A year ago, Janelle Monáe voiced her discontent at the Grammy Awards. While introducing a moving performance by Kesha, she urged her colleagues to stand united in the fight for gender equality and parity in the music industry.
“You could feel the frustration in my throat,” she recalled to The Times on Friday afternoon. “The support needs to come not just from women, but from men as well, because it’s gonna take all of us to correct our past mistakes, and for people to reach their dreams without it feeling like it’s gonna take a whole 10-plus years for us to make some real progress.”
Fast forward to this year’s historic ceremony: More than 150 women are nominated across the categories, and 15 women are recognized in the running for the top four awards (record, album and song of the year, and best new artist).
A nominee herself (“Dirty Computer” for album of the year, and “Pynk” for music video), Monáe hosted “Fem the Future” on Friday, a brunch gathering to fete this year’s female nominees ahead of Sunday’s Grammy Awards.
“There’s still more work to do, but this is to be celebrated,” she explained. “Most times, it feels like it’s just a competition. Now I think it’s important to come together. We are starting something that could be incredible for all of us, as well as other young women coming into this industry.”
During the flower-filled affair, held at West Hollywood hot spot Ysabel and hosted by Instagram, Monáe spoke to the crowd of industry insiders about her “horrible” experience trying to find female producers, songwriters and engineers to collaborate with on her latest album.
“It wasn’t because we’re not out there, it was because of the lack of visibility,” she said. “We all want the same thing: for women to be treated with respect, to be treated with dignity, and presented with equal opportunity in all facets of our lives. And while we can acknowledge and celebrate the progress that’s been made in the last year, we still have a long, long way to go.”
Suddenly, Monáe was interrupted by a dropped cocktail glass, which made a loud noise throughout the outdoor patio. The musician considered it a serendipitous moment and shouted to loud applause, “The glass ceiling has to be broken!”
The “Make Me Feel” singer closed her speech with a few words for her fellow nominees. “I support you, win or lose,” she said. “As you’re walking down that red carpet, and regardless of how your performances goes, you have my support. I love you, I see you, and I want the best for you.”
Brandi Carlile, the most nominated female artist heading into Sunday’s ceremony, then turned to her in adoration. “I am here to amplify you,” she said. “Girl, I would vote you into the presidency.”
Tierra Whack, nominated for video of the year, also stood in disbelief of the motivating moment. “I just feel like I got accepted into heaven!” she shouted. “It feels this good!”
The effort to spotlight the Grammys’ female nominees was more than lip service or yet another industry party.
“Film and TV is slow in comparison to what’s happening in music — this is unprecedented!” said Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, pointing to Alicia Keys’ She Is the Music program for female songwriters, and the Recording Academy’s new female empowerment efforts, among others.
“Collective action takes place when people lock arms, each group pushes a lever and we all do this in unison,” she told The Times. “I’m expecting to see change in this industry quickly because of these simultaneous efforts.”
Coincidentally, these programs have also launched after Neil Portnow’s controversial comment that the lack of female representation in the music industry is because women need to “step up.”
Linda Perry, the first woman to be nominated for producer of the year since 2004 (a Grammy no woman has ever won), understood his motivations.
“What Neil was just trying to say, that he didn’t say right, was, whatever reasons the door opened up, get in there and claim what is rightfully yours,” she said in an interview.
“He used the wrong words, and he’s a guy saying things about women, so of course everyone was gonna attack him,” she continued. “He’s a good guy who said the right thing in the wrong way.”
Musician MILCK shrugged off Portnow’s misstep, as well as any naysaying comments to come: “I’d like to think that we’re just blossoming, and we don’t need to define our movement based on what a man has said.”