Being a woman in the music industry is no easy task. With festival lineups dominated by men, alternative charts nearly devoid of female artists, and pop songwriters constantly pitted against one another by the media, women in music face challenges men in the industry never have to.
These issues are nothing new, and trying to fix these problems is no easy task. But one Portland-born organization is up to the challenge.
As we mentioned last summer, #WomenCrush is the brainchild of Portland artist Ashley Kervabon (Ashley Xtina). In the beginning, #WomenCrush was a series of showcases hosted at Portland’s Jade Lounge for women songwriters in the city. Since then, it’s expanded at a rapid pace, gaining traction in cities across North America, from New York to Nashville to Vancouver, British Columbia. After only a year, the nonprofit is now hosted in 13 cities, with more than 20 internationally soon to come, and includes in its ranks more than 40 artists in Portland alone.
“It’s become this movement to connect women in music and create more opportunities for them,” says Kervabon of her organization. “Though I had no idea it was going to become this international thing.”
Kervabon’s movement has been one long in the making. Its early inspiration came from her own experiences as a woman in the music industry. Throughout her life, she’s been in many positions, from her time in public relations, to working the box office at a venue, to being an artist herself. Inspiration came as her experiences exposed the problems women face in the music industry.
“When I was 19, I was working at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City,” says Kervabon. “I met so many amazing musicians working the box office there, and a very well-known writer for a very well-known publication. At the time, I really wanted to be a music journalist. I was friendly to him, and he knew me by name.
“One day, it had gotten to the point in college where I was applying for internships. He’d known me for about a year, so I asked him, ‘Hey, I was wondering if maybe you were looking for an intern this semester. I could intern for you.’
“He said, ‘Why would I do that?’
“'Doesn’t your publication hire interns?'
“‘Well, my publication would never hire a woman,’ he said."
This was only one of many situations Kervabon faced in the industry. From her time at the Iridium, Kervabon gained knowledge on booking. Later, she went on to become an artist herself, and came to another realization.
“You literally have to be a businesswoman, and when I realized that you can’t just be an artist and that’s that, I majored in communications and started on a PR and marketing route.”
With experience in booking, PR, marketing and songwriting, the pieces of the puzzle that would become #WomenCrush began to come together.
After much time spent in her native New York, Kervabon sought a change of setting, moving to Portland in 2015. With a new city and a fresh start, she aimed to make connections and found yet another problem.
“I didn’t know how to get connected here. Like, how do you do that? Do you go on Craigslist? Just start going to shows? You don’t really know how to begin when you just move somewhere and you don’t know anybody.”
This is when #WomenCrush was unofficially born. Seeking to make connections and meet more women in the Portland music scene, Kervabon started the Jade Lounge showcases. Soon, all of her experience and hardships came together into one passion project.
“That’s when a lightbulb went off in my head,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can do something about this.’”
Through the Jade Lounge showcases, Kervabon quickly made connections throughout the city and began to use her experience to help other women who faced the same challenges she had.
“I’d gone down all these roads, and now I was in a place where I could ask, ‘What do I wish I could’ve told myself then?’”
With support behind her and more Portland artists joining her cause, #WomenCrush grew rapidly, and Kervabon used her position and insight to become an artist mentor, helping other women in the Portland scene overcome the obstacles they were facing. As she continued to work to grow the cause, she realized her place wasn’t in the spotlight as an artist.
“I realized I was more proud watching other artists grow and being a part of that growth than I ever was about my own music.”
As the movement grew, the work involved began to outweigh what Kervabon herself could tackle. Thus, the #WomenCrush movement became #WomenCrush Music the nonprofit organization. Now with its own chapters across the US and Canada, each city is host to its own showcases and headed by its own chapter leaders. Kervabon herself oversees all Portland operations, and another Portland artist, Kingsley, watches over it all.
Kingsley, real name Moe Lincoln, is the Queen of Operations, or QOO, for #WomenCrush. After meeting Kervabon in March of last year through one of the Jade Lounge showcases, a friendship was ignited. Now, as the QOO for the nonprofit, Lincoln oversees all the chapter leaders in every city, making sure they’re booking the venues and doing the work that will keep #WomenCrush afloat.
Lincoln herself faced many challenges in the industry that made the work Kervabon was doing with her organization stand out.
“As a woman, some people don’t treat you as a musician,” she says. “I had someone comment on a song I posted saying, ‘Your voice sounds yummy.’ Would you ever say that to a man?”
In her own music, Lincoln seeks to push the boundaries of genre. This bold creativity boasts even more obstacles for her as a woman of color in the industry.
“Being a black artist, you’re expected to sing jazz or R&B, and that’s it,” she says. “But I like different music, and when you’re flipping through your songs, you don’t stick with one genre. You’re listening to a blues track, then you’ll skip to a rock track. I want my whole album to sound like that, and I don’t want anyone to tell me I can’t do it.”
This creative choice is exactly what #WomenCrush seeks to support. Without the help of other women and a community to stand behind them, such talented artists as Kingsley, Kervabon and the plethora of female songwriters hidden within Portland’s underground would not get the recognition they deserve.
“With #WomenCrush, we’re creating community,” says Kervabon. “We’re educating and making sure these women are connecting with the right people.
“We need to keep supporting each other and inspiring each other. It’s not all about growing our own careers, it’s supporting everyone else too.”
With #WomenCrush continuing to grow, the goals the organization hopes to achieve are endless. By creating this community, each artist and chapter can help one another, providing resources for artists to know what venues to book, what producers to trust and how to best market themselves to gain the recognition the industry doesn’t pay them.
Says QOO Lincoln, “I joined #WomenCrush because it felt good to be supported by women. In the music world, we’re often pitted against one another. It’s this catty world where only one person can make it, and it’s so not true. Going forward, I want to see this internationally. In every city. I want the world to honor these talented women the way they should be honored.”
Even in its early stages, #WomenCrush has already accomplished exactly what it intended to. Singer-songwriter Jessa Campbell tells of her own involvement with the organization, and how it helped her as a new artist to the Portland scene.
“I just moved to Portland last summer, and I saw something about #WomenCrush online. I reached out to [Kervabon], and she invited me to play at a showcase at the Portland Saturday Market downtown. She mentioned she worked with artists, and if I would be interested in working with a publicist. I needed press, and didn’t know anything about that world. I had never done anything like that with my music before. It had always been on the backburner since I had my son. So it felt like a good time to see what could happen through working with #WomenCrush.”
After becoming involved with the organization, Kervabon and #WomenCrush Music helped Campbell finish her latest EP, and even booked her a headline show for its premiere at The Old Church, featuring all women artists on the bill.
This is the world Kervabon wanted to see. An industry where women support women, help each other face the obstacles the music scene throws at them, and let talented artists thrive. As the organization continues to grow, more and more will be possible. With a community of artists in every city, it’s the hope of #WomenCrush that the representation of women in music can grow to the heights it should have always been.