The Underplayed Documentary Shines a Light on Gender Inequality in Electronic Music
A new documentary gives female electronic artists the space to sound off about inequality in the music industry.
After highlighting the issue of “diversity within the music space” in the short film Discwoman several years ago, director Stacey Lee has returned with a documentary that focuses on the routine harassment and lack of equality that women and female-identifying creatives in the world of electronic music have faced for decades. “This isn’t a new phenomenon,” says Lee when asked about the sexism, undervaluing and under-representation that’s explored Underplayed, a new documentary which was produced by Bud Light and premieres at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival on September 19. “Women have been central and instrumental to the whole birth of this industry since the beginning.”
Lee’s film offers a voice to a wealth of musical talents ranging from Australian DJ, producer and singer Alison Wonderland and twin sister act Nervo to Los Angeles-based DJ and producer Tokimonsta, Niagara Falls’s Rezz and Grammy winner Suzanne Ciani. It also draws attention to trailblazers like musician and composer Delia Derbyshire.
Lee says that she was shocked at what she uncovered while working on Underplayed, particularly given this wasn’t her first production on the topic. “It was like nothing had evolved,” she says of the four years since her first project hit the screens. “If anything, some of the statistics were worse. It made me realize the urgency surrounding it.” At the core of the film is the notion that for women to gain equal footing with their male counterparts, a revolution — with all voices involved — must happen.
“It’s exceptionally complicated because you don’t want to distract from the art and the craft of what you’re doing by defining yourself as a woman,” says Lee about her documentary subjects. “At the same time, because there’s such inequity in the space, they also have a responsibility to speak up until things are right…. It’s a male responsibility, too. Women can’t be the only ones fighting for this. It’s the same as the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s shouting into an echo chamber if women are the only ones talking about this.”
FASHION spoke to four electronic acts who are part of the documentary about the trials they’ve faced, how self-expression brings them joy and what keeps them playing on.
“I think ingenuity is such a challenge and a gift,” says L.A.-based multi-hyphenate Jennifer Lee, who produces music and DJs under the name Tokimonsta. “It’s a quality in music that I strive for, and it keeps me on my toes.”
Lee, who grew up in a traditional immigrant household and learned how to play piano in her youth, says it wasn’t until she left for college that she could dabble in musical creation outside the works of the classical greats (all men) she had been exposed to and expected to learn.
“Growing up, I felt as if I had a lot of creative ideas, but if I ever strayed from Mozart or whatever I was playing, my family would be like, ‘What are you doing? Just stick to what you’re meant to do,’” she recalls. “I never allowed myself the opportunity to think that being creative in a different way was possible or OK. Once I decided to leave for college, it didn’t really matter what my parents thought anymore. I was on my own.”
During her first year of post-secondary studies, Lee downloaded the music production program FruityLoops (now called FL Studio) and developed the technical skills and prowess to craft the hypnotic tracks she has become known for; she points to the genres of drum & bass and West Coast rap and the work of Missy Elliott as being pivotal influences on her style. In 2015, after releasing two albums, Lee was diagnosed with Moyamoya disease, which affects arteries in the brain; she lost a host of cognitive functions and had to learn how to make music all over again.
Despite Lee’s evolution as a musical entrepreneur — she launched the record label Yung Art several years ago — and the fact that she’s self-taught, part of the sexist behaviour she has witnessed through her more than a decade-long career centres around her abilities as a creator. “There have been rumours that my boyfriend was making all my beats and he taught me everything I know,” she says. “Those rumours still exist because people don’t want to think I did it on my own. The discouraging part is that I’ve become so wrapped up in this idea that people don’t give me ownership of my music that it creates a blockage, and I feel very reluctant to work with other people. It has created some long-lasting trauma for me. But I’m growing and exiting from that, and I need to think about the art more than my ego, essentially.”
In addition to Lee learning to release her fears about collaboration, she says that familial acceptance with regard to her career has also grown; her mother now gleefully watches out for Tokimonsta mentions in the newspaper. And her mother — who was a fashion designer in the 1960s — has influenced her in terms of the style choices she makes. “She’s had a profound impact on my style,” says Lee. “She’s all about classic looks—the idea that if you have a certain style of jacket, you’ll have it for the rest of your life. I’ve always enjoyed her perspective on fashion in that way.”
“I didn’t think of DJing as something I could pursue. If you don’t see yourself represented in a position, you don’t think it can be obtained.” Dion McKenzie, who goes by the moniker Tygapaw, grew up in Jamaica, and though she was exposed to music by Whitney Houston and Tina Turner growing up, the male-dominated dancehall and reggae scenes that permeated the culture left little space for women to consider themselves part of that world in the creative sense.
After moving to New York to study graphic design at Parsons School of Design, McKenzie felt emboldened to pursue the passion that had previously been denied. “I wanted to dive into learning how to play an instrument, but I wasn’t necessarily encouraged or supported when I was younger,” she recalls, noting that when she was a teen, her most potent musical memories came from hearing alternative music by bands like Nirvana and No Doubt. “I had a deep interest in the sound of an amplified guitar running through distortion,” she says.
McKenzie leaned into learning the guitar, and that eventually led to an interest in DJing. “It started when I was in a band, and my bandmate was a DJ as well,” she says. “She was fierce, and she really encouraged me. She said: ‘If you want to DJ, you should just do it. you shouldn’t put a barrier in front of yourself.’”
Since those early days, Tygapaw has become an integral part of New York’s underground music scene and beyond, although quarantine has forced her to focus more on the creation of her first full-length album than globe-trotting. “I’m enjoying the break because sometimes it can be overwhelming when you’re touring a lot and constantly in motion,” she says.
It’s hard to imagine McKenzie revelling in stillness when her music has such a propulsive quality, mixing nuances of island rhythms with driving electronic elements. the range of influences reflected in her tracks can also be seen in how she approaches dressing. “Personal style for me is all about expression and where I’m at in terms of my comfort in denouncing what society deems as conventional,” she says. “expressing myself, especially when it comes to my gender—or non-gender. There’s an evolution that’s in progress.”
The notion of progression resonates with McKenzie’s career path as well. “I create opportunities for myself, and I don’t take no for an answer,” she says. “A lot of times for Black, queer, non-binary and trans artists, that’s often the case. We create our own space and carve our own path.”
Although Tygapaw is one of the biggest names in New York nightlife, McKenzie says she was surprised to be asked to be part of the Underplayed documentary. “I’m an underground artist, Black and queer, and I also present in a certain way; I’m not high femme,” she notes. “There’s no overnight success for people who look like me; there’s a continuous work ethic — being ridiculously resilient and continuing to have a vision for yourself.”
Interestingly, McKenzie says another creative in the documentary is someone she admired as she was coming up through the touring circuit. “Tokimonsta has been an inspiration,” she says about fellow subject Jennifer Lee. “I saw her live at a festival where I was playing a smaller room, and now it’s come full circle where I’m in a documentary with her. Life is funny and interesting that way.”
And since McKenzie knows first-hand what example and encouragement can lead to, she says that the opportunity to be a voice in the film was important to her. “It’s really to empower young Black girls to know that they’re good enough. You can shine as bright as you want because you’re completely capable.”
Like many of their peers, twin musical act Nervo acquired their aptitude after years of training — for them, in piano, violin and voice. Miriam and Olivia Nervo — who have recorded tracks with Kylie Minogue and Kesha and got their big break with a Grammy Award-winning song they co-wrote with David Guetta and Kelly Rowland — grew up in Australia in the musical-theatre world and haven’t stopped stealing the stage since.
“I think our singing teachers would roll over in their graves if they could hear us now,” Miriam notes with a laugh, as the pair have lent their vocal skills to pop-fuelled tunes that are a far cry from the formal arrangements they once studied. “The greatest thing about pop music is that it’s super-creative,” she says. “It’s all about breaking rules and doing what you feel.”
One gets a sense of this free-spirited nature via Nervo’s wardrobe choices — a mix that includes bodysuits, outsized tops and jackets and a selection of silky boxing shorts from Thailand. “We’ve always had fun with fashion and our hair,” says Miriam. “The best part of our job is being able to wear the best wardrobe.”
Always ones to follow their own beat, the sisters took a course in music production after several experiences of having their music “ripped off” by producers. When asked about the discrimination they’ve encountered, Miriam says: “We’ve always been around that. It’s part of being a woman in a male-dominated industry — you experience it in all aspects, from talent scouting and development to working with other artists.”
In order to shine a light on these challenges, the two were keen to be part of Underplayed; they had performed as part of the Bud Light House Party Tour and loved the experience. But they’re quick to point out that their interest doesn’t ultimately lie in shaming aggressors. “It doesn’t do us any service to name them,” says Olivia. “It’s tricky airing dirty laundry about our male counterparts in the business,” adds Miriam. “Yes, some of them haven’t been supportive or have been sexist, but our nature is to focus on the good and move forward.”
Miriam and Olivia notably used the documentary’s platform to demonstrate one women’s issue that’s still deeply under-represented in the entertainment industry: being a working mother. The pair announced their pregnancies in 2018 and avidly share the journey with fans. “That part of our lives we’re very open about,” says Miriam. “There are a lot of DJs who are fathers, but you wouldn’t know it from their social media,” adds Olivia.
Recalling the women who have influenced their musicality since they were teenagers — like Irish DJ Annie Mac and British musician Sonique as well as their relationship with music manager Amy Thomson, whom they credit as being a strong single mother — the Nervo sisters can’t help but look forward to a world with more female representation across all industries.
“I’m so optimistic for their lives,” says Miriam about her daughter’s and niece’s future. “I think women and girls these days are getting great opportunities. Society is changing.” And not a minute too soon.
When Toronto-based DJ, promoter and producer Cindy Li — also known as Ciel — isn’t visiting one of her favourite local shops, like vintage haunts Nouveau Riche Vintage, Public Butter and Common Sort, she’s directing her attention to not only her craft but also making the music industry a more equitable place.
Li feels that much of the problem is rooted in confidence, having experienced her own self-esteem struggles, which started when she was a young piano student. “I didn’t think I had it in me,” she recalls about making the move to create her own music after years of classical training. “Growing up in that world…there’s this idea that talent is innate. That kind of thinking is especially harmful for women because we aren’t as encouraged.”
This is something that Li has worked actively throughout her life to combat. “When I interact with women at workshops and on social media, I’m always trying to encourage them to not let fear stop them,” she says. “Anyone can make music if they want to and if they have the time and dedication.”
Though Li, who also ran a fashion blog in the 2010s, took a hiatus from the music scene for several years, she returned to nurture experimentations in sound—her tracks are melodic, intentional and uplifting—as well as encourage a new community by throwing parties with a fellow female entrepreneur. The events brought together “a queer-, woman-, POC-heavy community of people” at a time when “most lineups were 99 per cent male.” And although these parties made headway in terms of illustrating what equality in the music industry could look like, Li says that slowly, over time, she found that her influence was limited. “In the existing community—and you can see this in other cities as well—people were OK to just keep doing what they were doing.”
This was evident when Li called out a successful promoter in Toronto who until that point “had consistently booked all-male lineups and actually hadn’t booked a single woman in six years.” She recounts the experience as being something she would advise others against, even though call-out culture has become ubiquitous across industries. “It was really intense, and I don’t recommend it,” she says. “It was mentally trying for me. Leading by example is great if you have a lot of patience. Calling out will get you more immediate results but not necessarily the results you desire. A lot of times when you call someone out, they just shut down and end the project rather than trying to do better. The group that I called out stopped throwing parties. Of course, I was blamed for their disbanding. But I didn’t ask them to disband; I just criticized them for not booking women.”
In spite of this experience, Li hasn’t lost her drive to inspire others. “The way the industry looks now versus how it looked five years ago is hugely different,” she says. “There are way more women on lineups.” But she adds that with an uptick in representation comes the danger of insincerity. “I’ve been the token female DJ on an all-male lineup,” she says, noting that she’s also experienced multiple instances of payment disparity with her male peers. “For a man to say something like ‘I’m not going to play your party unless you pay me $500’ — it’s very rare for women in the industry to have that level of confidence,” she explains. “That’s a much deeper problem in examining inequality — a lot of women lack the self-confidence to compete with full gusto against their male counterparts.”
Li says that there’s much work to be done for the music industry to eliminate discrimination, highlighting the fact that female DJs are still treated differently even when it comes to accolades — for example, in the separate list rankings for top DJs and then top female DJs. “We’re trying to achieve integration and equality,” she says, adding that what it all comes down to is this: “Women need their existence to be normalized.”
This story appears in the October issue of FASHION magazine, available on newsstands from September 10th and and via Apple News + today.