'Since I started touring as Nao seven years ago, I've wanted a more diverse crew. I've loved everyone I've worked with but if you're away with a group of people for weeks on end it's nice to have a mix, it makes things more balanced. But no matter how hard we looked we couldn't find many women, hardly any women of colour and no Black women at all. Not one.’ (Nao)
The past decade has seen more women taking on technical roles in the live music industry, but Black women are still so scarce that they’re almost invisible. Native Management artists Nao and Mura Masa wanted to hire more diverse technicians for their crews, so for two years looked for ways to recruit and train Black women as lighting engineers, stage techs, audio engineers and playback technicians. Having approached music technology schools and struggling to put together a course in the way they wanted, the artists almost gave up. But last summer, the Black Lives Matter movement was the catalyst that set the 3T (Tour Tech Training) course in motion.
‘When the initial wave of Black Lives Matter protests kicked off, we thought we just had to do it, that was the moment. We couldn't just post empty black squares. So myself, Mura Masa and my manager all put up some money, called some senior crew people to find out how the course could be structured and just went for it. We posted about it before we'd really worked out what we were going to do but that's what was great about BLM, as against diversity drives of the past, it was a call to arms to act on issues, not just talk about them,’ says Nao.
With the objective of delivering ‘a real-world education’ on live music, production manager AJ Sutherland and live sound engineer Freyja Lawson carefully crafted the course. Over 12 weekends, the first of its kind programme placed Black women front and centre, enlisting industry experts to share knowledge gained from years on the road.
From reskinning drum kits without instructions to loading, looming and audio patching, they threw trainees into the deep end, culminating in a full-blown live show with stellar performances by Nao and Mura Masa crewed by the new recruits. But with only 10 spaces and 550 applicants, the huge chasm between demand and opportunity becomes all the more obvious.
‘It's a very white male-dominated industry, all from a certain age group. So as a younger woman coming into it, you can be met with some resistance.’ (Freyja Lawson)
While the live music industry isn’t all roses, over her eight years in the industry, Freyja Lawson’s experience has been largely positive. However, she says, ‘I have never worked with a Black woman who was in a technical role before, only in performing roles, which is just not right.’
This interview with 3T participants, Michelle Shaiyen, Perusi Kakaire and Helena Scotland, shows that it’s not a question of interest, it’s about how willing the industry is to open doors wide enough for Black women to flourish.
Kaeshelle: What was the application process like? It seemed quite unorthodox.
Perusi: I saw Mura Masa’s post on Instagram about 3T, but with stuff like that you think so many people will apply and wonder ‘Will I even get through?’ The first step was just putting in an email address. If it was anything more, a lot of us probably wouldn’t have applied. We then had to submit a three-minute video and a CV. They stressed that we needed to get back ASAP in the email because being quick off the mark is important when it comes to touring.
Michelle: For the video, they asked, ‘Why do you think it's important for Black women to be in this industry?’, which is literally our experience, so it was easy to talk about.
Helena: I feel like I’ll never get a job via a standard application, which is why this industry appeals to me. It was reassuring that if I didn’t get it, another Black woman would, not another Tom, Dick or Harry.
Kaeshelle: What were the most enjoyable moments on the course?
Perusi: It was great to learn playback and get on the sound desk. A guy called Herman came in and we got to put the rack together from Stormzy's Glastonbury set and Dave's show at The Brits. It was wicked to do it with the equipment and see the notes. The big weekend is my standout moment, though. From getting there first thing in the morning to mapping out the stage and having our gear on, we saw everything we learned over the 12 weekends coming to life. It was phenomenal.
Helena: It was the most adrenaline I've ever felt in my life. I did the visuals, which was way left field. AJ asked if I wanted to do it the day before, so I learned the software 24 hours before the show.
Kaeshelle: What did you learn about yourselves during the course?
Helena: I'm actually clever! For four years at university, I felt stupid, but those 12 weekends rebuilt my confidence. I can be in the music industry and use the logical side of my brain. It's not just for full-on creatives, you can be a bit of a nerd too.
Michelle: I was very set in what I wanted to do, but it taught me that I’m capable of doing other things. If I was already in the industry and someone asked me to do lighting, I would have turned it down quickly. I'm so glad that they didn't let us pick what we wanted.
Perusi: I just wanted to be tour managing or on a sound desk. Now, when the industry comes back, I’d go for anything, including backline and lighting.
Kaeshelle: What have you been getting up to since doing the course?
Michelle: I've been going over everything we did because it was very intense. I obviously can't travel into London. When I’m back, I won't be running around, saying ‘What is this cable?’, I'll just be ready to go.
Perusi: I was fortunate enough to tour manage Nao’s show at Metropolis. I thought I'd just be shadowing, but Sam from Native said, ‘Here’s this folder... You need to speak to this person… Ask Nao’. I just needed to keep that confidence.
Helena: In January, I was an Ableton tech for a band, helping them move their live show from MainStage to Ableton at the studio. It was a lot of pressure but so worth it.
Kaeshelle: What roles do you hope to go into in the future?
Michelle: I'd love to get into playback with all the software and making sure everything's cool. I'm really interested in audio, so maybe start off assisting an engineer, then get into mixing.
Helena: Yeah, playback tech and become an RF engineer. There aren’t many people doing it, let alone Black people and it’d be the closest thing to my degree.
Perusi: I'm more into tour and production management. But I do like playback too, it’s something I could get my teeth into.
Kaeshelle: We should really be asking this question to the industry, but why aren’t Black women working as touring technicians?
Perusi: It's quite cyclical in the industry as you go off someone's recommendation for these roles. I just saw it as a boy’s club. There's this image of a backline tech, it’s the same white guy, in his black jeans, black t-shirt, maybe he’s got a cigarette and a cap on. Sometimes if you don't see yourself somewhere, you feel like you can't get there. You ask yourself, ‘How would I fit in with that crew?’. What I found really surprising was that Black female techs are completely booked up.
Michelle: Like Perusi, I hadn't seen anyone who looked like us working in tech jobs. Even when I was more interested in behind-the-scenes stuff, it was always boys, there were never any girls. If you keep filtering it down to Black women, there's nobody. But hearing people say they want more Black women in these roles gives me hope that it might change for people after us.
Kaeshelle: What are you excited about for the future?
Perusi: I think we're all hungry for the industry to start again so we can get to work and keep the momentum going.
Michelle: It's good that 10 of us got in, but we're also concerned about those who didn't. We've got no interest in hogging the jobs, we want the people behind us there too. I'm not sure how it’s going to play out once outside opens again. It sounded like a lot of talk before, but this time it feels like people are willing to make changes.
Helena: I'm excited about passing it on, not only bringing people in but also sharing these skills. They definitely tried to people of colour to teach us, but they were mainly white men. It’d be cool for me, Perusi and Michelle to go back on the course, teaching people and showing that this actually works.
‘It can get quite stale having the same people do things over and over again. You can only come up with certain ideas. We actively need to encourage people of all ages, all genders and all races to be a part of what we do. Otherwise, we honestly risk becoming incredibly boring.’ (Freyja Lawson)
Building diverse crews isn’t about ticking boxes. Challenging the status quo is necessary for the live music industry to evolve and be able to tackle future challenges.
Nao explains: ‘It's traditionally been almost impossible to ensure a crew is diverse as the industry is small and there's very little formal training. It was mostly people bringing their friends through behind them and if it's only one type of human doing the job that just becomes a cycle of the same types of people doing all the roles.
‘But now that we have 10 women of colour trained to a very high degree, I hope artists embrace them, employ them regularly across a wide range of tours (not just tours with Black artists) and that begins a process of other young people—especially women—seeing themselves in those roles and believing they could do it.
‘I also think maybe artists should be looking to follow our lead and offering their own training programs where they feel there is a lack of representation. On a large tour, you often see crews of 20-30 people, so to add one apprentice to that shouldn't necessarily be an issue.’
3T Crew: Michelle Shaiyen, Perusi Kakaire, Helena Scotland, Iman Muhammad, Genny Turay, Kariss Townsend, Yasmine St.Croix, Mercy Sotire, Emily Odamtten, Grace Esia
Photo by Tom Pullen