We spoke with the founder of Honey Jam about local women in music, gangsta rap, and Nelly Furtado.
The earworm of spring 2015 was undoubtably “Females Are Strong As Hell,” but Ebonnie Rowe already knew that. As the founder and executive director of Honey Jam, she’s been showcasing promising up-and-coming female music acts for the last twenty years. What started as a part-time gig in 1995 has blossomed into a full-time position, culminating in an annual all-female showcase concert.
This year’s show will be held Thursday, August 13 at The Mod Club. The performers span genres—everything from country music to scratch DJing—and ages, with the youngest artists still in high school. What unites them, and Rowe, is a commitment to both the music and to the growing community of female artists. As Victoria Sol, a 2014 performer, explains, “Honey Jam is one of those things that, if you can get there, you know you’re moving forward. It opens a whole new network of opportunities.” (Fun fact: Cancon radio staple Nelly Furtado was a pre-Whoa, Nelly! performer back in 1997.)
Our conversation with Rowe—about the concert’s unexpected second year, the catalyst of gangsta rap, and her start in mentorship—is below.
Torontoist: How did Honey Jam get started?
Ebonnie Rowe: I started Each One Teach One, a mentorship program that connected black youth with professionals. I was hanging out with teenagers and listening to the music they were listening to, and gangster rap in particular, which was unapologetically misogynistic. I would have my female mentees tell me that their little brothers were calling them “bitch” and “ho” because they heard it on the radio. At that time there didn’t need to be clean versions on college radio.
I approached the biggest hip-hop DJ in Canada—DJX of CKLN’s Power Move Show—and he offered me his three-hour show to produce and talk about the negative images portrayed of women in the music industry. Someone listening asked me to edit an all-female version of their magazine featuring local female artists and Honey Jam was born out of that. Honey Jam was essentially a wrap party for the magazine, and we featured some of the women from that special issue. It was supposed to be a one-off, but then everyone asked when’s the next one? I thought, “Okay maybe I’ll do it for a year and see how it goes,” and here we are twenty years later.
Walk us through the lead-up to the concert: there’s an audition process, a mentorship program, and all kinds of delicious support for emerging artists! How does this help shape the performers’ experience of Honey Jam?
It defines their experience, it is their experience. The auditions, the launch where we have a known artist come and speak with them about their journey in the industry, a full day free workshop at Harris Institute about funding, management, media, song writing, etc., attending Drake’s OVO summit, one-on-one vocal & Performance coaching by celebrity coach Elaine Overholt: it is all very impactful for them.
What do you look for in a Honey Jam performer? What makes a great Jam performance?
That “It” factor that you can’t really describe. It’s a visceral feeling when they take the stage and start to perform. I want to see stage presence, authenticity, passion, talent and ability to connect to the audience. All of the above. When everything lines up, it’s just magical—one of those “you just had to be there” moments that can’t be captured on film.
You mentioned recently that including Nelly Furtado in 1997 really changed the demographics of the concert’s audience. Do you still feel that Honey Jam serves its original mandate?
The original mandate was to provide a safe, welcoming and nurturing space for young female artists in traditionally male roles, such as DJing or rapping. We now have much more diversity in the genres of music we present, which happened two years in. After the first year we expanded to include other genres into the workshops as well.
How do you keep momentum for the concert going year after year?
It’s definitely a challenge to keep the interest going for two decades! It’s really driven by the artists, I think. They bring a fresh set of people to Honey Jam every year. Great live music will never get old. It will never go out of style. People always want to be entertained and to share an experience with other lovers of music.
Tell us about a moment when you really felt like the concert was having an impact on performers, the Canadian music scene, or the city in general?
I felt it was having an impact from the very beginning. That’s the only reason I continued doing it, because it meant something to the artists and to the community. No one else was doing what we were doing, and there was no another outlet for unknown artists in any genre at that time to perform at a concert in front of hundreds of people and receive the opportunities we were providing.
What’s your favourite part of running Honey Jam?
Calling the artists to tell them they made the cut and hearing their excitement. Another part is reading about their experiences, whether it’s through social media posts, or retellings by the artists themselves.