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Tanya Stephens Talks Sex, Reggae and How Hatred Shaped Her

Tanya Stephens calls for banning of the word 'female' as a label before artists

An eloquent and talented lyricist, Tanya Stephens delivered an engaging and provoking talk as the penultimate speaker in the 2016 Reggae Talks series staged by the Department of Literatures in English at the UWI, Mona. Throughout her presentation, she displayed equal parts braggadocio and self-deprecating humour as she spoke about sex, Reggae and how Jamaica has shaped her. Calls for rebellion and revolution have become hallmarks of her lyrics and her talk was no different.

Describing her professional persona as fierce and devoid of gender, Stephens spoke about the bias faced by women in the music industry and argued that a significant part of ending that would be in removing the label ‘female’ when speaking about women in the industry. She argued that while she is a female to her partner and family, when it comes to her job, her sex is irrelevant. She was adamant that the sex label of ‘female’ had no place in the professional world as it is about craft and talent, not the kind of genitalia with which one is born. She argued that the weight of the ‘female’ label is actually “crushing” and debilitating.

“In this industry, I am a beast. I have no gender,” Stephens said. It was a point she returned to over and again during her presentation. “I have no control over my gender,” Stephens later said, “I was born this way. I have control over my skill level - I made me.”

She argued that the music industry does itself a disservice through its gender inequity. She noted that instead of expecting all women peddle sex, it should promote and celebrate talent.

“The word ‘female’ is a license for you to demand more and less from me - more than you demand from a man and less than I’m capable of,” Stephens argued, explaining that mediocrity from men is often celebrated while to earn respect, women are expected to deliver consistent excellence.

Tanya StephensStephens pointed out that a significant challenge attached to the ‘female’ label is the demand for women to not only be sexy (often meaning skimpily glad) but there is also a cookie-cutter approach that requires one female artist to mirror the other. Her demands for change were, therefore simple:

“Just gi we wi place and we will earn it through wi music, but please don’t ask we fi earn it through we body,” she said. “Stop ask we fi look like the other girl. We a no identical twin,” Stephens argued. 

“Allow us to live as the creative beings that we can be,” she said, explaining that the industry requires and thrives on diversity which is often stifled in the approach to women in the industry. 

Interestingly, Stephens was also critical of women who embrace the ‘female’ label and attempt to band together in sisterhood. She argued that accepting the label would be accepting a disability. 

“We’re going to attract empathy instead of respect,” Stephens argued. “We’re not supposed to be asking for support. We’re supposed to demand respect.”

Interestingly, Stephens also argued that because of the disparity, the women who make it have to be so talented that despite being significantly fewer in numbers, she does not feel that women are over-shadowed.

“I know we’re outnumbered by the men, but I don’t feel overshadowed by them,” she argued. “In terms of potency, we’re equal.”

Stephens took issue with several elements of the music industry, including the tendency to promote a flashy lifestyle which she now shuns. 

“I’m not really into the aesthetics of this industry,” Stephens said. “I’m into the spoken word, the written word.”

This was, however, not always the case as there was a time when she bought into the idea of dressing above her means.

“Mi paycheck used to done pon clothes,” Stephens said.

Stephens also criticized the ways in which skin colour is often touted as an asset on the local scene, although the international reggae market belies its importance. She argued that this was also eroded the potential of emerging talents.

“We can’t be telling talented people who are trying to come into the industry that they are too dark,” she argued. She therefore explained that although there is a lot of public criticism of bleaching several mechanics in and outside of the industry promote and encourage it. 

Several of her salient points also came out through the question and answer segment, which followed her presentation. In it, Stephens explained that both her mother and Jamaica helped to shape her by providing negative examples that she then has to strive against.

“I am who I am because of what me see round me,” Stephens said. “A Jamaica teach me what to be by being what me no want.” she continued, noting the issues of misogyny and homophobia . “Mi see the hate and it don’t work fi di I.”

Rebellion and revolution have become hallmarks of her music. Her 'Talk' was no different.She also explained that speaking the truth and being herself were her only options. She revealed that not only did she not have time to wear a mask, but she probably would not be able to remember the charade she was trying to keep up.

“I’ve  had so much to drink, I only have 5 brain cells left,” she said with a laugh, although the entire talk belied that statement.

Stephens revealed that her attempt to stop the use of the word in the music industry was a part of the legacy she wanted to leave behind.

“You learn from experience and you grow and part of my growth is ditching the label.” Stephens said. “It’s not just 'female' I don’t like. It’s every label because they’re boxes. They make us perform below our capacity.”

She explained that the important thing was potential, talent and our humanity. “People a just people,” she said.

She noted that sometimes she is criticized for lashing out but that was a hurt-filled response to being slighted. 

“I really am reluctantly human but I’m human nonetheless and we have feelings,” Tanya Stephens said.

The Reggae Talks series continues through to Tuesday, April 5, 2016. The 2016 series has featured Bob Andy, Mutabaruka, Queen Ifrica and Agent Sasco. Tanya Stephens’ presentation took place on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 in the Department of medical sciences, at the University of the West Indies, Mona.