Women and their role in the Liberian music industry: Despite the fact that women were in charge of traditional music celebrations prior to the advent of the recording industry in the 1960s, men have dominated and controlled Liberia’s music industry since that time.
Despite the fact that men have controlled the music business for more than 60 years, women have continued to break down boundaries and make an impact while competing against their male rivals.
Female musicians like Fatu Gayflor, Yatta Zoe, and Miatta Fahnbulleh emerged in the 1970s to establish a significant female presence in Liberian music after men had controlled the sector for almost 10 years. The societal stigmas and constrictive cultural hurdles that stopped these ladies from pursuing music as a profession served as the backdrop for their inspiring success stories.
Female artists were often stigmatized and referred to as “grona girls” in his PhD dissertation, “Cultural Colonialism and the Copyright Phenomenon in the Emerging Liberian Popular Music Industry: 1970-85,” written by Dr. Timothy Nevin.
According to Nevin, who cited linguist John Singler, the term “grona boy” describes a child who has grown up in the streets, whereas the term “grona girl,” when used to describe a woman, is typically thought to imply promiscuity, licentiousness, or immorality.
Miatta Fahnbulleh’s father, politician and diplomat H Boimah Fahnbulleh Sr, disowned her as a result of her decision to ignore his advice and pursue a career in music instead. Even though the singer’s father forbade her from taking part in the singing competition she had applied for, she was still able to place second after being assessed on a self-tape.
After a disappointing career in the US, Fahnbulleh returned to Liberia in 1974 and quickly became a superstar. She attained the distinction of being the first Liberian female singer to perform solo at a presidential inauguration and at a Noble Peace prize ceremony.
Following Miatta Fahanbulleh is the late Yatta Zoe, the ‘Queen of Liberian Folk’, whose music was widely loved by Liberians, regardless of their age or religion. ‘Ma Zoe’, as she was affectionately called, became known for the hit songs ‘You Took My Lappa’, ‘All the Pocket Pickers‘ and ‘Young Girls Stop Drinking’.
The early years of the Liberian music scene, according to Yatta Zoe, were marked by a lack of respect for performers, particularly female musicians. The late Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti and South African singer Miriam Makeba were two of the famous singers she befriended while on tour in Africa, Europe, and North America at the height of her musical career.
Princess Fatu Gayflor was a well-known Liberian singer in the 1980s who appeared at important music venues and festivals all over the world. Gayflor, known as “The Golden Voice of Liberia,” was born in Lofa County, where he developed an early obsession with music and learned to play the sekere, a traditional Sande instrument.
She joined the Liberia National Cultural Troupe in 1978 as a 12-year-old, honing her singing skills there before serving as the group’s director during the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans, United States. Gayflor, one of Liberia’s most prominent female musicians, has put out three highly regarded albums that are still influential today.
A new generation of female musicians started to emerge in 2003, following the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil war, which had a negative impact on the musical careers of the aforementioned performers. Tokay Tomah, Kanvee Adams, Queen V, Peaches, and Sweetz were among the new generation of musicians that helped lay the groundwork for later female performers in the nation including Lady Murphy, Lady Skeet, Angie Tonton, and J Glo.
The hit songs “Chay Polo” and “Open the Door” made the late Tokay Tomah, who passed away in 2007, famous.
Her career lasted more than a decade and saw her release six studio albums. Both of the above-mentioned songs, upon their release in early 2000, maintained a connection to traditional Liberian music amid emerging genres such as hipco.
Tokay Tomah began her career as a member of the National Culture Troupe of Liberia, and in the 1980s, she traveled to Europe, the US, and numerous African nations as a supporting vocalist for well-known performers like Fatu Gayflor and Zaye Tete.
When there were few prospects for women in the hip hop industry, Queen V, the self-described “Goddess of Hipco,” became the first female artist in the history of Liberian music to record a rap single, “Far Way to Go.” Hipco, Liberia’s version of rap music, combines traditional rhymes with hip hop, R&B, and other genres.
Queen V is well known for her distinctive lyrical substance and inventiveness, both of which have contributed to the definition of the sound of hipco music in the nation. She has released more than 10 songs and several hit group collaborations since making her debut in 2006. The MC won the coveted Song of the Year title at the 2014 Liberia Entertainment Awards, making history as the first female rapper to do so.
Kanvee Adams is another well-known female performer who has been successful in promoting Liberian gospel music outside of the nation. She is also the first gospel performer from Liberia to receive a nomination for a prestigious Kora Award.
Despite these success stories, the music industry in Liberia remains male-dominated. Of all the music that is aired in Liberia, only 1% is by a female artist.
Musician J-Glo comments: “The playing field is not level. If you look at two to three years back, there were lots of women in the industry, but the increase in gender inequality has made things difficult for us. Now they [men] have achieved this by making us remain in their shadows. They think that we belong to the home and should not compete with them now. They stereotype us every day, and this is ridiculous.”
The gender inequality gap is even more disturbing when it comes to women occupying leadership positions in the music industry. Despite women being strong consumers of music in Liberia, they hold just 0.01% of senior leadership roles.
Echoing J-Glo’s views, Angie Tonton, an international Liberian artist, says: “When you look at the gender breakdown for more technical roles such as sound engineering and music production, the gap becomes even wider because of the hostile environment created by men.”
The disparity extends further when it comes to performance pay, as female artists make less money than their male counterparts do. Female artists are less likely to be interviewed or highlighted by media outlets including newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV, which exacerbates the problem.