Remember what it was like being a teenage girl? Buying your favourite music magazines and hardly ever seeing coverage of female artists in them? At best girls can feel left out of youth culture, and at worst it sexualises them and saps their confidence.
For teen girls wanting to break out of boredom and find a creative outlet there have always been limited options – fun, rebellious pastimes like skating or playing in bands are pretty male dominated. The situation is getting better, but at a surprisingly slow rate over the years, and there is still progress to be made. Organisations like the charity Young Women’s Music Project in the UK are fighting that particular battle and getting more female teens on stage, writing and promoting music in a collaborative, exciting and supportive way.
The project was set up 15 years ago in Oxford, UK, with the aim of encouraging young women’s participation in music – originally focusing on indie bands it quickly expanded to all genres. Since, the group has worked all over the south-east of England and grown to become a network of support and a place to develop and showcase young talent.
Last month the project celebrated being awarded charitable status and its first 15 years with a sell-out gig. I spoke to some of the performers and organisers about what makes the project great.
“We never really saw women doing sound, promoting or performing at gigs,” she said. And, her band had negative experiences with some male sound engineers working in the industry and this had an impact upon their experiences: “If your sound check isn’t positive then you don’t usually have a very good gig because you’re not feeling very good about the whole thing.” Inappropriate and sexual remarks were made to her and her bandmates from other musicians, sound engineers, and in the local music press. “A man was interviewed about what bands he liked and he named Baby Gravy and another band with girls in and said: “I like these bands because they’re cute”’.
Soon after, Zahra began working on the project with an established musician and music teacher, Kate Garrett. Kate used her expertise as a teacher and inside knowledge of the industry to set up the first sessions and gigs. Soon the group was offering twice monthly free sessions for young women to write, record, learn about, and perform music together, as well as discuss issues affecting their day-to-day lives.
At workshops young women question the unequal position of women in the music industry and challenge the negative perceptions of female musicians. Zahra says she has noticed a change since she started running the project:
“I can see a massive difference now as the director compared my own experience of being a young person. The girls are a lot more knowledgeable about what’s going on around them, whether it is technical expertise, what you should expect from a soundcheck, gig etiquette, being on stage and how to communicate with a crowd, and just feeling confident in that environment. A woman’s experience performing is so different than a man. It’s all magnified by 100: who you are and how you’re presented.”
Zahra says the aim of the project is also to empower the women to take control of their artistry: ”‘it’s giving them the independence to go off and do things themselves.”
Lots of the young people involved mention gaining confidence, independence and a sense of empowerment when you talk to them. Tolani Alakiu-Marquis, a 16-year-old woman who attends YWMP said the project has been “a good way to build my confidence, get to know other people and also learn more about new music.” While Chukie, a 24-year-old rapper from Oxford who has worked with Zahra for 7 years, spoke of the opportunities that YWMP provides for young women and the wider community: “the project empowers young women, helps others build up their confidence and spreads awareness of the types of things that are going on that people may not want to see.”
It seems like for a relatively small – even tiny – organisation YWMP has built up a reputation to do some seriously kick-ass things like enlist big venues to host its shows. Among other things the group have got teenage rock and hip hop acts on at local festivals, Modern Art Oxford, the Ashmolean museum, and Central Saint Martin’s in London. Trustee, Emmy O’Shaughnessy said “I love the fact that Zahra creates these really cool opportunities where they can come and have that professional level of experience’.
On a more serious note, in 2013, Zahra and other trustees were able to use the strength of the organisation to set up a series of support sessions for young people in response to a shocking and high profile sexual abuse case – providing a much needed space for young people to talk about their own concerns and their own experiences of sexual harassment. She said that workshops provided self-defence classes and safe environment for discussion, while a new annual festival, wo-MAN-ity, was also set up to celebrate girls and women and create another avenue for expression. Zahra said this new use of the project meant that young women, “feel they have a space to talk about sexual harassment and violence and to channel the negative energy into something positive, by writing words and making music.”
Now, YWMP carries out outreach work in hospitals and schools across Oxford to provide services to women whose voices have been lacking in the music industry and wider society. Zahra says, “we’re mixing up genres and girls from different schools with different abilities, maybe coming from completely different walks of life, are crossing paths in these sessions and it opens their eyes as well.”
In the future, Zahra hopes to link up with other projects in other cities and other countries and work on developing apprenticeships for the young women – for this to be something that people can access everywhere “I think it’s so important for there to be that sort of resource for young people” she says. YWMP is growing in scope and ambition while also continuing to do what it set out to do: provide an inclusive and supportive space for young women to make music, learn new skills, express themselves, and grow in confidence. It is testament to the work of the project that YWMP has inspired generations of women with the ability to make music and also the belief that society can be changed for the better.
Let’s hope this charity goes carries on going from strength to strength.
Wanna Hear more? Mary James, 16, talks about her experiences with YWMP
“I remember being taught by Zahra how to play the first few chords on guitar- this was before I had begun going to the project about 3 years ago. We met at my local youth club, where Zahra was then volunteering as a music leader. At the age of 13 then, the world of music that she was offering to me seemed like a golden ticket. I was immediately set on becoming a part of the world that she was describing to me so enthusiastically, and even then, I could never imagine just how much it had to offer me, as a young girl in particular.
Music is hard in many ways. There was a lot that I didn’t know before beginning the project, about the music world, about how it worked, and in some cases- just how dysfunctional it really was. Before joining, I remember thinking that having a good – or even outstanding – singing voice wasn’t really enough. I was an overweight kid, wasn’t too body confident. I looked at all these singers in the charts and the common thread appeared to be their good looks. Their bright, perfect smiles…and news that focused so much on their diets and weight-loss plans that it seemed that being aesthetically pleasing was an undisclosed part of the package, if you wanted to be a singer…or to be successful at all. It’s why I wanted to play guitar so badly. Why I insisted on songwriting so much, and refused to do covers. So that I had a little something extra to offer. Before joining YWMP, I entered a local talent competition in which one of the judges, a fellow female, informed me that I “didn’t look girly enough.” This only seemed to confirm what I had already begun to think.
YWMP holds many informative workshops, which have done a great deal for me; they’ve helped me realise that I don’t want to be monetized, or perfect, and that I am in fact a talented individual. One that doesn’t need to be scared to sing in front of a crowd. It’s shown me inspirational people in music who I can look up to- Bjork, P.J Harvey, Janelle Monae, many more. It’s provided me with a family of people who are like-minded. Who understand the importance of educating girls on problems that – even in a much more forward-thinking, evolved era in terms of equality – still seem to persist. My involvement in the project has been imperative to my growth; both musically and as a person, generally. I have made lifelong friends through the project, many musical contacts, played an abundance of amazing shows in front of crowds that have ranged from lifeless to hilariously enthusiastic, and ultimately, gained confidence and hope for the creative future of not only me, but every other woman that has been a part of the project.
We’ve come a long way- we’re a charity now! I’ve released singles! I’ve been on the radio! – how odd. Who knew? Who knew that a relatively small music project could have such a large impact on the local music scene, and on all those who take part in it?
Zahra Tehrani, the leader of the project, knew for sure. It’s the reason she keeps persisting, and the reason that the project still stands, now, in a much more hopeful position. YWMP is everything to a lot of people. It has brought us all a long way. I am eternally grateful.”