Girls Rock London: the initiative addressing gender imbalance in the music industry

Girls Rock London aims to create a safe space for women and marginalised genders in music (Handout)
Girls Rock London aims to create a safe space for women and marginalised genders in music (Handout)

As the dust has now settled from the jubilations of 2023’s BRIT Awards, the focus has shifted away from Sam Smith’s viral red-carpet look, and back to wider issues in the music industry.

Representation of women, transgender and non-binary artists has always been a problem. The 2023 BRIT Award nominations clearly showed that things still haven’t changed, with the move to gender inclusive award categories proving counterproductive by resulting an all-male shortlist for Best Artist, further alienating female artists and artists of marginalised genders.

On the red carpet on the night, Charlie XCX, who was not nominated for Best Artist despite her album Crash hitting number one in the UK charts last year, responded to the snub of female artists, saying, “We’re doing everything right. I don’t think it’s our fault. I think it might be theirs.”

 (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
(Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Of course, the issue of representation is not localised to a single award ceremony – it’s a wider concern throughout the industry, starkly seen everywhere from boardrooms to festival line-ups.

Musician Jessie Maryon Davies is trying to do something about it. She is co-founder and co-director of Hackney-based charity Girls Rock London (GRL), an initiative which provides a high-quality music and industry training programme for women, girls, transgender, and non-binary musicians, and for people with other marginalised gendered experiences. This weekend, they’ll launch an album GRL - Complation #1 and musical showcase that celebrates women, trans and non-binary people at Signature Brew in Haggerston.

Davies says that while representation for marginalised genders in the music is improving, there is still more work to be done.

“There still remain plenty of industry roles that are male dominated, for example, management and backline staff. Good work is happening to improve equality on festival line ups, for example, but we need to look at who makes the decisions and controls the system.

“Stereotyping is a huge barrier. Marginalised genders still face pressure and expectation on how they should be, what they should look and sound like,” she continues. “We’ve heard lots of stories from women always being expected to be the vocalist, in one instance, even whilst carrying a guitar case on their back; being patronised by sound engineers, and being paid less than men.”

GRL co-founder Jessie Maryon Davies with support facilitator MIRI (Handout)
GRL co-founder Jessie Maryon Davies with support facilitator MIRI (Handout)

The GRL initiative aims to tackle these issues by giving women and marginalised genders a creative space with like-minded people.

She said: “We run music programmes to give people the tools and confidence to take up space and express themselves. Our young people get to see marginalised genders occupying roles that they may have only previously seen men taking. You can’t be what you can’t see!”

Professional musician MIRI is a support facilitator for the project, and has been involved with GRL since 2018.

“There’s a need for girls, women, trans and non-binary folk to have the tools and nature to take up space, and music to create and express,” she says.

“Although I’m a musician myself, I usually work as wellbeing support. It’s incredible, in that short space of time, how you see the young people elevate.”

Though the work the project does has been helping female artists and those from marginalised genders with their careers in music, MIRI insists the industry as a whole should be doing more.

“It could be funding them and backing them. Only fourteen percent of songwriters and composers signed to publishing companies are women – that’s a really small percentage.

“That’s not because there’s not talented songwriters out there who are women and gender diverse, that’s because marginalised folk are being shut out by the industry. If you look at the award ceremonies as well, there’s a genuine issue.”

She can see why, of course. “Why would they want to give up space when that means giving up money? That’s why a lot of artists like myself have ended up being DIY artists.”

West Midlands-based musician Pav Rai, band member of The D@W$, which takes part in the GRL project, agrees. “Structures have such a specific way of operating, why would they change the way they’re operating if it’s working for them?”

She says that the charity’s unique community of female musicians is a “special place”.

GRL runs workshops for women and artists from marginalised genders (Handout)
GRL runs workshops for women and artists from marginalised genders (Handout)

“Girls Rock London is very trauma-informed in the way they do things; you’re really guided through everything. We’ve had loads of workshops with different artists who have different niche specialties.

“We have workshops on how to build your network, use specific software for music and even have a partnership with a sound collective who are brought in, and you can speak to them whenever – they’re there to help you.”

Initially working with the charity as a guitar tutor, Pav went on to join the initiative as a musician and took part in activities hosted by GRL including a youth camp offered by the project.

“They have spaces where you can take time out if it’s getting too much or you’re feeling a little anxious, and no one will question you – you literally just take care of yourself – it’s so progressive.”

Starting her career working in radio, it wasn’t until she came to London that she was able to connect with GRL, where she got her first insight of a female dominated environment.

“My experience before has been very typical – being overlooked unless you know people, unless you fit into a specific category – you’re not really taken seriously, you’re not really booked for the right reasons. Especially being a brown female, it’s also another challenge as well.”

“With all these experiences, you just learn so much. You’re treated as a bit of a novelty. Things aren’t as bad as they were, people aren’t asking ‘what’s a brown woman doing on stage?’, but they’re surprised that you can play guitar.”

Her experience with the project has made her feel safe, around like-minded people, and able to network without feeling like there are any ulterior motives.

“I’ll meet someone, usually a dude if he plays guitar, and I’ll try to maintain a connection because we like the same things, and they’re going in with the mindset of ‘I want to date this person’, so being in a female collective just gives you that piece of mind that most of the time, that’s not what it’s about.”

Girls Rock London album GRL - Complation #1 is released the same day as their musical showcase on February 25 at Signature Brew, Haggerston.