On the evening of October 16th, ASCAP hosted an opening reception for its She Is the Music Song Camp, a three-day songwriting event for female-identifying songwriters, artists, engineers and producers. ASCAP and industry initiative She Is the Music, which counts Alicia Keys as a founding member, conceived the event, which brought together a host of women creators to write new music in a collaborative environment at the Nashville recording studio of veteran producer Ron Fair.
The headline artist for the inaugural She Is the Music Song Camp was Mary J. Blige, who lent her Grammy-winning expertise to over a dozen young women creatives. Blige was on hand throughout each of the three days to offer guidance and to co-write with a diverse array of young songwriting talents. Speaking with Rolling Stone Country in one of the studio’s control rooms, Blige explains that she was compelled to accept the invitation to the event because she believes in the power that is created when women band together.
“This event represents strength for us,” she says. “When we come together as women, when we do something like this, we inspire and uplift each other. We encourage each other. And we encourage other people to do something similar.”
Blige was one of several artists on hand at the event who spoke frankly of the challenges faced by women in the music industry, saying, “It’s hard out here in music — and in any business — for women. It’s really hard on women so women are hard on each other. So when you see us come together, it’s like, ‘This is good. This is God.’ To see us come together and write songs and be in the same room and smile and compliment each other is very empowering.”
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Blige’s influence on the group of writers — whose credits span Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert’s “Something Bad,” Rihanna’s “Cheers (Drink to That)” and Miranda Lambert’s “Little Red Wagon,” among many others — was palpable, with many of the younger artists looking both to Blige’s many accolades (nine Grammy wins and two Oscar nominations among them) and to her career longevity as something of a template for how to make it as a woman in the music industry.
“I grew up listening to Mary,” songwriter and artist Priscilla Renea, who has written two songs with Blige in the past, tells Rolling Stone Country. “She is iconic. She is fearless. She’s always been very versatile and she’s always doing her own thing. She’s one of the only artists I’ve written for that did her own thing. She didn’t do everything that I did. That’s not to insult any other artists, but most artists just copy the demo, ad libs and everything. She did her own thing. She and Madonna were the only two.”
Renea’s writing credits also include Mariah Carey (“Infinity”) and Kelly Clarkson (“Love So Soft”), and in June she released an album of solo material, Coloured. She credits both her involvement in the event and a sizable chunk of her success to showing up to industry events and advocating for herself and her work. “I became one of the go-to people when [ASCAP] would have an event or need someone to speak because I just kept showing up,” she says. “Any time they called me to do anything, I would come. Then it became a mutual thing. I could call them and say I have an idea and they would give me guidance and advice. One of the things I wish more creators and women, especially at ASCAP, knew is how hands-on they are if you just participate.”
Country artist Jillian Jacqueline, one of the camp’s participants, echoed Blige’s sentiments, while also citing the gender inequality specific to country music, particularly as heard on country radio. She cites events like the song camp as being “crucial” to the cause of increasing women’s representation in music, saying that the “genuine connection” forged between women artists is a source of power “when you feel like you have no power or control over anything else.”
“It is a unique journey doing this as a woman,” she tells Rolling Stone Country. “To be honest, for a long time I didn’t want to admit that because I felt like, ‘Well, shit, is that really true? Am I really going to have to climb that mountain?’ It really teaches you to wake up in the morning every day and look in the mirror and be like, ‘Just fuck it. Don’t take no for an answer. Be so brave.’ A lot of times you are the only woman in the room and sometimes it’s easy to fall back into the role of the woman in the room with all the men. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s so important to not fall into that role and to be just as strong, bold and fearless as everybody else in the room is being.”
Other participants in the song camp were songwriters Stacey Barthe, Ingrid Burley, Anna Graceman, Caylee Hammack, Audra Mae, PJ, the Sisterhood and Emily Weisband; engineers Kesha Lee and Maria Elisa Ayerbe; and producers Ali Stone, Femke Weidema and the Wildcardz. On the final day of the camp, all of the participants came together at a luncheon to share the songs they wrote together.
While music is just one of many industries that still has a ways to go with regard to gender equity, events like the She Is the Music Song Camp foster a necessary sense of community among women artists that, if made more widespread, should serve to move the needle in a positive direction. Until then, Blige offered a word of advice to young women creators hoping to find their way in an industry where it feels like the odds are against them.
“Continue to speak your truth,” she says. “Continue to write other people’s truth and continue to give other people what it is that they want and they need. Always be flexible and always be true to yourself. You’ll be around if you speak your truth.”