Having occupied a small place in the music industry since my university days, I continue to keep a critical eye on what is happening on the scene, especially at the grassroots level. When I first arrived in Cape Town, I had the privilege of speaking to an incredible woman while at a house party. Her name is Natalie and she is the vocalist of an underground band in Cape Town.
Natalie is a captivating figure, emanating warmth and integrity, even while she sports severe, dark clothing and tattoos that would make a mother blush. I was intrigued to know what she would be like on stage and the type of music which would be produced by this light-dark person. She has been part of a number of bands over the past 10 years, recording with four of them. Her place as the vocalist of Red Light in June was my first forgotten introduction to this fascinating frontlady. Watching her latest band, Witness to Wolves, which she started with her boyfriend, Matthew, I was totally enthralled. It was an intimate performance by a woman who is not only severely beautiful on stage, but performs with feeling, honesty and confidence.
Natalie is one of many South African women who are fronting their own bands. Some of these women are household names, like Karen Zoid or Claire Johnston, while other’s flitter in and out of the spotlight. While some female performers have stayed underground, yet earned a wealth of respect from the South African listeners, Natalie feels that making music a full-time occupation requires going mainstream. But if your objective is to make music which comes from your soul, just like she manages to do, you are unlikely to be taken seriously. According to Natalie, female musicians have added burdens not encountered by their male counterparts.
At the moment, the music industry is dominated by a few players and musicians. For grassroots bands, money is scarce and a following difficult to obtain. But Natalie feels that the barriers are even more entrenched for females. She says that many of the women in the industry “are not treated as equals or not taken seriously as musicians”. She sees constantly how reviewers knit pick at a woman’s performance, while fellow male musicians, who are doing the same thing, are praised.
It is as if female musicians and performers have an added tax. To reach the same level as men, they have to perform better and look better. Natalie says that there have been a few instances where she has been ridiculed for “wearing too much clothing or not conforming to what the industry deems acceptable for female behaviour”. On the other hand, not all male musicians even think about their clothing, their looks or their voices. Women need to have exceptional vocal abilities and need to look good on stage to compete. This is why Natalie has gained so much of my respect. She is tough, emotional and beautiful but she wears her attributes in a nonchalant way. Her unapologetic masculinity blends perfectly with an inner femininity defined by her soft voice and sweet demeanour.
But the question remains, how does one make changes to the male-dominated industry? Natalie suggests that taking the rein in your own musical ride is key. “If you have been given the gift and, if you feel as though you are being sold short, stand up and make a change. It is up to us to make a difference, if we all speak up, no one will be able to deny our presence in the music industry.” The music industry relies on the fans to make changes. Every person has their part to play, even if it is only keeping a critical eye over what they see out there. Judgment of musicians, and the music that they produce, should be based on equality. Female musicians should be judged as harshly and as critically as men, but with a view to understanding what attributes women use to further themselves. Natalie feels that women shouldn’t think that becoming a sex symbol is the answer. Women should be free to be sexy, feminine or beautiful, but they should be doing so because they are all those things, not because they have to be all of those things.
Natalie is just one of the few female vocalists, performers and musicians on the Cape Town scene that have caught my eye in the last few years. Others include Natasha Meister, Sannie Fox (Machineri) and Meri Kenaz. I suggest you go to one of their gigs, not because they are women, but because they are all taking South African music to a new level.