Ebonnie Rowe
Ebonnie Rowe

A Conversation With .. Ebonnie Rowe of Honey Jam

PhemPhat Entertainment Group was formed in 1995 to educate and promote women in the music business, and to establish a presence for them in areas traditionally seen as “boyz clubs."

The mandate covers women in all aspects of the industry, including artists, DJs, producers, engineers, managers, label owners, and promoters.

The prime venture under the PhemPhat banner is the Honey Jam Concert on Thursday, Aug 24 at The Mod Club in Toronto (8 pm showtime). I caught up with founder and entrepreneur Ebonnie Rowe, for a bit of background and what to expect this year.

When did Honey Jam start?

1995. Honey Jam happened by accident. I edited an all-female issue of a magazine. We had the wrap party and called it Honey Jam then everyone said, ’when’s the next one?' I said, ‘this isn’t what I do.’ I thought I’d try it a couple of years and here we are twenty-two years later.

What was the philosophy behind it?

The reason the all-female issue of the magazine started was, I started a mentoring program for at-risk black youth. I was hanging out with teenagers, and they were all listening to gangster rap. My female mentees came to me and said their little brothers were calling them bitches and ho's because they heard it on radio.

College radio at the time didn’t have to have clean versions. The middle of the day, five-year-olds were listening to this and importing it. I approached the biggest hip-hop DJ – DJX of the Power Move Show at CKLN - and he gave me his whole three-hour show to talk about these issues.

The magazine editor was listening and asked if I would do an all-female issue of our show and talk about misogyny in hip-hop videos and the music and feature some female artists who are doing hip-hop, and that is how Honey Jam started. We carried that into what the rap party was about – the performances. Then when we began doing the shows, it was mainly female DJs, women break dancers, female rappers – ninety-nine percent that.

Nelly Furtado came along in 1997, and that changed everything.

It then became a multi-genre event, and now the stakes are higher. We started the educational component to it because male producers would come and kind of swoop down on the young women when they came off the stage. They were teenagers, so we needed to equip them with some knowledge so as not to buy the ‘baby, let me make you a star line.’

I was thinking about this recently – what I consider three changes over the past fifty years in how male and female relate from the stage. Otis Redding ‘sweet talked’ then let loose with the masculinity and told the female audience he was coming to take them away. Then the ‘whiners and beggars’ arrived – the wimpy stuff when men pleaded – now, it’s downright abusive.

And you wanted to go (with Otis). Then it was assault. I still think there is a form of hip-hop that carries the misogyny. It’s obviously not in the mainstream of what you hear on the radio. You now have to have clean versions. I think some of that attitude is still there. The issues women face in the industry are still there. If you follow Jessie Reyez – she did a track called ‘Gatekeeper, kind of ’ and the video is a mini-movie. That whole casting couch mentality – knowing that you must give up your body to move forward in the industry no matter how talented you are – is unfortunate.

I remember watching that video and thinking 'twenty-two years later it is the same story.' More women are making a mark in traditionally male dominated areas like production, engineering, etc., and then still face the whole patronizing thing – the pat on the head, the’ man-splaining’ or not respecting what they know and are talking about when they use technical terms. All of this is still there.

I respect the work of Kendrick Lamar and want to play him on the radio, but I can’t go there. There’s not a single track without profanity. I understand the cultural implications, yet I’m looking for a pause.

If they are making the millions and selling out shows around the world – what’s the reason to change?

What is the audition/selection process for Honey Jam? Are you reviewing all year?

Yes, going through my day to day life type of way, not in a planned way. There’s a specific season when things happen, but we are always interested in hearing new artists. We have our auditions in June. It’s a national search. We have the live auditions in Toronto, and the out-of-province artists can submit online.

In Toronto, we have twelve judges from all different areas of the industry. We have a music video director, a radio programmer, a vocal and performance coach, a booking agent, a manager, and a producer. The artists have one minute to sing, and then they are rated from one to ten. We narrow it down, then choose from there.

The online artists have a narrower group of people judging them. We do the same thing, and then we try to get different genres, different cultures from different parts of the country.

What has been the most satisfying element of the process for you?

When the artist writes to me about what it means to them, I call them and they might be in a gym and fall off a treadmill.

As old school as we are – there’s no million-dollar record contract; it’s not a reality show -  yet it still means so much to them because there isn’t anything else like it. It’s not a competition, so the girls immediately bond – the sisterhood. And then when they come to give back like Nelly Furtado who became a financial backer of the show.

Alysha Brilla, when we had it at the Harris Institute, she came back as a panelist to talk to the girls about production. All of those things help; otherwise, I wouldn’t do it – it’s a lot of work, a lot of stress. If it wasn’t fulfilling and I didn’t see it making an impact on them, I wouldn’t do it. That’s what makes it worthwhile.

How many women in the show?

Fifteen.

When does the mentoring start?

It starts immediately.

What qualities do you look for?

We have to be sure this is something they want to pursue and that they are serious.

We go through the bios, of course, and they have to have the talent and stage presence. It’s a certain ‘it’ factor you know when you examine their stuff and know what kind of person they are – the types of things they’ve done in the past – what their aspirations are.

The mentoring process starts with us the organizers with each other. We take the women to the Google offices, the Junos, introduce them to people along their journey. Letoya Luckett, one of the original members of Destiny’s Child – Entertainment One flew her in to speak to the artists. Even if they never talk to her again, all she was able to impart to them in two hours will stay with them forever.

What is your background?

I am at my soul a 60s’ flower child – save the world, hippie chick! I believe in that. Both of my parents were very community oriented. At age twelve I was a Malcolm X disciple. I always believed in the power of someone to make a difference, and that’s how I’ve always lived my life.

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