I know. Almost as if men had this sexist assumption that women do not know anything about music and only listen to it to attract men’s attention. Weird...

Image credits: Funny / 9GAG

Women in the music industry: looking for unicorns

Unsurprisingly, women and other marginalized genders do not have the same opportunity as cis men in the music industry. For starters, based on a 2018 Northwestern University study, they have less collaboration with other artists, which leave them at the ‘periphery of the collaboration network’ (The Tulane Hullabaloo, March 2021). In short, in the music industry as well, they are excluded from opportunities and professional networks. 

In addition, a 2019 study from the University of Southern California also found out that, out of 75 female songwriters and producers interviewed, 40% said that their talent was not recognized to its true value by their male colleagues (The Tulane Hullabaloo, March 2021).

The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative looked at the proportion of women in the top 800 popular songs, from 2012 to 2019. The results are appalling: on average, women make up to around 20% of the top 800 songs, no matter the platform. That is one in five songs only. And the numbers drop at 9% if you look at French Hip Hop charts in March 2020 (Music Tomorrow, March 2020).

On top of that, a 2021 study by Andres Ferraro, Xavier Serra and Christine Bauer found out that algorithms on streaming platforms favor men artists over women (ACM Digital Library, March 2020). 

To sum up, women are less present in the music industry, have access to less collaborations, receive less attention and prizes, are less featured in the top charts, are less recognized by their male colleagues and are less likely to be recommended by algorithms. Yay!

Image credits: The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 2019

The reason behind this is rather simple and I am willing to bet that it will not come as a shock: the patriarchy. Indeed, as Stacy Smith puts it, in the music industry, the ‘perception of women is highly stereotypical, sexualized, and without skill. Until those core beliefs are altered, women will continue to face a roadblock as they navigate their careers’ (Music Tomorrow, March 2020). On top of that, women have very few available models to find their place in the music industry: fragile woman singer, inspiring muse, woman-child, hypersexual rapper, etc. (Music Tomorrow, March 2020). In these circumstances, making a name for yourself is difficult. And, who decides who is going to make it, what music we should listen to, who codes the algorithms and gives the prizes? That is right. Men. 

On the side of music fans: the fangirl

If both ‘fangirl’ and ‘fanboy’ exist, they do not have the same implications at all. On the one hand, fangirling defines fan behaviors in relation to artists and especially insists on gender stereotypes, arguing that fangirls are ‘hysteric’, crying and screaming and just over the top. On the other hand, fanboy is generally used in the context of comic books, mangas, video games or movies to categorize men who can become aggressive and angry when someone criticizes their center of interest, effectively gatekeeping it. But it is rarely used in relation to artists. In fact, if someone is obsessing over an artist, we will say that they are fangirling, no matter their gender.

So, fangirling is a derogatory term used for someone who is overly enthusiastic about an artist, and it seems to be linked to femininity. I must admit that I always find it kind of funny when we make the link between being a woman and not being capable of controlling yourself. I do not know about you, but I have only ever seen cis dudes punching holes in a wall because they are angry or breaking their TV because their favorite team lost. 

Image credits: makeameme.org

Nevertheless, humanity has a long history of trying to make us believe that men are rational and logical creatures, while women are on the side of nature rather than logic, and emotion-driven. And, in our case, it seems that fangirls are not only ‘hysterical’ and ‘too much’, but they also listen to the wrong kind of music. 

For the longest time, men have tried to frame what good music is and what good tastes in music are, while despising what women listen to. Do not believe me? Just Google ‘women taste in music’. The first three results that I got, in order, are: 

'Why do beautiful women have such poor taste in music?'

'Do you agree men tend to have better taste in music than girls?'

'Men listen to guitars, women listen to Venus' with the overview of the article stating that 'women have terrible taste in music more often than men do'.

As a bonus, one article also started with 'I have never heard a female discuss the musical qualities of a song. Ever'. Yikes. 

This inspires me a long string of curse words, but I do not think it is necessary to write them down. What I do think is necessary is to ask ourselves a few questions: 

1. Women have bad taste in music, says who?
2. What makes men think their opinion is more valid than women’s?
3. Have you ever met women in real life? There are literally billions of us. Do you have the pretence to claim you know us all and the stupidity to think that we all share tastes in music? 

Good music standards and the hated pumpkin spice latte 

So, apparently, there is good and bad music and you should not listen to bad music. I personally do not really care for what is perceived as good or bad. I think we do not live long enough to ditch the things we love for the things we should love – so order everything pumpkin flavored if you want it, wear that dress and watch the sports you like; you will not get to live longer or better because you think you are too good to have a pumpkin coffee. But, what really bothers me is the fact that ‘bad’ music often refers to female artists or boys band like the Jonas Brothers or One Direction. Notice anything in common?

Yeah, ‘bad music’ is music that is primarily targeted at young girls. And frankly, it pisses me off. Why is it that every time teenage girls love something, we have to belittle them or make fun of them for it?

Michelle Chester actually wrote on the One Direction fan base, and specifically women (14East Mag, March 2021). What she took out of her interviews is that women often feel ashamed to be part of a predominantly feminine fan base, because we have taught them that they should be. But she adds something extremely interesting: 

‘By seeing that other girls who were their age had the same interests, they began to question why they were ashamed in the first place. The creation of the fan culture allowed for these girls to not only feel less ashamed about their interests, but also introduced them to basic concepts of feminism.’ (Chester, 14East Mag, March 2021)

I will say this absolutely seriously: yasss, girls. You go!

Image credits: memegenerator.net

I also cannot help but notice how a lot of music critics are white men in their 40s, telling us what we should listen to and what we should not listen to. Maybe it is time to diversify the profession? Maybe it is time to be a little less snobby and a little less sexist? Maybe we could leave teenage girls alone and let them love what they want? I mean, no one tells a dude he is a basic bloke because he wears a cap and likes lager beer. 

PS: there is a really interesting article on BuzzFeed called ‘What We’re Really Afraid Of When We Call Someone ‘Basic’' on the subject if you are interested.

PS2: studies have actually shown that women spend more time listen to music than men and have a wider genre preference range than men (University of Columbia, October 2017). So maybe it is time to acknowledge that no, men do not know better just because they are men and yes, what other people like is still valid. Stop being a classist prick. 

Misogynoir, colorism and the French music industry

Back to national treasure Aya Nakamura, then. Not only does she endure the sexism of the music industry, but to that, you have to add racism and colorism. Indeed, as a dark-skinned black woman she is confronted to racism, sexism AND colorism. 

Photo credits: The New York Times

When sexism meets racism: the birth of misogynoir

In 2008, black and lesbian scholar Moya Bailey coined the term ‘misogynoir’ to better express the intersection of racism and sexism black women experienced. She defined it as ‘the ways anti-Black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women, particularly in visual culture and digital spaces’ (Brown University, May 2021). The speed at which the word has become popular and entered the general lexicon only proves how much it was (sadly) needed. 

It has since then helped to define a number of oppressive behaviors black women encounter. For instance, it is useful to point out and explain how Kamala Harris is described in the media: indeed, 25% of media coverage about her contains racist and sexist stereotypes. On top of that, 60% of all media coverage mention Kamala Harris’ gender or skin color, against only 5% for VP candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine (Time's Up, 2021).

Image credits: Northeastern University

PS: if you are interested in learning more about misogynoir and are a French speaker, you can go listen to the podcast 'L'InConfortable'; they have made an episode specifically on misogynoir!

Adding the cherry on top: when colorism comes into play 

Aya is not only a woman and a black woman at that, she is also dark-skinned. Meaning that, on top of racism and sexism, you can also add a little colorism. 

Colorism refers to a racist hierarchy among non-white people. Because dividing the world between good white people and bad non-white people was not enough, we also decided that we should establish a hierarchy among non-white people, and the lighter the better. This particularly applies to black women. Light-skinned women, with curly hair and light eyes, and whose facial traits are close to European’s facial traits are considered more beautiful and attractive. Dark-skinned women, with frizzy hair, brown eyes and whose facial traits look non-European are often deemed as ugly and compared to men. Not only that, but it also affects the way black women are pictured in the media, as well as the success of their career. You can check the article 'Why do light-skinned women dominate the pop charts?' on the Guardian, if you want to learn more on the subject.

A beautiful (no) example of colorism is also people’s reaction to a picture of Shay and Lous And The Yakuza. Both are francophone artists, but one is light-skinned and the other dark-skinned. A number of comments complained about how the ‘black woman’ (also referred to with racist slurs) was ugly and screwed the picture up. Yes. In 2020. 

Twitter, October 2020 / 'Holy shit, the black one ruined it'

Black women and the French music industry 

Aya is the first black woman to get mainstream success in the French scene in over 20 years. If black French women have been successful between 1980 and 1990, there is an enormous gap between the end of the 1990s and Aya’s apparition (Le dérangeur: petit lexique en voie de décolonisation, 2020). But how can we explain this? 

Black women have imported, created and defined French R’n’B in the 1990s. Feeling the potential of this new music genre, French music labels have tried to claim it and make profits out of it, by mixing it with French variety. As a consequence, it has put the spotlights on white women and black men, effectively erasing black women from the French scene. This white-washing is a known phenomenon that occurs again and again when (white) people want to make black music mainstream. One of the main arguments used to this end is to say that the public can better identify with white singers – purposefully ignoring the fact that black people exist and are also part of the public.

Although this has effectively erased black women from the public and mainstream French scene, it does not mean that they have stopped making music. It is thanks to their work and their heritage that a singer such as Aya has been able to make music the way she does. The collective behind ‘Le dérangeur’ also points out that all this white-washing had the consequence of Aya being perceived as an anomaly when she started to be known, leading the white, upper-class mainstream media to bash her, because she did not fit into the norms.

Photo credits: Jean-Claude Azria / MAXPPP

All of this has cumulated in the media’s poor and disgusting coverage of Aya Nakamura. From French host Nikos Aliagas keeping getting her name wrong at the 2018 NRJ Music Awards, to an article soberly entitled ‘J’ai envie de tuer Aya Nakamura’ (I want to kill Aya Nakamura) criticizing everything from the color of her hair and the size of her breasts to her lyrics, Aya has been consistently belittled and discriminated against. And I am not even talking about the online harassment she has endured, like every visible black woman on the internet. Thousands of users seem to have felt the irrepressible urge to give their opinions on her looks, comparing her to men or famous footballers, and using racist slurs.

Reshaping the language: you do you, girl

At this point, we have talked a little bit about sexism, racism and colorism. There is, however, one bit we have not covered yet: classism. How come everyone criticizes Aya and other rap and hip-hop artists for not speaking correct French, but when higher-class white men do it, it is genius? Are we all going to pretend like The Beatles did not sing ‘I am the eggman, They are the eggmen, I am the walrus, Goo goo g’ joob’?

Also, I do not know about you, but I do not hear anyone criticizing Shakespeare because he created new expressions. We, in fact, congratulated him for it and kept a lot of his new words/expressions. Did you know that he invented the word ‘belongings’, along with many others, as well as the expression ‘break the ice’? But I do not see people running around screaming about how Shakespeare ruined the English language. 

On a more recent and French level, no one batted an eye when Renaud sang ‘Dès que les vents tourneront, nous nous en allerons’ (literally ‘we’ll leave when the winds blow’) instead of ‘nous nous en iront’, the correct conjugation. So, if you are ok with it when a white man does it but loses your shit when a black woman does, well I have bad news for you. 

Photo credits: Marie Claire, February 2021

In short, you have a right not to like Aya’s music. What is not okay, however, is hating on her for her looks or the fact that she uses slang. You are allowed to constructively criticize her music as well. But frankly, I am a little bit tired of men criticizing her strictly because she does not fit men’s definition of what good music is. Good music for you is not going to be the same as for someone else. I am tired of feeling like I have to apologize for liking Britney Spears or Aya Nakamura, just because they do not fit men’s idea of good artists. You know what? Yes, I love pop music. Yes, I love ‘Toxic’ with all my soul. No, I will not call them my guilty pleasure. Because I think the music and choreography are great. What are you going to do about it, whine some more?

We need more Aya Nakamuras

I think it is pretty obvious at this point that I am a big fan of Aya’s music. What I think is also interesting to discuss is why I love it so much. For me, it is coming to fill a huge gap in the mainstream francophone music: I am tired of hearing men sing about how this girl is a bitch or how they fucked this one or how this one broke their heart. I want to hear other people’s point of view. I want to hear women, trans people and non-binary folks. I want to hear other stories. I want to hear about your best friends, your parents, your pets. I want to hear about your side of the story. Your heartbreak. I want to hear you sing about empowerment, community, how valuable you are. I am tired of hearing sexist insults every time I want to listen to a song. 

And even then, the most know artists are white cis women. It is not enough. We need more people of color. More trans people. More non-binary people. More people living with a disability or a mental illness. We need more diversity. Because their stories matter too. And I want to hear them. 

So, Aya, keep what you are doing babe. We got your back. Hopefully, you will continue to inspire other marginalized communities to sing about their issues. Because I think if we knew each other better, the world would be a more comfortable place for everyone. 

And while you are here, we have some real cool women and non-binary artists’ music projects you can check:

RoxXxan, The Tomboy Rapper Challenging Music Industry Standards
Barbara Butch, The Lesbian DJ And Fat Activist Who Will Make You Dance
Naomi Lareine Is The New Face Of Lesbian RnB And We Are Loving It
Sieski’s New Single Has Us Wanting To Meet Our Own Lady Deity
Let Yourself Be Transported By Nakhane’s Enchanting Voice
Kiran Gandhi Is The Bold, Fierce And Activist Singer We Were Waiting For
Rae Isla Took Us For A Beautiful Trip To The Land Of Lesbian Dreams And We Want More
Raveena's 'Headaches' Is Giving Us Immaculate Bisexual Vibes

Take care, do not forget to stream ‘Pookie’ and see you soon!

Love xx

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