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Director Stacey Lee on Dance Music’s Continued Gender Reckoning: ‘We Women All Shoulder This Imposter Syndrome’

We’ve all heard that the music industry is sexist, but what does that actually mean in practical terms? What does it look like to be sidelined? How does it feel to speak and not be heard?

Underplayed, a documentary released last September and launching today (March 8) on Amazon, takes a close look at the institutional divides of the electronic music scene. It run deeper than gender, tackling racial and identity inequalities with a deft, humanistic approach and introducing foundational women from the early ’60s through the present moment.

The doc offers a front row seat to uncomfortable truths, with headliners Alison Wonderland, Rezz, Nervo and Tokimonsta grappling with the self-doubt and gas-lighting, while underground stars like Tygapaw, Sherelle and Louisahhh fight for space in an often unforgiving scene. (Katie Bain, director of Billboard Dance, is also interviewed for the documentary.)

And yet, the tone remains triumphant, inspiring and joyful about the journey that remains. It’s this element of celebration and community that Underplayed director Stacey Lee most wanted to honor in the film.

“Tokimonsta explains it really well,” Lee tells Billboard. “She said in the film something like, ‘I realize it’s hard on my shoulders to talk about this issue, but I realize it’s my responsibility. I’ve made it here, and now my job is to talk about it so other people don’t have to.’ That right there is the constant battle… how do we tell the story in a way that bluntly shares the issues, but also has the solutions, and evolves?”

An outsider to the electronic scene, Lee’s film paints a moving picture of the culture. In addition to interviewing dozens of women throughout the electronic space, she tabbed veteran Chicago-based producer Kate Simko to create the film’s moody, evocative soundtrack. Tonight at 6:00 p.m. PT, Twitch’s Valerie Lee will moderate a conversation with Stacey Lee and featured producers Rezz, Tygapaw and Tokimonsta.

Here, Stacey Lee discusses the project with Billboard Dance.

Tell me about your journey as a filmmaker, and how you became interested in electronic music and giving these women a voice.

I wasn’t a connoisseur of electronic music, but I’ve always been attracted to the culture surrounding music, sports, things like that. In 2016, I was asked to do a documentary on Discwoman, the Brooklyn collective. Through that experience, I was exposed to the issues and themes. As a filmmaker and director, I was trying to be taken seriously as well. I found really beautiful parallels between what they’re experiencing: that level of respect, getting paid for your work, being taken seriously or even listened to for your ideas. It was a really insightful process to see these industries – which are worlds apart – have very common themes.

That [Discwoman project] just a short film. After that came the #MeToo movement, and all these groundswells that propelled and elevated the female voice, which is amazing. I was approached again to make a feature documentary. To be honest, I was a bit like, “We’ve talked about the subject before, and I’m sure things got a bit better.” I started doing a deep dive into the [dance] industry, looking at the statistics. I think Annenburg just brought out this study, which showed that less than 3 percent of producers and technical roles were filled by women and 0.3 percent by women of color.

That statistic made me gasp.

It took my breath away. You know there’s no even playing field, and are aware that it’s going to take a long time, but when you see a statistic like that — it’s just negligence. I spent all of early 2019 on the phone with members from all sides of the industry; mainstream artists, underground artists, talent bookers. I was trying to wrap my head around what was going on. It’s exceptionally complicated and — more the point — there’s been so much rhetoric about the issue and not a lot of movement. Everyone’s sick of talking about it, and there I was like, “OK, so what’s up?”

Let me bring a camera in your face to talk about it.

Here’s me asking for the 100th time — and I 100% relate. There was a real sensitivity before I put my foot into that camp of talking to artists, because the first thing that every single one of them said was “I don’t want to be a part of this. I don’t want to be pigeonholed.” I didn’t want to make a film that was a bunch of women complaining. My solution was to talk about diversity by showcasing diversity; of musical styles, of people, of roles within the musical industry.

There are a lot of voices in this film. 

It was, to put it bluntly, a fucking nightmare to edit. The complexity of the subject matter was really challenging, but the only way I could do it was by having many voices, because that is the truth. Everyone’s experiences are unique, but there are common themes that ran throughout, whether you’re Alison Wonderland or Tygapaw. That’s when I realized there was a film to be made.

What was your overriding approach?

I wanted to be demonstrative. I wanted the artists to not have to talk about being a woman, but actually show them doing what they do best; creating music, being badasses, being female entrepreneurs. That transcends the conversation about “I’m a woman” and just becomes “here I am as a creative person.”

I love the intimate portrait of Rezz, the bit about how she buzzes in the studio, how she can feel the world vibrating. These creatives are getting something so deep out of their process, and that’s what’s at stake.

Before I bring a camera and shove it in anybody’s face, I need to know who they are as humans. Initially with her team, it was, “you’ve got access to half a day, and that’s it.” I had to respect her, see her and figure out her boundaries. Once you have trust, you can feel it on camera. As I got to know her, you see these other sides open up, how she sees music. You understand where the hypnotic Rezz comes from, because of the way she’s thinking about it. You start to transcend reality, move with her into her mind, almost like you can visualize the music. That was an important part, and each artist is very different.

Having made the film, I care deeply [about them all]. It was important to translate who they were on screen in a real way, because I don’t think you often see that with female artists. I want them to to be aspirational. I want young girls to be like, “That could be me.”

Everyone in the film has a moment of self doubt. Tokimonsta, she’s nominated for a Grammy after retraining her brain to even understand music, and she’s sitting there wondering if they gave it to her as a gimmick.

This imposter syndrome, we women all shoulder [it] — like we accidentally got here.

You opened the film with Suzanne Ciani. She’s older, and I was embarrassed to first learn about her here. Then you show us Delia Derbyshire, who she is even older, and Suzanne hadn’t heard of her. We have the same experience. Was that intentional?

Oh, 100 percent. The legacy story is so important. The very roots of this multi-billion-dollar industry are founded on the shoulders of these very avant-garde, wacky, crazy scientist women who were doing this mad shit.

That line about how festivals need to sell tickets and can’t afford to book lesser-known women, it’s poignant that it’s delivered by a woman. It shows there’s not a cartoonish bunch of men saying, “You can’t pass.” It’s very institutional, and I don’t think that woman is trying to hold up the patriarchy. She’s probably got a million people in her ear screaming about a bottom line.

Oh yeah, she’s a really lovely person, and she’s doing the best she can. It’s deep-set. I think it’s harder in North America. In Europe, the issue is more politicized. The Key Change initiative, which pushes for diversity in bookings, is embedded in the EU, working from the top down from an institutional point of view. North America is much more commercially driven.

You filmed this in 2019, before COVID changed the world. These people haven’t played a show in a long time, and it made me very concerned for Tygapaw and Sherelle, who were just getting by as is. How are they in 2021?

They’re all good. I get the sense a lot of the mainstream artists, in the beginning, [saw it] as nice to have a break. Tokimonsta had a rough start because her album came out just as COVID hit, but she’s such an innovative woman. All of them are female entrepreneurs. Tygapaw, every opportunity that ever happened for her, she’s created. When no one would book her, she created her own party. When no one would sign her, she created her own label. She built her world. She’s so talented, and she’s climbed infinite numbers of barriers over and over again. It’s tough for the artists like her financially, but she’s also incredibly prolific. She just released an album. She’s doing incredibly well in the press. Once COVID is over, there’s just no stopping her.

Sherelle, that woman is just absolute badass. She had a BBC Essential Mix. She was a guest host. She was actually a journalist herself. She told me she once traveled with Nina Kraviz to the Great Wall of China. She was on the BBC news speaking on behalf of electronic artists. She’s an incredible advocate, and she was on the cover of DJ Mag, fastest breakthrough star of 2019.

I also wanna ask about that awkward moment during Alison Wonderland’s rehearsal where she’s being mansplained to about her own ability to hear the monitors. She ends up firing him and hiring a female engineer. What was it like to be in the room for that?

She’s got her own videographer. Before we starting working with her, she sent us footage of the rehearsal so we could prepare to be in the space. I was combing through it, and I was like, “hang on.” We started watching, and she’s trying to talk the whole way through this rehearsal. She’s irritated, trying to tell them something’s wrong, and nothing’s happening. He’s not even looking at her. He won’t talk to her. When we arrived to film the next rehearsal, we saw the woman there and it all clicked into place for us.

That right there is probably the biggest commonality that exists for women working in the creative field; not being listened to. As successful as Alison is — undeniably talented, composed every single musical element in that whole thing — if that happens to her, you can only imagine what it’s like for an artist coming up.

I would be remiss if I did not ask: Who are those incredible women dancing throughout the film?

That’s Jore Marshall and Margo Libanga. Dance music is a spiritual experience, and I wanted something that [matched] the feeling of being in a club, moving and having that experience [with everyone around you]. It was also important because there’s so much information in the film. I wanted spiritual pauses where we could transition from one thing to the next without being hit in the face with some other challenge or issue or person. As a filmmaker, I don’t like to just show a bunch of talking heads. It’s important to spiritually and visually connect.

Sounds like you’ve been indoctrinated into dance music culture.

I’m literally a mother of two. I just had a baby four months ago, and I had one just before filming. I’m used to being up all night feeding a baby, and here I am at a rave. But that’s being a woman. We can do all this shit.

I love the Nervo elements of motherhood, too, where they’re like, “You have the two red USBs? The baby is over there. You got the pump?”

I relate to that. I would be asking interview questions and holding on to a baby. It’s just part of it. Women always wear many hats.

Is there anything else about the film you’d like to mention?

I don’t want this film to be passive. I want this to be a jumping off point for interaction and conversation. I never got to have all these women together to talk about it in one place. [They all saw it on their own], and no one ever came back and said, “you have to change this or do that.”

The biggest most surprising thing was how they resonated with each other. In the screening we did with Rezz in Toronto, she was tweeting at Nervo and Tokimonsta and Tygapaw. There are so few of them at the top. There was this epiphany when they realized, “I’m not the only one this happens to…” I think they were all able to see each other, and see themselves in each other.

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