This Sh*t Is For Us: Black Diasporic Women Are Running New York City's Underground Music Scene

This Sh*t Is For Us: Black Diasporic Women Are Running New York City's Underground Music Scene

March 26, 2018 - 4:11pm EDT
Shaira Chaer

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study exposing the music industry’s lack of diversity. In 2017, 83.2 percent of artists were men and only 16.8 percent were women, with the year continuing a six-year downward trajectory for female artists. Of the study’s 651 producers, 98 percent of them were men—see where this is going? Breaking into popular culture may be difficult, but with the rise of platforms like TIDAL, Spotify, Bandcamp and Soundcloud – as well as Instagram’s user-friendly interface and endless opportunities for interaction – unsigned musicians have had, as of the last five years, more access to and opportunities in music’s underground world.

It might be argued that New York City is losing its creative class – gentrification is a major component of this argument, especially when DIY venues are shut down every other week – but the underground is still alive and thriving thanks to women and LGBTQ+ DJs, singers, dancers, event producers and their loyal supporters. The same artists that are intentionally and perpetually locked out of the music industry are the ones in control of the alternative underside. Whether it’s debuting their tracks at New York Fashion Week or performing on Sway in the Morning, get better acquainted with 13 black women from across the diaspora you need to be listening to right now. —Shaira Chaer

  • María "La Cotto" Quiñones, Singer-Dancer (Puerto Rican)

    Music gives me the freedom that I do not necessarily find in the other forms of art I do, like acting or dancing. When it comes to my music, it comes to my word and world. My music defines who I am and how I feel. It’s a big responsibility, 'cause when you write and sing your own music, it’s pretty much like you are talking about yourself.

    As an independent artist, it takes a lot of work to do it on my own. I always keep in mind the message that I’m giving with my music and what energy I’m willing to give out, so that the type of scenarios that I chase have to be aligned with that. Not really trying to be anywhere just to be famous. There’s a certain reputation I represent as my own logo. As my first solo release date gets closer, I’m learning much more about how to properly manage myself as I go. For now, social media and word of mouth are the ways I get my work out there. —La Cotto

    For more from La Cotto, you can follow her on Facebook.

  • XHOSA, Singer-Songwriter & Rapper-Producer (African American)

    My sound encompasses a lot of different genres, so I find myself traveling through varying circles and scenes. I perform a lot around the city, and that has allowed me to connect with so many artists and people within this industry. I have been met with a lot of support, because I think music listeners are looking to be emboldened by female artists currently. Hip-hop carries an air of confidence and unapologetic-ness that is radical coming from women. In many ways, creating a lane in hip-hop has made me a stronger person and a stronger artist, and I don't think I would have been fully expressing myself if I stuck to my singer-songwriter background.

    I would say a true break out moment for me was when I released my single "Let me Go" via Doom Dab. The song premiered via FADER and a week later I had a write up in Vogue. Releasing that song in general was a big deal for me because it was very emotionally loaded, and it felt really great to get affirmed in that way after making myself vulnerable to the world. The music scene has toughened me up in a lot of ways. It has taught me to always trust my instincts. I have also learned never to seek approval outside of myself and that my talents are what truly carry me to the opportunities that are for me. —XHOSA

    For more from XHOSA, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Suzi Analogue, Producer-Songwriter (African American)

    Growing up as a musician has molded my creative process and made me realize how the world is so connected. I am a global citizen and my music and art reflects the imaginations of people I've met worldwide. My journey has been exciting and one of taking risks and making things happen.

    I listen to anything under the sun, push myself to learn as much as I can, and always stay open to push the envelope of the culture of sound. Doing this leads me to transformative moments, like creating and performing the live score for CHROMAT’s  S/S18 NYFW runway show. I appreciate the lessons I've learned in being considered the underdog at first. This has made me able to shape my own world in music. —Suzi Analogue

    For more from Suzi Analogue, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Nitty Scott, Rapper (Afro-Puerto Rican)

    I’m a barrier breaker. I bust through the boxes created for young, black and brown, queer, creative femmes, and carve space within the culture for us. I navigate by seeing obstacles as opportunities and turning them into wins for the communities I represent.

    My journey as a woman in hip-hop is truly an incredible story to me. I didn’t come into the game ready to smash the patriarchy, with rampant misogyny internalized and my authentic voice dying to be heard. I think I went from being disempowered and sort of “compliant with the program” to a strong, realized and radical woman in total control of my art. The world has seen me grow into myself, evolve and be super transparent about the process.

    I’m not a very “on-the-scene” person beyond spending time with my fans at shows. I dabble and make my appearances, but I’m super introverted and not very social at all when it comes to my work. I value a little mystery, too. I have to be free to sink into my head for a while when I create. Sometimes I even call myself rap game Sade, because I don’t try to be over productive either; I’d rather have my periods of intense creativity where I craft something of true passion and quality, then kind of fade away to live life and be inspired again. I know that’s the antithesis of how most artists move these days, but I’m a slow-cooker typa b**ch, not a drive-thru.

    I’ve had many milestones throughout the years, but I think doing the BET Cypher really put me on the map for a lot of people. I was the No. 1 trending topic, and all that. It was great for a lil' indie baby. —Nitty Scott

    For more from Nitty Scott, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Karen "DJ Kaykay47" Louviere, DJ-Social Worker (African American)

    People give me appalled faces when I tell them that I'm a DJ. Especially younger folks. People aren't expecting a woman to be behind the decks or controlling the music, just like in any other scene or setting. Hip-hop is such a male-dominated culture, and so I have to keep shining my light by being a bold, authentic and risk-taking leader.

    I grew up a couple of blocks away from where Kool Herc once lived and by Cedar Park. I am also blessed to have been a member of the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, where I learned about the foundation of hip-hop culture and its connection to social justice. I am also reminded that I’m still a student of hip-hop! I learn something new everyday. I dream of opening a hip-hop community center in the Bronx for youth and adults to learn the skills of deejaying and other elements of hip-hop such as b-boy/b-girling, emceeing, and graffiti. While learning these skills, folks will also engage in popular education around many issues of oppression and how hip-hop is a tool of resistance.

    As an empath and social worker from the Bronx, I love to play music that makes people feel good. Music that will make people dance and feel joyful. Music that would make people feel free. Music that will make you get the chills. I always like to cater to the crowd. And so before a gig, I do a consultation with the person who hired me to get a sense of the type of genres and/or themes they want me to play. I create a playlist of music based off the consultation, and then play additional music depending on my intuition and the energy of the crowd. I see myself as a healer; DJs are healers! —DJ Kaykay47

    For more from DJ Kaykay47, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Sabine Blaizin, DJ-Producer & Event Curator (Haitian)

    I bring my whole self to the music scene—woman of African descent with Haitian roots, Vodou priestess, DJ, unapologetic in my Black Girl Magic. In an industry with predominantly men in major roles, it was important for me to name my business Oyasound (Oya refers to the Nigerian Yoruba Goddess Warrior, Guardian of the Ancestral Realm) and not conform to societal norms and expectations of a "female" DJ.

    My events and bookings reflect my sensibility and exploration of the richness and vastness of our African diasporic music from traditional sounds to electronic experimentation. Oyasound Productions features artists, music, and events highlighting the intersections of the cultures around the African diaspora through the syncretism of traditional rhythms and electronic music.

    I speak openly about any injustices toward female DJs. I also just fully represent myself and craft… ultimately the skills, passion, and movement of the crowd is a testament beyond gender binaries that, regardless of your gender, can't be refuted. The goal is to stay focused and have a strong spiritual foundation to combat hate and negative energy. The feminine principle is essential for any genre or musical movement to sustain itself in front or behind the scenes. Oyasound is at the helm. —Sabine Blaizin

    For more from Sabine Blaizin, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Cipherella, Recording Artist (Afro-European)

    I’m like a thief in the night. I sit lowkey in the back watching what’s being delivered. Every now and then I pop out to take the spotlight then I dip back into my lowkey motif. I navigate it by testing the waters, if you will, to see what I can get away with.

    I’ve learned to avoid those male counterparts with alternative motives, who are more interested in what my body has to offer verses my mind. I’ve learned that sex sells, but bars will make them put some respect on it. I can’t say the journey has been limited in its teachings/opportunities. If anything, I’ve experienced doors being open because I am a woman with a sharp tongue, and commercially it’s a rarity. So I’m almost like a unicorn, and people want to see unicorns.

    In the past year, I’ve only released two audiovisual projects, both of which have won numerous awards—nationally and internationally. I was also invited to Sway in the Morning's five fingers of death freestyle Fridays and back again for the Doomsday Cypher. I was introduced and began working with platinum/Grammy-winning producers… not sure I’ve had THE breakout moment, but I’ve definitely fluffed my resume for 2019.

    I’ve learned that I’ve grown away from popular music because it doesn’t feel the way I need it to feel to heal. The underground scene has molded me into the best version of myself I can be. Underground is more neck-and-neck and diverse that you have to genuinely be you to be recognized. Ironically, it’s also a safeground that allows you to peel back these layers and get to the root of what you want to say. It’s helped my journey by challenging my creative. Pushing myself. Never settling. I’m always like, “What’s next?” —Cipherella

    For more from Cipherella, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Dion "Tygapaw" McKenzie, DJ-Visual Artist (Jamaican)

    The underground queer club scene has made a significant impact on my career as a producer, and it truly feels like my home base. Historically, the music scene hasn’t been the most supportive environment for women, more specifically, for women of color. It can be isolating. My entire career I’ve worked extremely hard with limited resources knowing that you will never get paid your worth without representation.

    What I’ve learned is that in order to make an impact we have to create our own platforms to make space for the communities we stand for and serve. I learned to work under these constraints early on, but it hasn’t stopped me from serving queer women of color, it’s only made my hustle more charged. —Tygapaw

    For more from Tygapaw, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • DJ Bembona, DJ-Activist (Puerto Rican-Panamanian)

    I will forever be a work in progress, and I will forever continue to learn. I think it's important that people are aware of that. There will always be challenges and problems within any male dominated field but as we women, female-identifying and non-binary folks work toward dismantling the patriarchal system, I will not allow these challenges to stop me from doing what I was born to do.

    I have the immense privilege of witnessing and being a part of nightlife and activist communities in NYC that are serving as the building blocks to the future that we want to see, and it is absolutely beautiful. In just the few years of being a DJ, I have learned so much about self-love and sisterhood. For me, especially as a woman, these are two of the most vital ingredients in flourishing in any field that you are a part of. To build, create, grow and support the women – including female-identifying and non-binary folks – in and outside of your industry, is everything. To know that I am continuously working on myself while knowing that I have the full support of my sisters, is what makes the journey that much more amazing. In the words of Princess Nokia, "these little doo-doo boys, they can get up and go." The future is female, coño!

    Many of the opportunities I have been grateful of receiving, have all served and continue to serve as stepping stones toward my personal and professional growth. A specific breakout moment that will forever be ingrained in my memory is the time I got to open for Bomba Estereo, on two back-to-back nights at Irving Plaza. The feeling was indescribable! Just to say that as an Afro-Latina DJ, I got to play "F Trump" (by Mighty Mark & TT The Artist) in front of over a thousand people who were mostly brown or white latinx, with Irving's production team who were mostly white, was f*cking amazing. To have the audience join me as we shouted “F*CK DONALD TRUMP!” while waving our middle fingers in the air, was definitely one of a few moments those nights I knew I was put on this planet to do this. I am here to serve as a puzzle piece in the dismantling of this ugly ass system.

    As a born-and-bred New Yorker, (Brooklyn, all day!) I am so thankful that I get to live in a city where you really can hear just about anything. I grew up on salsa, Motown, merengue, pop etc... I had my years of being an instrumentalist and really dove in classical and jazz music. Now as a DJ, I've gotten to discover so many other genres and sounds that I've fallen in intense love with (Afrobeat, baile funk and dembow, to name a few), that all of these experiences with music and just living in NYC alone, have made me the artist that I am. You can never be uninspired living in NYC. The music scene has continued to push me to work harder, to create, to support my fellow DJs/artists of any field. Like I always say, my biggest inspirations are the people I have around me—my powerful and hella talented friends, the amazing DJs and artists that I get to proudly say, “I'm in this scene with you!”—DJ Bembona

    For more from DJ Bembona, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Synead Nichols, Singer-Songwriter (Trinidadian)

    I do my best to stay away from f*cksh*t and energy suckers, keep positive energy constantly flowing and always find ways to be inspired. To be quite honest, I’m surrounded by really talented people I have the blessing of calling my friends. They often push me beyond my limits and encourage me to explore the varying facets of myself.

    As time has passed, and I’ve spent more time advancing in my various art forms, I’ve gained more confidence and feel more assertive about my place. I feel my most impactful moment was when I started organizing Millions March NYC. That was such a vast moment not only in my life, but in the life of so many other people. I’m solidified. —Synead

    For more from Synead, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Latasha Alcindor, Hip-hop Performing Artist (Panamanian, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Jamaican)

    I try to be as honest to myself and supporters about my journey. I came into music really through the hands of higher power and I never forget that, so my mission moving into music was always growing and giving my truest form of me overtime. I dedicated my art to my story in hopes that it may inspire others to tell theirs. I really believe that our stories create the history of our people, or herstory of our people.

    The scene has been a challenge to navigate as I have had to learn so much being an independent artist. I started with no team, just an urgency to make music and experiences. And a lot of times as a black woman, I have had a lot of resistance on my honesty and attitude, and it made me truly hold back in the beginning of my career out of fear. I was told I didn’t fit the mold of a female hip-hop artist who would make it and 'cause of that I had to decide that I was going to do this my way. The scene is what I decided to make it, and now I am cultivating a world for myself and others to feel safe in being true to their cause. My cause was always to tell the story of my world and being, and through this journey I have found that this work is beyond me. This is our connection to divinity, this is our magic. —LATASHA

    For more from LATASHA, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Jada "JADALAREIGN" Haitoff, DJ (African American, White)

    I navigate the music scene by remaining true to myself and my creative identity. The music scene in New York is thick with diverse, incredibly talented musicians and artists of all kinds. After years of navigating the industry and lots of trial and error, I find that being true to my creative self puts me in a league of my own and aligns me with the opportunities that coincide with my true passion and purpose. I’ve become an adaptable and well-rounded artist. It has taught me a lot of patience. It has challenged and inspired me to create at my highest potential, but has also commanded me to remain focused on my own pursuits. It has taught me to work hard, stay humble, and always maintain the essence of who I am in all that I do.

    I began deejaying in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus from music. I grew up in a highly musical family, and sang and played several instruments growing up, but drifted from music in high school to pursue visual arts and design. Although it's only been three short years, the scene is constantly evolving. I think the most striking difference is the number of women in non-traditional roles within music: i.e. DJs, producers, rappers, indie singers, engineers, musicians, etc. And not just women, but women of color, and LGBTQ women. The scene is slowly making space for us. Don't get me wrong, music remains a male-dominated industry and we haven't quite yet achieved equal representation, however, we are reclaiming our power and the scene is making way. It's beautiful. I only hope we can continue on this trajectory.—JADALAREIGN

    For more from JADALAREIGN, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

  • Candice Hoyes, Jazz Singer-Songwriter (Jamaican)

    I feel being a leader and embracing that is key to growing as a recording artist and navigating music professionally. Women in blues and jazz have always been strong and pushed the boundaries of freedom and personal expression. It’s also a music that you can grow in for the rest of your life. My dream is to have a long career, always playing and recording, and writing my stories in song. I get inspired by musicians I love and many of those artists are on the album I am currently making.

    Jazz was my first love. The music I used to hear at my grandparents’ house – Billie Holiday and Sade – influenced me. The music called American Songbook, that, along with the blues, forms the basis of vocal jazz. My mom loves Stevie Wonder, Prince, and thank God she passed that to me and took me to live shows. I’m also a hip-hop baby who studied and performs classical music, so of course I love diva supreme Leontyne Price, as well as A Tribe Called Quest. Dancehall is in there, too. Music is a form of travel for me. —Candice Hoyes 

    For more from Candice Hoyes, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Main Image Credit: Getty Images