- 29 Oct 20
Over the weekend, a major controversy erupted over sexism in the Irish music industry – after comments made by the renowned drummer and session man Emmanuel ‘Smiley’ Osungboun on last Friday’s 'A Drummer in Dublin’ podcast. Mary Stokes was one of the first to react, highlighting the condescending and insulting nature of what had been said. Now, she argues, is probably a good time to pause and reflect on the fallout…
Controversy can be a good thing – if it leads to greater understanding.
As people will, by now, doubtless be aware, in an interview during the @adrummerindublin podcast on Friday 23rd October, comments were made by Emmanuel ‘Smiley’ Osungboun regarding ‘female musicians’ not being at 'the same level‘ as ‘male musicians’.
On Saturday 24th I decided to call out this nonsense for what it is. Utter and complete nonsense.
My initial (Facebook) post sparked a much wider conversation, generated hundreds of likes and triggered an outpouring that became increasingly and understandably furious.
I have since been in touch with and spoken to lots of younger artists on what had turned into a major controversy. There has been a general feeling of outrage, hurt and in some cases genuine embarrassment. Could someone really say something as crass and thoughtless as that? And not be challenged in any way by his interviewers? It beggars belief.
A lot of heat has been generated – and understandably so. Now, perhaps, is a good time to pause, repeat a few of those initial observations and see if we can let in a bit more light, to counter the prevailing darkness. If we can put the controversy to bed, all the better…
Where Do We Go From Here? Is There No Way Of Knowing…
Over The Mary Stokes Band’s long national and international career, my partner Brian Palm and I have worked with myriad musicians, including many known, world-class blues artists. I believe absolutely and passionately in equality and mutual respect, and that is how I work with every musician I engage. I believe that musicians are variously good, or capable or willing or inspiring, entirely irrespective of their gender.
The best musicians are professional, talented, creative, dedicated, hardworking, flexible, inventive, powerful and – usually – good, decent and willing individuals. In a band setting, sometimes things don’t work out, for a variety of reasons... but never because a musician is female or male.
Our current guitar player in the Mary Stokes Band, Sarah Michelle, is an incredible musician. She brings a level of professionalism to her work that is remarkable, and very refreshing. She, for one, has been a huge asset to us.
In fact, over the many years of our Mary Stokes Band career, we’ve worked with lots of ‘female musicians’. So let me be clear, the comments made about women musicians, suggesting that they are inferior or less professional, are outrageous, sexist and themselves unprofessional in the extreme. PERIOD. (Yes, PERIOD).
"A disregard for any musicians capability due to the fact they are female, is never acceptable,” Sarah Michelle said to me yesterday, reflecting on the controversy 48 hours later. "It's a mentality that has no place in the industry. A musician is a musician, and that's it. A genuine belief in respect and equality in this industry is so important and will follow you, through whatever you do.
"If you love music there's no need for a display of arrogance and narrow-minded views. Respect, especially for musicians you've worked alongside, who have worked years at their craft, played on the same stage as, regardless of female or male should be, for the most part, a given."
Sarah is, of course, right. Gross sexism of this kind is completely unacceptable and should be called out – as it has been. The question now is: where do we go from here?
First: when problems of this kind are identified and the ensuing outrage is accepted as valid, then that’s a start. Any discussion of sexism – and how it works and is sometimes unconsciously expressed – facilitates learning and growth. The fact that this has happened with the 'a drummer in dublin’ debate means that something productive has been achieved. While the controversy has been difficult in many respects, this is ultimately positive.
On Tuesday morning, on Instagram, the men who are the producers of @adrummerindublin, Fiachra Kinder and Adam Byrne, made a statement about the particular podcast. In the statement, they apologised, acknowledging the ‘need to take much more seriously the responsibility for anything that is said in real time’ and I think it is important – and only fair – to acknowledge that statement and to recognise that this represents progress. Which leads to another, vitally important issue...
I Thought I Might Be Better Dead But I Was Wrong
Without in any diminishing the force of what has already been said here, I want to be clear that I see no value whatsoever in destroying someone – or setting out to destroy or cancel someone – even if that person has made really damaging, hurtful or plain daft comments.
I am proud to have been part of starting this conversation, but I also sincerely believe that by threatening or silencing any individual, we all lose. I believe in dialogue, in learning – or ‘unlearning’ at times.
The women musicians that were impacted by the controversy – and the comments that led to it – did not deserve the injury inflicted. That should go without saying – and it needs to be fully understood. And I am happy for anyone who wants to take that discussion further to get in touch with me, if I can be of support.
However, I do not believe that revenge is the answer. Or that our first instinct should be to punish people. There are challenges for all of us then, in being accountable for what we say publicly.
Behind every human interaction there are contexts, experiences and often multiple other reasons why people act and speak – and think – in a particular way. But it is the stuff of life itself, surely, to slough off those past influences or prejudices and to make – or remake – ourselves anew?
So – unless we want to claim that we ourselves are incapable of making mistakes, or of getting things wrong – we owe it to one another to allow for the possibility of growth, learning and change.
What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Mutual Understanding?
It touches on a basic human right to recognise that we can all change, and a lot of us do, as we are exposed to better, more egalitarian and more informed perspectives and views. We see that other people have been genuinely hurt or outraged – and we change. We finally acknowledge the prejudices implicit in the culture we have grown up with – and we change. We say: 'I thought this yesterday, but I was wrong; I believe this today and it is different’.
This is a right that we all assume for ourselves. There is a responsibility on us, then, to allow others that same latitude, that same freedom.
It's important to acknowledge here that most of my biggest influences in the blues have been men: people like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, But there are many strong, brilliant women blues artists too: Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Big Mama Thornton, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Etta James, Koko Taylor: women who fought and battled against the odds to make great music…
Perhaps my favourite is Memphis Minnie. She was a pioneer, a feminist and one tough broad. But she was vulnerable too, as ‘Hoodoo Lady Blues’ demonstrates.
It is a song about bitter experience.
We all have stuff that we need to get through, way-stations on the road to finding our better selves. That journey shouldn’t, I believe, be used as a reason to crush someone else for the sake of winning a skirmish when what is important is the battle to eradicate sexism.
As I said, it is a mark of the human species – women and men alike – that we are capable of change and growth. It can be painful, and – as the controversy over the past few days has underlined – deeply upsetting on occasion. But my hope is that everyone in the Irish music community, women and men, can keep growing, learning and sharing.
Mutual understanding is the key: we just got to get better at it. All of us.