Creating Synergy: From production to lyrics, this album is all women

Jovan Landry, self portrait

Jovan Landry, self portrait

by Nadirah Simmons

Billboard called music production “the ultimate boys club of the industry,” and it’s true. Since the introduction of the Grammy category for producer of the year, non-classical in 1975, only a handful of women — including Janet Jackson, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, and Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin from Prince‘s band The Revolution — have been nominated. No woman has ever won it. Beyond shiny trophies, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift are the only two women to land on Billboard‘s year-end Top Producers chart in the last decade. Yes, you read that right.

The disparity is just as evident when you look at Hip-Hop. Despite the presence of chart-topping women on the mic like Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, the majority of the producers are men. In fact, most Hip-Hop fans probably can’t name enough woman Hip-Hop producers to count on one hand.

Enter SYNERGY, a Chicago-based collaborative Hip-Hop album curated by Jovan Landry. The idea came to Landry, a filmmaker, photographer and emcee based in Chicago a few years back when she noticed the lack of opportunities for women to produce Hip-Hop music.

The album will not only feature some of the hottest women emcees in Chicago, but every producer, engineer, videographer, photographer and graphic designer involved with the project is a woman.

The Gumbo talked to Landry about her introduction to Hip-Hop, the importance of creating a collaborative album by women only and how the culture of Chicago influences the music of its people.

The Gumbo: We haven’t really seen a major collaborative album like this yet. What made you decide to do this?
Jovan: It hasn’t been done which is crazy. Hip-Hop has been around for 40+ years, and we have not seen an album created entirely by women yet…And I was like this needs to happen, we’re long overdue. No one in the mainstream world has done it yet. So let’s make it happen.

You’re spearheading this entire project, when did you first get into Hip-Hop?
My mom definitely introduced it me. The Fugees, Mary J. Blige, all the Hip-Hop and R&B of the 90s. I was five or six years old. And I remember in middle school when I would print out lyrics and read along to them, and I never thought how that would impact me as an artist.

You are a well-rounded artist - a filmmaker, photographer and an emcee, when did you decide that you wanted to make music on your own?
Ten years ago. I’ve always been interested in music and I had a fascination with music production. And my cousin introduced me to Fruity Loops where I could make beats and stuff. I didn’t know I could download this software and create [music] at home, I thought you had to be established with a studio. Once I found that out I asked my grandma to buy me a keyboard and a microphone, and when I got those things it I started making beats at 16 or 17.

I was having fun doing what I loved to do, it kind of chose me.

Hip-Hop, as we both know, is not a space where women are often positioned at the forefront. Despite so many of us having this true love for the culture and origin stories like the one you shared.
I blame social media for that. You can get so famous so fast by putting out music. So when someone finds out that something works they do what works to get on and get famous without understanding the craft. 

And now you’ve created something to combat just that. When did you get the idea for SYNERGY?
In 2016, my mentor is a former emcee said she wanted to see a female rap album. And she wasn’t telling me to do it but it stayed in my head. So being in the Chicago scene or the music scene in general, you come across women that are doing it. So I started bartering with people saying hey if you become a part of my project I’ll take your photos or shoot your video.

Then in May of 2017 I checked one of my groups on GroupMe and there was an application for the WeWork Creator awards. They asked for a 90 second video on who you are, why you’re passionate about what you’re doing and what the idea is. So I made a video and told them about the idea and how I wanted to compensate women in these industries. A week or two later I became a finalist.

…[I went to Detroit] for the ceremony and I was waiting behind the curtains with all of the people in my category. And they were like “introducing all of the winners of the grant” and I was like “woah.”

That’s amazing! How did you find all the women for the project?
Well most of them I was already connected with. Finding filmmakers and artists was the easy part. But finding women who produce Hip-Hop music was hard, and I had to branch out of Chicago a little bit. 

What is the makeup of the team like?
Are you dope, can you flow and what’s your message? What can you bring artistically? And then I have queer women on here, it’s predominantly Black, women of different sizes, masculine and feminine - anybody that’s dope who can spit, has the delivery and can bounce ideas off of everyone. It’s all different types of women […]I just want women who agree with having a project like this, who are dedicated, who can commit and who are also willing to share a gift like this.

It’s not Jovan Landry featuring an artist, it’s almost like a DJ-Khaled style [album]. I’m not rapping on every track. I’m giving these women platforms to speak.

There are so many good artists from Chicago, for someone who is not from Chicago or who is an outsider how does the culture of the city influence the creative people that live there?
Our music is definitely based on the justice system and we definitely use it to write out our pain and what’s going on in the world. Our neighborhoods are super segregated-as diverse as they are…That influences it. Also the people that came from the city. Twista, Shawnna, Kanye West, Common, it’s so many influences. And Chicago is home of Blues. Just everything that is around us.

What makes Chicago different from all of the other regions when it comes to Hip-Hop?
That Blues and that Soul is really different…We’re also home of footworking so our beats are very different.

Aside from sound the culture of it-it’s hard. It’s hard to get people to rock with you in Chicago. I’ve gone to New York and people have shown way more respect and love. Being able to strip their ego and say “oh, I really like your music!”

How do you feel about the current state of Hip-Hop as a whole?
Even though there is some negativity mainstream wise, because we have social media and we can be self-sufficient and not have to join a label it’s very diverse. I really like where it’s going…I’m more about the message. Like what are we saying? Because art is so impactful. [The music] has to have some longevity.

I ask everybody this, who is in your Top 5?
Method Man, Left Eye, Kendrick Lamar, Common, Missy Elliott. They represent my style of rap.

That’s a really good list. I love Left Eye and I feel like people leave her out of their rap conversations.
I was a part of this show at Columbia College and I had auditioned as Eve and they said “oh, you’re going to do Left Eye.” I didn’t know that much about her but when I had to research her I learned so much and that’s how she became one of my Top 5. Not only her mind but her lyrics are really good too.

Where do you see SYNERGY five years now?
I would like to do workshops and go to New York and teach a workshop on how to make create something like SYNERGY. Having round table discussions and creating an event centered around women in Hip-Hop globally. I just want to keep the conversation going and keep the music coming out.