Jackie Queens is not just a vocalist, writer or label owner — or not “just.” When the writers of the great mystery of life call someone “a force of nature,” a person like Jackie Queens is who they have in mind.
As a music lover I’ve stalked her voice from track to track across the internet, most recently on “Higher” on Anané Vega’s Nulu Music, and on past collaborations with Zepherin Saint (Tribe), Freiboitar (House Trained) and Cornelius SA (Get Physical). I knew almost nothing about her other than I loved her tone and her style. In fact, when we first conceived this feature of shining a spotlight on vocalists in 5 Mag, Jackie Queens was the first name on my list.
Born in Zimbabwe and living in South Africa, Jackie Queens has spent as much time promoting the work of her peers as she has promoting herself. She’s formed a label, Bae Electronica, for her own tracks as well as to promote work by women who are producers (check out “Tropic City” by Gina Jeanz and Mumbi Kasumba and remixes by Freerange frequent flyer Simbad). At the end of 2020 groove.de published her thorough, 3,000 word overview “Heard But Not Seen: The Untold Story of Women in Afro House” hailing the genre’s “beacons of resilience, resistance and inspiration.”
It costs nothing to give a vocalist an “&.”
“Within Afro house, the genre I sing,” she writes, “there are no mainstream explorations of the journeys, influence and lived realities of Afro House vocalists. A firm fixture on global setlists and playlists, much attention is paid to the male progenitors and artists in the genre. DJs and producers from Johannesburg, New York and Berlin have their day in the sun with little light cast upon the voices that carry the sound from Ibiza to Greece, London, Dubai, Zimbabwe and the edges of Kenyan sunsets.”
Based on these experiences and the learned experiences of others, Jackie put together a short handbook called “Making Music Together,” which ought to be printed up and handed out by ASCAP to every aspiring producer and vocalist working in electronic music (and hip hop, and R&B). Though originally aimed at South African producers and vocalists, “Making Music Together” is eminently relatable across genres and international frontiers, offering practical advice on navigating everything from mastering and distribution to copyright, publishing, royalty splits and other issues that may arise when there’s a disparity in power or information between two or more partners in a collaboration.
I sent the link to “Making Music Together” to a vocalist I know with 20 years in the business. She told me her hands were shaking. “The first part of my career would have been so different if someone showed me this,” she said.
“For anything to be worthwhile,” Jackie says, “it has to be accessible to people who need it the most. I’ll feel like the work is truly done when I accomplish that.”
Photos by Andy Mkosi.
You were born in Zimbabwe and live in South Africa. What can you tell us about your youth?
Curiosity and exploration are the best ways to describe my youth. I read a lot as a teenager and enjoyed trying out new things. I didn’t grow up with a music career in mind, but I recall it being a central part of my life. Whether on radio, tape and later CDs — we had plenty of music — participating in the choir and dancing in school. The thing that stands out about my youth is that music was omnipresent. I have a song for every moment in my life.
What do you think you learned from those experiences?
Perseverance and inquisitiveness. My mother always used to say, “That’s life.” It wasn’t until I got older that I realised the gravity of those two words. I thought she was flippant, but it makes sense now, especially in these times. We cannot control the pendulum of life; it swings as it will. As a result, the only thing left is what we can control. And when you focus on what you can do, the possibilities are endless. I wish I knew then what I know now. But “that’s life” haha!
What sort of music and what sort of musicians and vocalists inspired you?
Growing up, we had a lot of jazz, R&B, hip hop and soul music in the house. My mum would put on one of her jazz tapes and halfway through it Boyz II Men would interject haha! I remember dubbing radio shows on them and watching Michael Jackson’s Bucharest concert on VHS a million times. DSTV (cable TV) introduced me to house music via Channel O; Cece Penniston, Robin S, Black Box, Crystal Waters etc. They played a lot of Blue Six and South African music too on Channel O. On the local spectrum, I loved sungura music. And of course, Congolese rumba music Kanda Bongo Man was a favourite.
What was the first track you worked on that was released, and what do you think of it now?
My first release was with DJ Satelite from Angola called “Fire.” It went out on Dualism Records in 2013 with some remixes — my favourite: the Jiggx version. I cherish it to this day because I wrote it for my mother; it encapsulates the idea of strength in vulnerability. DJ Satelite released several remixes after, but the original offering will always be the one for me.
Just scrolling through Traxsource shows 22 tracks with you on them in 2020 alone. That is a staggering amount of work for a vocalist. I want to make a Jackie Queens playlist and you are the authority: What tracks should I start with? What do you think best represents or introduces you to a new audience and why?
That’s funny because I only released a couple new records last year. Those are probably remixes or compilations. I’d say, start with “Conqueror,” “Mwanangu,” “No Limit,” “Read My Mind” and “All Life Long.” I think the defining thing about me as a vocalist is my versatility and uplifting lyrics. I subscribe to the precepts of house music’s foundations. My personal philosophy is for my music to embody what cultural producer and scholar DJ Lynnée Denise calls “misery resistance.” We may cry, but we can dance at the same time.
Tell me about your label, Bae Electronica.
My baby label! I call it that because it’s like a child to me. I started it in 2015, initially to release music rejected or delayed by labels I sent demos to. Now I use it to showcase my collaborations and to provide a platform for women who are producers. More importantly, to teach me the mechanics of the recording and publishing side of the business. Class is always in session, every day I graduate from the school of Bae Electronica haha! It’s tough. I don’t release projects often because I run it on my own, I have a day job, but I enjoy it, and I am proud of the work I’ve put out. A couple of tracks have been nominated for awards here in South Africa, and I’ve licensed music to Get Physical, Tribe Records and others. One of my first international reviews was in this magazine! So yeah, I’m very proud.
You wrote “Heard But Not Seen: The Untold Story of Women in Afro House” and I was astonished because we’d been turning over the same ideas here. There is general ignorance of the vocalists of house music, which was the one area women in electronic music were well represented in for many years. I think this is moreover an institutional ignorance and one encouraged by institutions rather than confronted. How did the experiences of other women compare with your own experiences?
For the most part, the experiences were the same. I could speak ad nauseam about discrimination, sexism, racism and erasure, but I prefer not to focus on that. Not to glamourize adversity, obstacles carve the way. I appreciate how women in the industry are supportive of each other, defiant, outspoken and tenacious. We’re similar in that way. That said, I think we tend to view vocalists as a monolith. Sometimes the assumption is we all suffer, need or want the same things. That’s why it was vital for me to write a piece about Afro-house vocalists. Most writing focuses on vocalists from the UK and US. We don’t have enough intercontinental or intergenerational conversations within dance music generally and as women. Writing the stories of three women in parallel but differently situated taught me a lot about nuance and the appreciation of difference.
My belief after 15 years covering this industry is that part of it is money — producers pay for the PR, and they have every reason to encourage their own cult of genius. But there’s another factor, too. We kind of forget that Loleatta Holloway was dragged into house music. She didn’t come here voluntarily: she was one of the first victims of sampling. The producers and writers of the samples usually got paid, she usually did not. She often expressed a love/hate relationship with the music that otherwise loved her so much. And I think that framed so many relationships — between producers and DJs and vocalists, and between men and women, and between white artists and black artists — for a long time, until newcomers had enough of it. What do you feel about it?
I agree. Even as culture and technology advance people hold on to archaic notions about collaboration, ownership, copyright, and music dissemination, for various reasons. Mostly personal gain and profit. For example, for a few years now, I’ve insisted that I’m a primary artist on a release because it contributes to streams. I’m a house music vocalist through and through. Collaborations are the lifeblood of what I do, it needs to reflect in my numbers, and as we know, numbers are currency now (among other things). But people often reject that because they view the song as “theirs” and speaking to your point about PR, in their minds, it means we must now share everything including the costs for the release. Collaboration then takes on the meaning of shared financial responsibility. Yet, the same people do not view paying royalties, equitable splits, or credits etc. as collaboration obligations. It costs nothing to give a vocalist an “&” or if you have a budget for PR to formulate a plan with a couple of angles to include the vocalist to reach a wider audience. But producers don’t see it that way. Instead, they say “if vocalists want to grow their careers they should make original music.” That’s shortsighted. Given the inequity between careers, races, gender — currently and historically — it doesn’t make sense for a vocalist to collaborate in this way if she’s doing multiple features a year. An approach from the standpoint of redress, empowerment, equity, and reflection on one’s position and resources would steer collaborations in another direction.
My personal philosophy is for my music to embody what cultural producer & scholar DJ Lynnée Denise calls “misery resistance.” We may cry, but we can dance at the same time.
When I showed a vocalist I know your document “Making Music Together,” her response was that she wished to God something like this existed when she started. I think this should be in schools, worldwide, because copyright law is worldwide. Can you describe this project and the response to it?
Thank you for sharing it! Although I wrote the guide focusing on South African house music producers and vocalist resources, people often tell me the information translates across countries and genres. I am grateful it’s relatable. The guide exists for composers to know what to do from their first song by covering the basics; working together, splits, paperwork, how to collect your royalties, publishing and how to release your music independently. The response was so overwhelming I cried once haha! Or maybe I needed to cleanse my lockdown blues haha! Since I published it in June 2020, readers have accessed it 1,000 times, and the pdf version downloaded 800 times. I’d love to translate it into South African languages to close what I believe is a vast gap in artist education here, accessibility. For anything to be worthwhile, it has to be accessible to people who need it the most. I’ll feel like the work is truly done when I accomplish that.
It is hard enough for one person to succeed on even a basic level in this business, but you devote so much of yourself to helping other people. That is so impressive to me. Is there a price to pay for being an activist artist? Based on your releases, this doesn’t seem to have impacted your career! Or does it simply keep the shady types out of your way?
I’ve encountered the angry black woman trope haha. You know where people won’t work with me based on perceptions that I’m “difficult” or talk too much. I guess one would call that a price. Simultaneously, the world is enormous, and many artists are tired of the opaque and exploitative ways the industry works.
In a way, yes, it’s helped to keep the shady types at bay. I love sharing what I know and working with people who have integrity. My career is more prosperous because of it. I encourage people to help and walk with others along their journey. When the time comes to part at the fork in the road to travel alone, you’ll shine wherever we go.
Chez Damier challenged me many years ago to ask artists not “who were your teachers?” but “who are your students?” His point was that knowledge may elevate us, but it’s wasted if it’s not shared. Who are your students?
I agree 100%, and I love this question. It made me think about who I imagine I’m talking to when I go off on social media hahaha. Honestly, I don’t know. I guess my students are anyone who wants to do better in this music thing. I’m wary of seeing myself as a role model or someone people look up to because I’m not perfect. So most of what I put out is on the back of rigorous learning and genuine curiosity. I guess my students are people like me, who may not have the tools or the knowledge but want to do better. We’re learning together.
Who inspires you to lift up your voice now?
Right now? Annabel Ross, Funk Butcher, Marcus Barnes and Crystal Mioner have written courageously in the past year and continue to inspire me through action. Andreea Magdalina and Nadia Khan whose work with women in music has opened my eyes to what is possible right now when we build communities with shared interests.
What are sites and publications in Europe and the US missing about the music scene in South Africa?
That’s a tough one, but I think they’re missing a greater understanding of South African house music’s broadness. I recently read a piece by Miranda Reinert, where she advocates for narrow journalism. Rosh talks about this too in his letter to Resident Advisor about localizing coverage, moving away from individualistic reporting centered on big names and commissioning writers who know about local scenes instead of relying on PR or what’s popular.
What was 2020 for you, Jackie, and what will 2021 bring?
2020 was a hamster wheel of lessons. That’s the best way to describe it. I learnt so much about myself. I still am. 2021 will probably bring more learning haha. I’m planning on going back to university to do a masters in something creative entrepreneurship-related. Maybe some releases. Music is not a priority at the moment.
I took the risk to expand Bae Electronica into an agency during our first lockdown in partnership with Jarrad Tregger, who runs a booking agency here and is all sorts of knowledgeable on global dance music. We manage DJ/producers who are women. Now I am responsible for their success while keeping optimistic about the future. It’s daunting, but I’m always up for a challenge.
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