Women account for around 20% of the music industry, and only about 2% of women in music are producers. Black women make up less than 1% of that 2%, according to a 2020 LA Times article. That 1%, of course, includes artists like Missy Elliott, who is as acclaimed for her signature production style as she is for her legendary music and visuals; and GRAMMY Award-winning recording artists Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, and countless others who boast songwriter and producer credits in addition to being generation-defining performers.
Despite those abysmally low numbers, throughout the history of popular music there have been, and continue to be, Black women wielding their talents and expertise behind the boards, producing some of the most important songs and influential artists of their eras.
One of the first who comes to mind is Sylvia Robinson, considered one of hip hop’s pioneers. As co-founder of Sugar Hill Records, Robinson is credited for delivering one of, if not the first rap records to the mainstream with 1980’s “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. Sugar Hill Records’ roster also included Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Sequence, the Funky 4+1, and several other early hip hop acts, with Robinson often at the helm producing or co-producing some of the label’s biggest hits.
Prior to launching Sugar Hill Records, Sylvia Robinson was the production mastermind behind Ike & Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” their 1961 single for which the duo scored their first GRAMMY nod for Best Rock & Roll Recording. Despite paying for the recording session and being hands-on in the studio during the recording (according to a Billboard magazine article, she played guitar on the song), after all was said and done the producing credit went to Juggy Murray, owner of Sue Records. Robinson also produced Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much;” she wasn’t credited for that song, either. Still, her undeniable contributions to music and culture stand the test of time; hip hop’s global domination is a testament to that.
Ike & Tina Turner, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”
When we say “Motown,” our immediate thoughts probably go to Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, The Jackson 5, and all of the brilliant music that came to be known as “the sound of young America.” And Motown is all of that and so much more, thanks in no small part to Iris Gordy. As one of the label’s top executives, Gordy (who is the daughter of former Motown VP Fuller Gordy and Berry Gordy’s niece), ushered in a new era of funk, soul, and R&B with artists like Rick James, Teena Marie, and Debarge. She served as producer for this new generation of Motown acts, and continued to produce for label legends like The Temptations, Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye.
Among Iris Gordy’s stellar career accomplishments, she, alongside Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, helped architect the soundtrack for 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. The soundtrack hit #1 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart and #2 on the R&B Albums Chart. She remains one of the most well-respected women in the music industry, and the remarkable work she’s done as a songwriter and producer will forever be a part of the soundtrack of our lives.
When it comes to hip hop, electronic music, and emerging R&B, young Black women producers are charging full-speed along the trails blazed by those who’ve gone before.
Brittany “Chi” Coney and Denisia “Blu June” Andrews are the dynamic duo known as Nova Wav, the songwriters and producers behind some of today’s biggest hits. With credits on songs for everyone from Rhianna to Beyoncé to Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Teyana Taylor, and Kehlani, this creative collective has planted their flag and staked their claim in a space historically dominated by men.
Nova Wav, ASCAP’s Women Behind the Music 2020
The duo won their first GRAMMY Award in 2018 for their songwriting and production work on The Carters’ Everything is Love and were named among Billboard’s 2018 R&B/Hip-Hop 100 Power Players. The following year, they co-wrote R&B veteran Monica’s “Me + You” and “Commitment” from her album Chapter 38, and in 2020, continued their hit-making streak with Beyoncé, Teyana Taylor, and H.E.R.
Trakgirl’s roster of artists for whom she has written and produced is a who’s who of the top R&B, hip hop, and pop acts in the game. Jhené Aiko, Luke James, and Omarion are but a few of the artists who’ve benefited from her brilliance and creativity, and she’s just getting started.
Born Shakari Boles in the DMV, Trakgirl’s influence extends well beyond the studio. As an advocate for fair pay for music creators, she launched Pay Us Today, an educational initiative aimed at supporting songwriters, producers, and other music industry professionals. The Hampton University alumna also founded the 7% Series to amplify women engineers and producers.
TrakGirl, BET’s The Music Producer You Want to Know
Canada native WondaGurl, born Ebony Oshunrinde, is one of today’s most in-demand and influential producers. She began making her own beats before the age of 10, and at 15 won the Battle of the Beat Makers producers competition. By 16, she’d already begun to make a name for herself as a creative and innovative force in the music industry. With Travis Scott, Jay-Z, and Rihanna amongst her growing list of artists, WondaGurl brings a level of versatility to her production that sets her apart from her peers.
Celebrate Women’s History Month with NMAAM’s Women In Harmony: Be Your Own Muse virtual empowerment symposium Sunday, March 28, at 2PM CDT/3PM EDT. To register for this free event, visit https://women-in-harmony-2021.eventbrite.com.