Groping, sexism and discrimination: Female DJs are fighting back against harassment

Trigger warning: This article contains language that may offend some people and references to sexual assault.

“I’ve been kissed all over my neck by people who I have to work with, I have had their body parts, and I’m not talking just limbs, [pushed] on me while I’m having a professionalconversation with them. “

Sexism, harassment and objectification are a workplace reality for Auckland DJ and vocalist Zeisha Fremaux and she’s over it.

“It makes me feel like everything I’m doing is not worth it sometimes. Like I’ll come home in tears because I won’t want to perform somewhere because I’m nervous as to how I’m going to be perceived.”

Over the past eight years she’s played to crowds of thousands, is booked to play at some of this summer’s largest festivals, but she still faces unsolicited sexual advances and unwanted touching both on stage and off it.

New research from Massey University shows Zeisha may not be alone – it’s found nearly 50 per cent of female Apra members reported not feeling safe in places where music was made or performed – twice the rate as men.

On top of this, 70 per cent of women reported experiencing bias, disadvantage or discrimination based on their gender – which is seven times higher than their male counterparts.

“I’ve had comments from people in the crowd saying oh she only got that gig because she slept with the manager or she’s slept with the DJ.”

Before these shows, she feels anxious that what she chooses to wear, how she does her make-up or even just doing her job will be sexualised.

“You can’t win, everything seems to be geared towards looking good for the male population. And there is the other side for some women that use the fact that people sexualise them as an advantage. We’re not saying don’t do that, we’re saying we are sexualised and it affects us in a negative way when it comes to things like pay rate and measuring our talent.”

The DJ, vocalist and producer is part of the Not For You movement – which is a collection of DJs hoping to fight against unwanted sexual objectification.

This Friday at Neck of the Woods in Auckland is the movement’s fist event and their line-up is stacked with female DJs including Aroha and Tali.

Catherine Hoad is one of the researchers behind the Massey study and says the findings are shocking – but not surprising.

“The fact that the industry is so small has been part of the reason why people haven’t felt comfortable having those conversations and that’s a real shame that people don’t feel they can speak about those experiences.”

Overseas studies have also found that women don’t feel comfortable speaking out, says Hoad, because they’re scared of being ostracised or that they won’t get further work.

That fear, Zeisha says, has stifled some female DJs efforts in the past to open up about the harassment they’re facing.

“They are afraid of not getting gigs.”

“They shut you down, they say oh no he would never do that … What were you doing? Were you high? Were you drinking and you think, I should never say something because that person has so much power.”

At one show, Zeisha says she was touched inappropriately by a man in the music scene while she was in front of a crowd.

She claims the promoter came onto the edge of the stage as she walked off and kissed her “all over” her neck.

“Which was in front of all of the people I had just played a show to. They must have looked at him like he was my boyfriend.”

At this point in her career she knows there may be consequences of her speaking out but the cause is too important to not be brave.

“This is what we’ve been dealing with, this is what I’ve been dealing with and I can say that I’ve probably gotten the most shit.”

Now she says people can see that she has the talent to back up what she’s saying – but it wasn’t always this way.

“I had to pander to some s***.”

Zeisha told the Herald she’s been sent messages from promoters asking her to post skimpy photos advertising their event or perform in certain clothing.

“I had one the other day where a promoter had messaged me saying oh we’ve got this rate here and we want to pay you this – but only if you wear this.”

She says female artists are asked to do “favours” in situations where they would never ask male DJs.

“I’ve had a promoter say to me can you send me a picture but you need to have a low-cut top on it’s for the punters, the club wants you to wear a low-cut top.

“I know this is an issue that’s across every sort of segment of the music industry.”

With the DJs she teaches, Zeisha says they know there is now support if they are dealing with harassment.

“They can stand up and say no that’s not okay, or they can reach out to me and I can help them to put messages together or stand up for them in situations where back in the day I didn’t know how to deal with.”

When Zeisha first started, she says there was no help, no one she could go to when she was put in uncomfortable situations.

She told the Herald, when she came out wearing a sequined bra she got so much hate,”they instantly didn’t give me gigs”.

She says after this, multiple people told her she was just a gimmick.

“If we are wearing a low-cut top, most of the time it’s because DJing is a sweaty job, it’s a performance, this is why we dress how we dress.”

Male musicians frequently remove clothing – a move which usually invokes a positive crowd response and the man being lauded a “lad”.

“He’s just known as a top bloke for getting his kit off.”

Whereas for Zeisha, she’s rewarded for dressing for her high-intensity job by digs on social media – with some commentators reducing her skill to her “pussy”.

“I screenshot this stuff to use it as fuel to keep going, but if anyone was not as strong [as me] I’d say you’d want to get out of the industry altogether.”

Zeisha’s experience isn’t isolated, and you don’t need to look far to find other performers who’ve had similar issues.

Ayesha Waja – who DJs under the name WAJA – started the Not For You movement because she was fed up with the way female DJs were being treated.

“We all started getting together to sort of rant about the issues that we had to deal with throughout our career and sort of complain and confide in each other and we got to the point where we thought it’s not okay for this to carry on.”

In particular she’s concerned about the younger generation of female DJs that are coming up and may not have the voice to speak about what they’re facing.

“You get a lot of people even fellow women, even with my friends or with myself if someone doesn’t wear a T-shirt or jeans. [They say] Why do they feel the need to show them that way or they’re just trying to get more gigs’.”

Her decision to “cover up” has spared the DJ from the brunt of the criticism – but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t see the effects of discrimination.

“Because I’ve always been someone who has, you know, covered up. I haven’t had someone say oh you need to put more clothes. But I’ve definitely been around my friends who have had that.”

Instead dealing with the politics of clothing, Ayesha says she’s fallen victim to being reduced to being just a “quota” and not taken seriously.

“I might get booked for an event and not paid as much because they’re like, well she can be an open girl to start it off lightly.”

She says in the past there’s been a real one girl per line-up sentiment at some events.

“There wasn’t space for two. Every girl was, well, essentially competition which it shouldn’t be.”

In recent years, a number of festivals in Aotearoa have faced backlash due to low levels of female performers – but things are slowly changing.

In a statement, a Homegrown spokesperson told the Herald there are a number of factors that go into picking a line-up including diversity, genre, profile, cost and availability.

“We are mindful of our role in helping make the music industry more diverse and more gender diverse. Whilst diversity is fundamental to our approach we won’t choose an artist if they are unable to satisfy the above criteria just because they are female.”

The spokesperson says with only 24 per cent of the artists in Aotearoa being female the pool to choose from can be limited.

“It can also be hard to secure female and male artists as they are often out of the country, contracted to other events, too expensive and sometimes not keen to accept our offer to play the festival.”

Now battle hardened by the world of professional music, Zeisha is done putting up withharassment.

“If you have a sister, or if you have a mother or a cousin or a daughter, maybe ask them if they’ve been catcalled ask if they’ve been offered a lower pay rate just for being a woman – this is a huge issue and not for a minority but a majority of women.”

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