Young women who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour want to record music. Who’s going to say they can’t?
No one, probably — and yet barriers to them making music on their terms are many, hidden and not-so-hidden.
Learning to break through while staying true to themselves as artists was the mission last year for Sister Sound System, part of Scarborough Arts’ East Youth Collective.
The industry is male-dominated; its Toronto market is small and competitive, says Dynesti Williams, a performer and live performance coach chosen to lead the program.
Williams had bad experiences breaking into the industry at 19, and she needed a long time to heal.
“There are gatekeepers who are males, and they take advantage of young women,” she said.
With a nurturing mentor, Williams felt, she would’ve gone further. She wanted Sister Sound System to be a “platform to help people where I wasn’t helped.”
Most of the young BIPOC women who enrolled never recorded before. They didn’t have professional photos, “didn’t have a brand at all,” and weren’t aware of how to be businesswomen as artists, said Williams.
The group had tough conversations about financial literacy, maintaining mental health and how relationships can interfere with a woman’s music career.
“There were times when we couldn’t even have the program that day. We just had to talk,” said Williams, who added issues with dating, or treatment by a partner, “inspired quite a few of the songs” recorded later.
East Collective has run eight years but never exclusively for BIPOC women before. Funded primarily through the Toronto Urban Health Fund, it was originally “East Healthy Relationships Through Music,” and five months in-person, before COVID-19 stretched the program to seven months, with sessions done remotely or physically distanced.
Yasmin Wright, 19, from a Jamaican household in Scarborough’s Malvern neighbourhood, “wasn’t too sure about what I wanted” as she auditioned for the program in Jan. 2020, but Williams and other facilitators made it comfortable.
“It was like a sisterhood,” she said. “I think the ladies really knocked it out of there.”
Wright had an EP out, “Thunderstorms and Sun Showers,” but said she didn’t have certain technical skills needed for the industry.
“They gave us all the tools to do what we need to do.”
Men “don’t have to check as many boxes” as artists, said Wright, adding she hopes women can one day put out music without being seen as sexual objects, since “we have so much more to offer.”
As the program finished, Wright went to the studio with two tracks she could record. One could have been a marketable single, but Wright, urged on by her twin sister Sabrina, chose “Young and Black,” a song she’d worked on for two years.
It had a stronger message — “We’re done being silent. You have a light, let me see you shine it,” Wright sings — and it fit the times.
“The truth is I’m Black and I’m a young woman,” she said.
“That’s my reality. I can speak on it.”
After Sister Sound System’s album release, Errol Nazareth played Wright’s track on CBC Radio. That meant a lot.
A peer mentor for the program, Sabrina Wright organized things for Williams, posted on its Instagram page and made sure “the ladies had their questions answered.”
When Yasmin and a friend performed in high school, Sabrina was like their manager, “promoting their art because I knew how good it was.”
Her goal now is running an independent music label with her sister, amplifying those voices Scarborough has, “a lot of great talent people don’t get to see” and being accessible to youth who need their help.
“There are kids who dream of being at the Grammys, dream of being on the Billboard (charts). They just need that extra push.”