Mary J. Blige was on hand at ASCAP’s inaugural She Is the Music song camp Oct. 17-19 in Nashville where female songwriters, engineers and producers gathered for three days to collaborate.
She Is the Music was created in response to a music industry report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which revealed huge inequalities for female musicians. Co-founded by Alicia Keys, Universal Music Publishing Group Chairman and CEO Jody Gerson, Grammy Award-winning engineer Ann Mincieli and WME partner and head of East Coast Music Samantha Kirby, She is the Music partnered with ASCAP to curate the camp, which featured a diverse group of women from multiple genres and backgrounds to pen songs for the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul as well as duo The Sisterhood and country singer Caylee Hammack.
“This is the one event this year we’ve been so excited about. We’ve done a ton of songwriter camps but we’ve never done all female songwriters and producers,” ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews told Billboard at the song camp’s kickoff party on Oct. 16 at Ron Fair’s Faircraft Studio. “The number one thing I hope comes out of this song camp is these women form long-lasting connections with one another. I think forming those connections, networking, having the bonds of friendship — that will carry them through their entire life, well beyond their songwriting career.”
Blige, who was introduced to the Nashville songwriting community for the first time during her visit, agreed.
“There’s so much power when you see women come together. It’s very hard for women to come together because it’s such a male-dominated world, male-dominated industry. It makes it hard on us so we’re hard on each other,” she confessed. “When you see us actually have the confidence and the courage to come together to do something great like this, it’s a blessing.”
Blige explained that the vibe of a writing session is often different with females as women tend to lay it all out in the room, making for better songs. “Songwriting is an art. You have to be transparent in order to get people to look at your art,” she added.
Country singer-songwriter Jillian Jacqueline was one of several songwriters invited to take part in the song camp. She credits female songwriters in helping her find her voice as an artist.
“For the most part, I tend to gravitate towards female writers because there’s no substitute for people completely understanding your experience and your perspective,” she explained. “If we all get together in a room and break all the walls and the myths and concepts down to talk about what it is to be where we are and describe what we’re going through, bonds happen. Connection happens. Those are the things people can’t take away from you — the human connection. That’s why this is so essential.”
Songwriters Priscilla Renea (“Timber,” Pitbull; “California King,” Rihanna) and Emily Weisband (“Thy Will,” Hillary Scott; “Consequences,” Camila Cabello) also shared the struggles and triumphs they’ve faced as females. Renae, who is based in Los Angeles, has written frequently in Nashville. She admits that the current climate has opened the door for an all-female song camp to happen.
“There is a culture and there is a system in place that says if you’re a woman, you’re either a girlfriend, a wife, a runner, or you work at the label, you’re an artist or you’re here for my pleasure,” Renae said. “I’ve experienced this [where] I walk in the room and somebody will say, ‘Oh, you’re here with so-and-so.’ And I’m like, ‘No, this is my session.’ I think that’s the most encouraging thing about this [song camp]. Women are going to walk away feeling confident.”
While Weisband credits Nashville’s songwriting community for teaching her about clarity and honesty, she notes that women are intuitive in the writing room whereas men share a different perspective.
“Women are willing to go places emotionally or go to more tender places that men don’t always go,” she explained. “It’s nice to hear a song from a woman very in-tune with emotions. I do think men hear those songs and connect with them because at the end of the day we’re all human. There’s definitely a tenderness, wisdom, and emotion that women tap into.”
This vulnerability was evident when Blige visited each songwriting group. Jacqueline and Renae were paired with Ingrid Burley (“Love Drought,” Beyonce) and producer Ali Stone, and had begun working on a song when Blige walked into their session to chat. Having recently gone through a divorce, Blige told the songwriters that she had been feeling lost.
“I don’t think that things keep happening so I can suffer in front of the world. I think things keep happening so I suffer in front of the world so people can see how I come out,” the Grammy Award-winning artist reasoned. “I’m not afraid to talk about certain things. The worst thing that happened to me recently was the divorce. What blessed me is I didn’t let it destroy me.”
She added, “When you’re on that floor and you’ve been smacked down, the only person that knows what’s really going on with you in your life is you and God. When you can fight yourself with nobody around and win, and come out the other side and look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you. I like you. I think you’re dope,’ not every day but at least a couple of days you can say that, you’re winning.”
The women nodded along throughout Blige’s testimonial, some even tearing up. They then shared a beat they had and a potential song idea. She suggested a different musical direction, explaining that her music has hip-hop undertones and hip-hop soul. When Blige left the room, the four women got to work.
“She sounds super triumphant,” Burley noted. “It sounds like she really found her confidence.”
“I love when she said when you learn to fight yourself and you actually get to that point and you realize no one else matters,” Jacqueline recalled.
“Even that is a concept right there — boxing yourself in the mirror,” Renae suggested.
The women loved that visual and quickly began writing. With vivid imagery and boxing metaphors, they had the song’s concept. They titled the track “Twelve Rounds” and brainstormed lyrics that fit Blige’s story: “No referee, it’s just you and me / Up against the rope and against all hope / Twelve rounds let’s just knock it out / We in the ring, yeah we in this thing.”
“We took on this theme of being a fighter in a ring,” Jacqueline explained at the song camp’s listening party, where the writers revealed their creations. “Mary had said something about fighting herself and looking in the mirror and finally being like, ‘You’re dope. I love you.’ We went down that path of, what does it feel like to get in the ring with yourself and face all your inner demons and fears? We all brought very unique talents and strengths to the table and it worked really well.”
Each of the women said they’d gladly join another all-female songwriting camp and this was ultimately the goal of ASCAP.
“My hope is that this event jumpstarts many more events like this [and] that we inspire others to follow suit,” said Nicole George-Middleton, ASCAP senior VP, Rhythm & Soul. “I think it’s important work and this is just the beginning. It’s a marathon, not a [sprint], and we’ll get there.”