Hey Ladies: Being A Woman Musician Today

Hey Ladies: Suzanne Vega And Bahamadia In Conversation

Bahamadia and Suzanne Vega; courtesy of the artists i i

Bahamadia and Suzanne Vega. Hear the rapper and the singer-songwriter discuss working in an industry dominated by men. courtesy of the artists hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artists
Bahamadia and Suzanne Vega; courtesy of the artists

Bahamadia and Suzanne Vega. Hear the rapper and the singer-songwriter discuss working in an industry dominated by men.

courtesy of the artists

All summer we've been producing a web or radio piece every week that draws from a questionnaire we sent out to women working as musicians right now. We wanted to hear their stories about performing, recording, writing, doing press and trying to have a life at the same time directly.

Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in news show, devoted their second hour on Tuesday to a discussion of the issues women face in the music industry. Their guests were veteran singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega and Philadelphia-based rapper Bahamadia.

Vega agreed with Patti, a fiddle player and violinist who called into the show from San Francisco, that there are advantages and disadvantages to being a woman in the music business. Patti said she's always been able to sit in with groups of all-male musicians, but being on the road got very lonely. "It would get very tough because often you're the only woman if you're playing, especially in jazz," she said. "A lot of the times you'd have a lot of the guys asking you out and it would get tough to maintain a professional situation." Eventually, says Patti, she became a neuropsychologist in addition to a musician.

Bahamadia agreed with host Neal Conan that hip-hop looks like a genre dominated by men, but says that's because many of the women working in the form do so behind the scenes.

Bahamadia said she's traveled the world in the last 15 years and seen women working not only as vocalists, but also as "producers, DJs, light people, stage people — we're just not as visible."

The MC says that despite her experience with men she nurtured early in their careers not reciprocating once they achieved some success, the difficulties women face in hip-hop are not systemic to that style of music, or exclusive to it:

"That's just in any field or industry. The challenge is generating a sound network, you know, and a team of people that will help implement a vision for you and a plan for you, as well as a genuine camaraderie between women and like-minded people all over."

Susan, from Denver, Colo., called in and pointed to the use of screens to conduct blind orchestral auditions. They came into use in the '70s to help address racial disparities in orchestra jobs — but they've led to a significant rise in the percentage of women getting those jobs, too. One study found the percentage to be as high as 30%.

Tanya, who plays with the Cleveland Orchestra, agreed with Susan that the use of screens has made the jobs of women working in orchestras easier. She did point out that the hiring of conductors cannot happen with screens, and noted the percentage of women conducting major orchestras is much smaller than the number of women playing in those same orchestras.

Sabrina, a Latina classical composer who wrote in to the show, said she corresponds using a gender neutral name until she's landed a job or commission. That led to a conversation between Vega and Bahamadia about how they present themselves onstage in response to a question from Mary, who until recently fronted a heavy metal band in Madison, Wisc. Mary said for many years she "walked the tightrope" between looking sexy (as she felt pressured to do) but not so sexy that people stopped taking her seriously.

"I kind of downplay my feminity," said Bahamadia. "I wanted the focal point to be my writing and my performance ability."

As did Vega. She said that, especially in the early years of her career, "I just covered my body from my neck pretty much down to my ankles." The two agree that there are many definitions of "sexy". For example, Vega says, "You can be sexy in your voice; you can be sexy in what you sing about." She called it an "age-old problem," something every woman has to figure out for herself.

Caller Nidia, from Berkeley, Calif., plays in an all-woman mariachi band now, but when she and other women played with various mostly male mariachi bands they weren't always respected:

"Our sensuality was played off of a lot in order to make more money or for whatever reason. We were made to flirt with the clients and sing romantic songs. And sometimes that would get out of hand."

She says she was worried that in an all-woman band that attention would get even more intense. "But quite the opposite has happened," she said. "We really feel a camaraderie amongst each other and we feel very supported. In our engagement with the audience and clients and people that we come in contact with there's quite a nice level of respect. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we're out there as one of the few all-woman groups that's really kind of taking on the genre and doing it on our own. So it's been a really empowering experience." At the same time, Nidia said she has had bookings turned down because her new group is all women.

There is more conversation, as well as live performances by both Bahamadia and Vega, at the audio link above. You can download the segment there, or read the entire transcript.

You can read all the unedited responses to the Hey Ladies questionnaire here, plus conversations between women who write about music, interviews about album covers and pop personae and more here.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

And today, this program continues a conversation that NPR has been conducting, called "Hey Ladies." We're talking with women in the music business about the challenges they face, from sometimes seeing their male counterparts taken more seriously to difficulties with male recording engineers.

We want to hear from women in the music business today, whether that's in a symphony orchestra or a country music band, whether you're a backup singer or a rock and roll diva.

Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with a headliner. Suzanne Vega is a well-known singer-songwriter. She earned critical and popular acclaim for her song "Luka," which tells the tale of an abused child. She's recorded folkish and a capella music, and one of her songs, "Tom's Diner," was turned into a dance track.

She's been on tour recently with Spoon. Her most recent CD is called "Suzanne Vega: Close Up, Volume One, Love Songs," and she joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. SUZANNE VEGA (Musician): Thanks.

CONAN: What's different in the business for women, do you think, from when you started back in the '80s?

Ms. VEGA: Well, what's different these days? Well, it's the same thing that's different for all musicians. It's been - it's easier for an artist to grow their own fan base. You know, you can use technology in a way that you can know your audience more directly than ever before.

CONAN: What about the business part of it? You started out at A&M Records, a big label.

Ms. VEGA: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: All that's changed. But back in those days at A&M, were women treated any differently than men, do you think?

Ms. VEGA: Probably, yes. I mean, back in the '80s, when I got my record deal, I remember, first of all, I had a really good manager, Ron Fierstein, and one of the things that we decided early on was that my image was my image. It was not going to change after I got a record deal. I was not going to I was always going to be wearing the black jacket and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: ...not a ton of makeup, you know, and not going to look like the Bangles or like Cyndi Lauper or Madonna or - you know, I was always going to look like myself.

I think that's one of the main differences now, is that you - a woman can look like who she actually is, as opposed to having to look like some pop image that's not natural, or not what you want to look like.

CONAN: And did you get the same kind of business deal as - well, Herb Albert, of course, was the A of A&M Records - that the Tijuana Brass got?

Ms. VEGA: Right. Oh, I don't know. I - he was the founder of the company. It's very doubtful that I would have gotten the same record deal as he did. But I felt that I was respected. I was and a lot of that was because of my management.

But it took years to get that deal because a lot of people said, well, she's interesting; she's kind of a poet, but she's not really - she's not going to sell records.

So that was, I would say, the main difference. I didn't see it that I was - that it was hard for me to get a record deal because I was a woman, but because I made music that wasn't perceived as pop.

CONAN: As pop.

Ms. VEGA: Yeah.

CONAN: And we remember from the early days of rock and roll and R&B and other businesses, well, that some record labels exploited their talent and expropriated all the rights to their music. Did that happen to you?

Ms. VEGA: I signed what was a pretty standard record deal back then. I mean - so I got, you know, 12 to 15 percent. But - so - I don't know if that's what you mean.

CONAN: So that seemed to be fair to you, and it seems fair today?

Ms. VEGA: It seemed to be fair to me. I mean, my deal was different because technically, I was signed to my management company, and they were signed to the record label. That was the quirk in my particular deal.

CONAN: I see.

Ms. VEGA: But again, that has nothing to do with my being a woman. It was more the deal that I made with the manager. I had a production deal with him.

CONAN: And every time one of those records is played today, you get royalties?

Ms. VEGA: When it's played, I get a performance royalty. When it's sold, I get a mechanical royalty if there's a physical product that's sold. So but now, I mean, it's different because as now for example, now I have my own record label and so - and I've been re-recording my own music. So if I sell one of those, I get more like 75 percent or 80 percent of the profit, as opposed to 12 to 15.

CONAN: Twelve to 15 - so it's an enormous difference.

Ms. VEGA: Yeah, a huge difference, yes.

CONAN: Yes, indeed. I bet it does.

Ms. VEGA: Yeah.

CONAN: That sound we just heard a moment ago was you and your guitar. You've been kind enough to bring it with you today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: Yes.

CONAN: I was wondering, are you going - we hope to get a couple songs.

Ms. VEGA: Yeah, I'd love to sing one or two or three.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. VEGA: So I'm going to sing I mean, one of the things I wanted to talk about was this re-recording project, and this is one of the songs on the album that's coming out on October 12th. So...

CONAN: That's volume two.

Ms. VEGA: Volume two of the "Close Up" series. Yeah. It's basically me and the guitar and a couple of other musicians, and this one's called "People and Places." And it has all the songs that have either people or places, and one of those people is "Luka."

(Soundbite of song, "Luka")

Ms. VEGA: (Singing) My name is Luka. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes, I think you've seen me before.

If you hear something late at night, some kind of trouble, some kind of fight, just don't ask me what it was. Just don't ask me what it was. Just don't ask me what it was.

I think it's 'cause I'm clumsy. I try not to talk too loud. Maybe it's because I'm crazy. I try not to act too proud.

They only hit until you cry. After that, you don't ask why. You just don't argue anymore. You just don't argue anymore. You just don't argue anymore.

Yes, I think I'm okay. I walked into the door again. Well, if you ask, that's what I'll say. It's not your business, anyway. I guess I'd like to be alone with nothing broken, nothing thrown. Just don't ask me how I am. Just don't ask me how I am. Just don't ask me how I am.

My name is Luka. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes, I think you've seen me before.

If you hear something late at night, some kind of trouble, some kind of fight, just don't ask me what it was. Just don't ask me what it was. Just don't ask me what it was.

They only hit until you cry. After that, you don't ask why. You just don't argue anymore. You just don't argue anymore. You just don't argue anymore.

CONAN: Suzanne Vega, at our bureau in New York, singing "Luka" from "Close Up: Volume Two, People and Places." And we'd like to thank our engineer up in New York, Neal Rauch, who's helping us out today. You were fortunate that none of you could hear our engineer here in Washington; Cal Southweather(ph) was singing along with the song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But in any case, we want to hear from women musicians today: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Patty, Patty with us from San Francisco.

PATTY (Caller): Yes, hello. My name is Patty. I'm a fiddle player and violinist, and I had played with the Gypsy Kings for a couple years and Josh Groban. And Ms. Vega is one of my heroes. I love her music so much.

Ms. VEGA: Thanks.

PATTY: And it's such a treat to hear her today. But I had found that in my career, there were both advantages and disadvantages to being a woman in the music business.

CONAN: And if you could give us some examples of each.

PATTY: The advantages were when I would - the way I got most of my jobs and gigs was to go to clubs and ask to sit in. First of all, there's so few fiddle players that play jazz and pop and all this. So - but if you're a woman, guys will always let you sit in. They're very happy to let you sit in, and they're very polite, and they're usually very respectful. I've never had a problem with that.

The disadvantage would be being on the road. I ended up, you know, being on the road - basically, up until I was about 30, and it was very tough because often you're the only woman, if you're playing - especially in jazz, which is mainly what I play.

And it would get very lonely and, you know, it would a lot of times, you know, you would have a lot of the guys asking you out, and it would get tough to maintain a professional situation.

And in the end, it got so difficult that I did end up going to graduate school and becoming a neuropsychologist. So I do both now. I do both careers. But it was so difficult to make enough money to live.

CONAN: Yeah, I was going to suggest that neuropsychology probably pays a little bit better than fiddling.

PATTY: You know, it does and it doesn't, because with the insurance companies these days, that's, you know but you know, yes. Yes.

CONAN: It's interesting what you said about being the only woman or one of the few in the group. I tour with a band sometimes, and they are the majority, critical mass, it would seem to me, would be absolutely vital. Suzanne Vega, what would you think?

Ms. VEGA: What do I think about women on the road?

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. VEGA: Sometimes I'm the only woman. Sometimes I'm not; it depends. I'd say that I mean, a story that comes to mind is that I met just a slight little detour here is that I found out at a relatively late age that my grandmother, who I never met, was a drummer in an all-female band in the 1930s.

CONAN: Wow.

Ms. VEGA: And she met my grandfather, who was a trumpet player, on the road, and they were married for a while. And - so it's an age-old problem of being a woman on the road. How do you maintain your professional life and your private life? And I suppose it can be lonely sometimes.

CONAN: Patty, do neuropsychologists tour much?

PATTY: Yes. I'm able to arrange it so that I can tour, you know, on the weekends, and I can take I'm going to Egypt this Saturday for about 12 days.

CONAN: Well, good luck. Thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

PATTY: Thank you very much.

Ms. VEGA: Thank you.

CONAN: More with Suzanne Vega and women musicians after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Today, we're talking with singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega as part of a project NPR's been conducting called "Hey Ladies," and it's a conversation with hundreds of women, working musicians today, about what it's like out there for them.

Head over to npr.org/heyladies. You can check out the responses - almost 800 of them - to an online survey, which covers everything onstage and off; old-school, new-school, much more.

We want more responses today from the women musicians out there in our audience: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Also join the conversation at that website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is rapper Bahamadia, mentored by Guru, one-half of the former rap group Gang Starr, and she's worked with the likes of Erykah Badu and fellow Philly rappers The Roots, and here's one of her rap tracks, "Chaos."

(Soundbite of song, "Chaos")

Ms. BAHAMADIA (Rapper): (Rapping) Projects my eyesights to the heavens like dead or wise sages, release what I hold sacred through my book of rhyme pages. Scripts be ageless, like scrolls from Dead Sea, the cadence off and on like the motion of Tai Chi. Bahama-D, wordy, to reflect eternally science to a remedy to help and get my people free. But little support, got my thesis on freeze. My only option's doin' bootlegs for the Japanese. Get about eight Gs, a heavy buzz overseas. Sacrifice a pill to mainstream and do what I believe, cause down to the chromosomes, I'm a purist to this art form.

CONAN: Bahamadia hosted the radio program "B Sides," highlighting music from her native Philadelphia. She joined us today from there, from the studios of member station WHYY. Nice to have you with us today.

BAHAMADIA: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And rap, it would seem to me, is a pretty much male-dominated profession.

BAHAMADIA: Yeah. It's perceived as being that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Perceived as being that? Well, you're part of it. Is it?

BAHAMADIA: Yeah. Well, not my reality has been that I've traveled all over the world for the last 15 years, and I've seen a lot of women that are practitioners regarding performance aspect of hip-hop as a vocalist, as well as producers, DJs, light people, stage people, you know. We're just not as visible in terms of being promoted.

CONAN: So it is possible to be well, in terms of being promoted, promotion often equals success.

BAHAMADIA: Well, I mean, it depends on what you determine success as being.

CONAN: How do you determine it?

BAHAMADIA: I determine it as being an act that, if I'm actually doing what I set my mind to do and I'm doing it and being consistent at what I'm doing and penetrating a realm of building an awareness consistently, then I consider that to be successful, because I'm actually doing what I've set to do in achieving that goal.

CONAN: In your response to the questionnaire that NPR sent out - and I was very interested to read it - one of the things you said was that you have, over the course of your career, mentored a lot of people, including some male rappers who have gone on to some success and not necessarily reciprocated the love.

BAHAMADIA: Yeah, that's of the challenges, I mean, in terms of but I think that's a political thing. And sometimes, it's a matter of management as well because sometimes, you're deemed a commodity as far as like, your visibility and what your relevancy happens to be regarding your current releases.

And sometimes when people, unfortunately, when they deem that you're not as important or not as viable to the product that they're trying to promote or sell, then they kind of count you out. So it's up to you to take those reins and continue on.

CONAN: It's up to you. So you don't put this up on this...

BAHAMADIA: Yeah, as an individual.

CONAN: Up to the individual. So you don't see systemic problems for women in rap?

BAHAMADIA: I mean, overall, though, that's just in any field or industry. You know, the challenge is always generating a sound network, you know, and a team of people that will help implement a vision for you and a plan for you, as well as a genuine camaraderie between women and like-minded people all over to help support what your mission is.

CONAN: Do you - have you seen changes in the business since you started? And...

BAHAMADIA: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

BAHAMADIA: Yeah. There's definitely been a transition from the industrial age into the information age. I think with that, the field has been evened out from like a more the little guy and a big guy are kind of like on the same playing field now, whereas you had the social networking sites like, you know, Twitter and those sorts of things. You have more - quicker access to your immediate public in terms of your niche marketing, you know, and your (unintelligible).

CONAN: Suzanne Vega, you were talking about that earlier, too. I understand one of the things you've talked about is finding fans you never knew you had in places like Turkey, and as I understand it, you take requests, sometimes, by Twitter.

Ms. VEGA: Yes. Well, I like all the social networking sites, and all of them have different uses. You know, there's Twitter. There's Facebook. There's MySpace. And there's my own website, which I do the blogging on.

So it's thrilling to be able to post something and then see what the response is - kind of around the world. I mean, you know when you've got something if you can get, say, more than 100 hits on one particular update - you know - from all over the world. It's really exciting to me.

CONAN: Bahamadia, do you use sites like that?

BAHAMADIA: Yes. Actually, it's more like - you know how the old BDS(ph) system was, where you can track down your spins and stuff. I kind of equate that to that in the now context, in the dot-com context.

And it kind of helps you hone in on the demographics that you may not have been aware of, and you can kind of like seize those opportunities, find those areas, penetrate them.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Susan. Susan's calling us from Denver.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SUSAN: I am a bass player, actually, but I'm a symphonic musician, and we've been fortunate in that about 25, 30 years ago, the use of screens started to be used for all auditions for orchestral...

CONAN: And when you mean that, you're sitting behind a screen so that the people who are judging whether you can play in the orchestra or not can't tell who you are.

SUSAN: Right. You're behind a screen that you can put carpets down, so they can't tell if you're wearing heels or, you know, 100 pounds.

BAHAMADIA: Wow.

SUSAN: And I got my job - I was hired, incidentally, by a woman, Marin Alsop, who's now in Baltimore. And - but she didn't know I was a woman until after she hired me.

So there aren't that many of us in the bass world, females, and I've -try and talk to some of the other people around the country, the other women playing nontraditional instruments like trombone or tuba or percussion. And - but I don't get a really good sense of whether there are problems after, when you actually have the job and you're trying to perform as a woman playing those sorts of instruments.

And I was interested to hear Suzanne talk about her grandmother playing the drums, because that is definitely a component about being a female musician, is what instrument do you play.

CONAN: Yeah, and I wonder, I've heard that critical mass, a certain number of women or percentage of women in something like an orchestra makes a huge difference.

SUSAN: Well, it does. And incidentally, when they started using the screens, the number of women in orchestras went up dramatically. The percentage went up dramatically.

So were - all of a sudden, all those women talented enough to play? Or were they being excluded before the screens were being used? And I think you could probably figure out what the answer is.

But I think it's definitely great to have a balance of female and male, and also within the different instruments in the orchestra.

CONAN: I wonder, is there - Bahamadia, is there any equivalent to what she's talking about in the rap business?

BAHAMADIA: Yeah. There's starting to be a lot more to reiterate(ph) regarding the networking and camaraderie between female MCs in the industry. We're starting to collaborate a lot more and starting to get more placements regarding like, touring opportunities and just collaborations overall.

CONAN: Suzanne Vega...

BAHAMADIA: There's much more of a balance.

CONAN: When you're hiring musicians, do you use a screen?

Ms. VEGA: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: Do I use a screen? No, I don't. But if there's a musician that I like, I'll use them over and over again. You know, it depends on what the needs are of the particular tour, really.

CONAN: Okay. Susan, thanks very much for the phone call.

SUSAN: Sure.

CONAN: And good luck.

SUSAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to this is Sara, Sara with us from Tallahassee.

SARA (Caller): Hi, Neal. Spectacular show.

CONAN: Thank you.

SARA: I work for a music event production company in Tallahassee that puts on a funk festival every year - at Bear Creek here. And the industry of the music event production is extremely saturated with men. So as a woman, I find that if I initially establish myself as a strong, stable woman and I take sex off the table, then I find a lot less problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: Okay. And then what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAHAMADIA: It's been a successful formula for me as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARA: I'm sorry?

CONAN: That was Bahamadia saying it's been a successful formula for her as well. And Suzanne Vega said, and then what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARA: Oh, well, I - we initially have the power of establishing ourselves as professional women with a goal in mind, and that goal not necessarily being sex.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BAHAMADIA: Absolutely.

SARA: You have to stick with it. You just have to stick with it.

CONAN: Sounds like it's hard.

SARA: I mean, it's not hard, but every once in a while, you'll find that you might want a relationship or companionship with one of the people you work with. And I just completely avoid it.

CONAN: Sara, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SARA: No problem. Have a good one.

CONAN: Thank you very much. If you joined us late, we're talking with Suzanne Vega and with rapper Bahamadia. Suzanne Vega, you still have your guitar?

Ms. VEGA: I do have my guitar, but I wanted to sing a song that doesn't require the guitar, actually...

CONAN: Good. All right.

Ms. VEGA: ...if that was okay with you.

CONAN: Sure. What is it?

Ms. VEGA: It's called "Tom's Diner" and it's - again, one of the places on the "People and Places."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: So it takes place in a coffee shop here in New York City on 112th Street and Broadway. All right?

CONAN: Go ahead.

(Soundbite of song, "Tom's Diner")

Ms. VEGA: (Singing) I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner. I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee. And he fills it only halfway. And before I even argue, he is looking out the window at somebody coming in.

It is always nice to see you, says the man behind the counter to the woman who has come in. She is shaking her umbrella. And I look the other way as they are kissing their hellos. And I'm pretending not to see them, and instead I pour the milk.

I open up the paper. There's a story of an actor who had died while he was drinking. It was no one I had heard of. And I'm turning to the horoscope and looking for the funnies when I'm feeling someone watching me, and so I raise my head.

There's a woman on the outside looking inside. Does she see me? No, she does not really see me 'cause she sees her own reflection. And I'm trying not to notice that she's hitching up her skirt. And while she's straightening her stockings, her hair has gotten wet.

Oh, this rain, it will continue through the morning. As I'm listening to the bells of the cathedral, I am thinking of your voice and of the midnight picnic once upon a time before the rain began.

And I finish up my coffee, and it's time to catch the train.

Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do.

CONAN: Suzanne Vega - "Tom's Diner," from the new album coming out shortly, called "Suzanne Vega Close-Up Volume 2: People and Places."

I know "Tom's Diner." It's on Broadway.

Ms. VEGA: Yes, it is.

CONAN: Near Columbia University. Those bells are from St. John the Unfinished, as we used to call it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: That's right.

CONAN: We're - you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the conversation. This is Ashley(ph), Ashley with us from Pullman, Washington.

ASHLEY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ASHLEY: My question is to the rapper.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ASHLEY: Rap music seems very degrading towards women in general. Doesn't that contribute to ruining women's credibility in rap somewhat?

CONAN: Bahamadia?

BAHAMADIA: That's why I'm still a practitioner of over 15 years - to offer an alternative to what's being displayed on the mainstream. And there are - whole legion of women that are out that, like I said, have been in the trenches just as long as I have, that are putting out quality music that needs to be, you know, showcased and supported.

So now, with the - like with the Internet and stuff like that, if you want quality music to kind of counteract or offshoot what you're exposed to, you probably should Google search a few artists or whatever.

CONAN: Ashley, do you participate in music?

ASHLEY: Yeah. I am a rocker, and I listen to a lot of underground rock.

CONAN: And some rap, evidently, too.

ASHLEY: I don't - I just notice, sometimes a friend will bring me out to a dance club, and I can't stand the music. I mean, every word is some other degrading thing towards women.

CONAN: All right. Well.

ASHLEY: And I feel like that may ruin their credibility in some ways. I mean, I notice it in rap more than anything else. So I just had to ask.

CONAN: Okay. Ashley, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

Let's see if we - go next to - this is Tanya(ph), Tanya with us from Cleveland.

TANYA (Caller): Thank you so much for taking my call. I'm a cellist from the Cleveland Orchestra, and I wanted to echo the previous comments from an earlier listener - that I think the advent of the screen in auditions has really done a lot to make women's jobs easier in orchestral auditions.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TANYA: And I'm happy to report that I think there may even be more women than men, actually, in the Cleveland Orchestra these days. And the one point that I wanted to bring up was the question of female conductors. I don't know if you've all noticed that that's one place where we really have some catching up to do.

CONAN: The leader of the band, so to speak.

TANYA: Yes. Yeah.

CONAN: And in Cleveland, do you work with - which kind of conductor do you work with?

TANYA: We work with an Austrian conductor named Franz Welser-Most. He's wonderful. And I just - I know two examples; there are probably more. There's JoAnn Falletta, and also Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony. But I would love to see those numbers increase.

CONAN: Are conductors hired from behind a screen?

TANYA: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Huh. Interesting.

TANYA: I think there's a completely different process. I'm not even sure what that is, so

CONAN: Well, thank you, Tanya. Appreciate it. And good luck with the Cleveland Orchestra.

TANYA: Thank you so much. It's nice to talk to you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. My name is Sabrina(ph) - this, from email. I'm a composer-percussionist, and I found that my career has been much more successful online, in the electronic realm, than face to face. The idea of a young, Latina, classical composer does not fit the mold of an old, European, male composer riddled with wrinkles and old ideas. So instead, I use my blog, Facebook, and a women's group called the International Alliance for Women in Music, to promote my music.

I found that college groups are much more receptive to a female composer. For example, Conductor Michael Engelhardt's Millikin University's Women's Chorale premiered my multimedia oratorio creation. P.S. - I usually correspond with a gender-neutral name until I have a job or commission. Thank you for the great conversation. Thank you for that, Sabrina.

This is obviously something that, Suzanne Vega, does not affect your life. You are who you are. You've been around for a long time. You -your image, as you said, from the beginning has been under your control.

Ms. VEGA: Yes although, you know, I have to say, it - in the beginning -and even now, I suppose, to some degree - it's helpful to be androgynous. I, especially in the beginning, had very short hair and wore my jackets, and that's how I felt comfortable. I didn't feel comfortable presenting myself in a particularly feminine way.

So this idea of - sort of adopting a character, or adopting a more neutral, gender-neutral...

CONAN: Persona, yeah.

Ms. VEGA: ...identity is something that sort of resonates with me. And of course, that goes back to the 1850s, when you had Emily Bronte and her sister's - their first works were printed under men's names - Acton Bell, (unintelligible) Bell, you know? So I think our last email has kind of hit a nerve.

CONAN: Coming up, more music from Suzanne Vega, more from you as well. What is it like to be a female musician these days; 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. We'll also have some of your letters. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Today, we're looking at women in music, part of NPR's project "Hey Ladies." Suzanne Vega is still with us, also Bahamadia. We'd also like to hear from you if you're a woman in the music business; 800-9899-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's see if we - go next to Jana(ph). Is it Yana or Jana?

JANA (Caller): Jana.

CONAN: Jana in Green Bay. Go ahead.

JANA: Hi. I was just wondering, I mean, I know that Suzanne and - I'm sorry, what is your other guest's name?

CONAN: Bahamadia.

Ms. BAHAMADIA: Bahamadia.

JANA: Bahamadia. And I absolutely love your music. I've never heard you, so Im going to go look you up when I get home. But I'm just wondering, you know, if you think back to maybe times when you are looking for more support for shows. I'm sure you probably headline now, but in the days when you would be looking to be on another bill, did you find that the fans that were more male-dominated would have you, or more female-dominated? Did you find a - I guess a discrepancy in being picked?

CONAN: Bahamadia?

Ms. BAHAMADIA: Well, for me, it was always being fortunate enough to be aligned with people that were semi-established or just a tier above where I was trying to - aspire to be. And I also was in a production company, so they kind of cut out a lot of the legwork in the early my early stages of my career, in terms of placement with touring and stuff like that.

CONAN: And Suzanne Vega, what was your experience?

Ms. VEGA: I was headlining pretty early on. I mean, I - that's what I remember back in those days. So it wasn't so much - I got to pick and choose who would open for me or once in a while - I remember opening for Ferron, actually, who was a really great, Canadian, female singer-songwriter. And that was really effective. But for the most part, you're always just trying to think of like, what would make a great double bill?

JANA: Yeah. I was just wondering if you've headlined from near the beginning, did you tend to, as a female artist, pick bands because of their gender?

Ms. VEGA: Pick fans because of my gender?

CONAN: No, the fans...

JANA: That would open for you.

Ms. BAHAMADIA: The fans kind of gravitate toward you. That's been my experience.

CONAN: Yeah. I think that's the way it kind of work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: Yeah.

Ms. BAHAMADIA: Yeah.

CONAN: Jana, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Let's see, we go next to - this is Mary(ph), Mary with us from Madison.

MARY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Mary.

MARY: Hi. I am a female musician. I fronted a heavy metal band from Madison, Wisconsin, for eight years, and we were signed to a large indie, independent metal label. We just got - unfortunately - dropped from the label just last year.

CONAN: Oh.

MARY: But what I wanted to know from Bahamadia and Suzanne was how they feel about the pressure to be sexy. I went through a lot of - you know, in heavy metal, it's very male-dominated, very aggressive. The type of heavy metal I was playing was very, very heavy - not mainstream. And there was still a great pressure to be sexy. But then if you went too sexy, people didn't take you seriously, either. So I walked a tightrope for number of years, and I wanted to get your perspective on that.

CONAN: Bahamadia, why dont we hear from you first.

Ms. BAHAMADIA: Well, to reiterate what Suzanne said - like, I kind of played the androgynous sort of thing, and kind of downplayed my femininity. But thats my comfort zone for me as an individual, too. What you see is what you get, on and off the camera or stage or whatever. And also, I wanted the focal point to be my writing and my performance ability, so that's kind of what I made sure - that I honed my craft and was skilled at what I did, as well as the appearance aspect of it, image aspect of it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BAHAMADIA: Kind of like married it together.

CONAN: Well, Suzanne, it tells like you were very concerned about this kind of pressure, and made sure you were not subject to it.

Ms. VEGA: I was covered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VEGA: I covered my body from my neck pretty much down to my ankles, most of the time, on stage. But, you know, there's very - there's different definitions of what's sexy. I think you can be sexy and be covered up. You can be sexy in your voice. You can be sexy in what you sing about. You can also be completely revealed and not sexy. Ive seen that happen a few times. I think you know what I mean.

So it really - it's up to - but I've seen some singer-songwriters who were great, and who revealed themselves. Trying to think of who, exactly. But Sade, you know, I think you can think of her as sexy. And she's - she reveals herself in a kind of modest way. So there's a lot of room to play. You can be sexy and covered up. But yeah, it's an age-old problem. It's something every woman, I think, has to figure out for themselves.

BAHAMADIA: But you see, I think that kind of oversees like gender, too, because in my experience, I've just seen that it depends on the individual on how they are spiritually grounded and, well, how you determine what your position as an artist - entail, and how to exercise your voice and your power, too, in the position that you're in, as a professional.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, Mary, it's brutal in the radio business. I'm in makeup for hours before the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Is that what they say, the face for radio?

CONAN: Exactly. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. We're going to hear another tune from Suzanne Vega. But Bahamadia, I was wondering if there's something you'd like to do for us.

BAHAMADIA: I don't mind. I have a verse - I'm a purist in this hip-hop thing, so I'll always have a verse. I can do one. You want me to do it now?

CONAN: Yeah.

BAHAMADIA: I don't mind.

BAHAMADIA: Appointed as role as a musician through Yahweh's benevolent sister means being responsible, and it is a given. Humbled and honored to have his permission and his divine will, and not to send away with it. Guide those who want to be led to some provision, seeking a route of escape from their mental prisons. And the business of serving intervention compositions. Them men wounded hearts and heal broken spirits. Edify instead of entertain is my mission. I'm an agent for change and the brains of who listen. Born to inspire. Put here to push limits, cherish every minute. A total fulfillment I be getting up in existence. Gonna make me trade in the ceiling, wasn't doing what I was doing. And I wouldn't be living because my life and work were synonymous. My sanity balance is on the results of whatever comes out of it.

CONAN: Thank you very - is that available on a track?

BAHAMADIA: It was actually just an improv.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. All right. Suzanne Vega, one more from you?

Ms. VEGA: Yes, sure. This is called "New York is a Woman."

(Soundbite of music, "New York is a Woman")

Ms. VEGA: (singing) New York City spread herself before you with her bangles and her spangles and her stars. You were impressed with the city so undressed and had to go out cruising all the bars. Your business trip extended through the weekend. Suburban boy here for your first time. From the 27th floor, above the midtown roar, you were startled by her beauty and her crying.

And she's every girl you've seen in every movie. She's every dame you've ever known on late-night TV. And her steam and steel is the passion you feel endlessly. New York is a woman. She'll make you cry. And to her, you're just another guy. Look down and see her ruined places. Smoke and ash still rising to the sky. She's happy that you're here. But when you disappear, she won't know that you're gone to say goodbye.

New York is a woman. She'll make you cry. And to her, you're just another guy. And she's every girl you've seen in every movie. She's every dame you've ever known on late-night TV. And her steam and steel is the passion you feel desperately. New York is a woman. She'll make you cry. And to her you're just another guy.

CONAN: Suzanne Vega, at our bureau in New York. I daresay, that's also from "People & Places."

Ms. VEGA: Yeah.

CONAN: Volume two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. "Close Up, Volume Two." Let's see if we can get one more caller in on the conversation. Nedia(ph), Nedia is with us from Berkeley. Hello?

NEDIA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

NEDIA: Okay, great. Thank you for taking my call. My comment was, basically, I'm a mariachi musician. And I now play in an all-woman mariachi in the Bay Area.

Ms. VEGA: Hmm.

NEDIA: And each of us, as individual musicians, has played at one time or another with men mariachis because as you probably know, it's a very male-dominated genre.

Ms. VEGA: Mm-hmm.

NEDIA: And historically, women pretty much would sing as soloists but until pretty history, weren't really recognized as actual musicians, as part of the ensemble. And so my experience has been that as part of a male mariachi, as a woman musician, it was always an interesting experience, depending on the group. But usually, we were used more of an attraction to - our sensuality was played off of a lot in order to make more money, or whatever reasons. We were kind of made to flirt with the clients and sing romantic songs. And you know, sometimes that would get out of hand, and it wasn't always the most comfortable of situations, didn't always quite feel respected.

Ms. VEGA: Yes.

CONAN: And how is that different now that it's an all-woman group?

NEDIA: Well, that's the interesting thing. As an all-woman group, I think, for the first year or two that we were playing, we kind of expected that to happen on a bigger level. But the - quite the opposite has happened, where we really feel a camaraderie amongst each other, and we feel very supported. And in our engagement with the audience and clients and people that we come in contact with, there's quite a nice level of respect. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we're out there as one of the few all-woman groups that's really kind of taking on the genre and doing it on our own. So it's been a really empowering experience.

CONAN: Do you find some employers reluctant to hire an all-woman mariachi band?

NEDIA: Actually, yes. It's happened on quite a few occasions, where people who I formally had as contacts with my other groups. I tell them: Oh, wel, now, I'm with an all-woman group. And they say: Oh, we're not really - no, that's okay.

CONAN: Never mind. Never mind.

NEDIA: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: Well, we wish you good luck with it. Thank you very much. It was interesting.

NEDIA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Appreciate it the phone call. We'd like to thank our other guests as well. Bahamadia, a Philadelphia-based rapper, host of the radio show on underground Philly rap and has been on several women-only rap shows, joined us today from WHYY. Bahamadia, thanks very much.

BAHAMADIA: Thank you. I'm actually a lyricist, though. I don't consider myself to be a rapper.

CONAN: Okay.

BAHAMADIA: Maybe an emcee, yeah.

CONAN: An emcee and a lyricist.

BAHAMADIA: Yes.

CONAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you for that.

BAHAMADIA: Yeah.

CONAN: Suzanne Vega, also with us from our bureau in New York, releasing two albums of music from earlier in her career, with new recordings. We heard some of them. Thanks very much for your time.

Ms. VEGA: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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