Patriarchy in the music industry has cheated female artists of their royalties

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Lifetime's "The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel" panel during the A&E Networks TCA. Photo by: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

Yes, it was a Thursday, 9th August 1956, when over 20,000 women of all races gathered at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the injustices of the time.

It started with a Note.

Wathinta; abafazi, wathinta; imbokodo, uza kufa!

[When] You strike the women, you strike a rock, you will be crushed

Sixty-four years later, women are still fighting for their emancipation. 

There is very little published or shared about our greatest female composers in South Africa.

A woman’s voice is compelling and strong, but finding that voice can be remarkably difficult.

While women have been acknowledged as great interpreters of music, the field of composition has been traditionally dominated by men. 

Upon checking the numbers and closer analysis of the records of Southern Africa Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO), Africa’s oldest and most illustrious body of its kind dating back from 1961, I couldn’t help but notice that less than 20% of its members were women.

Even more disconcerting was the realisation that women earn less than 8% of total royalties paid to members. 

We all graciously enjoy music sung by female artists, but often the songs they sing are said to have been written or composed by men. 

However, many women have been shortchanged. Numerous songs they composed or wrote were unfairly credited to their male counterparts.

In recent times SAMRO has moved to fulfil its objective of adequately administering the copyright and royalties of all its members – being primarily music composers, authors, and publishers. 

This is done by licensed individuals and businesses that use music for business or commercial purposes such as shopping centres, nightclubs, television and radio broadcasters, and so on. 

SAMRO collects licence fees from music users, which is paid out to members in the form of royalties.

However, the relatively small portion of royalties paid to a limited number of women composers is still of concern.

Female composers are still not getting full recognition for their work. They are still facing chauvinistic obstacles when it comes to being credited for their work.

At times for women to make it in the music industry, they have to jump through unsavoury hoops which could include despicable favours. 

Can we just let female artists earn what they deserve for their God-given talent?

Or are we saying they are not creative enough or too emotional to deserve equal rewards for their work as their male counterparts? 

This unfortunate myth that musical creativity is a talent given to males only has been promoted by many biased music historians. 

Perhaps the African proverb says it aptly: “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.

So, it is indeed essential in this case for women (lionesses) to tell their stories about how they created compositions and wrote songs but were not credited for their work so that it can be investigated and corrected.

Society at large is also stifling women … Yes, being a female music performer or composer was considered a highly questionable career often associated with loose morals. 

Princess Magogo, born in 1900, the daughter of the Zulu King, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, challenged and debunked this myth.

Despite being raised in a culture traditionally patriarchal, she continued developing her musical career after getting married and composed Zulu classical music and was gifted in playing the ugubhu.

Living legend Professor Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, a South African composer, pianist, and teacher who was the first woman in South Africa to obtain a doctorate in the composition can attest to the patriarchy in the music industry.

Many might remember Zaidel-Rudolph for arranging the first composite version of South Africa’s new National Anthem at the request of former President Nelson Mandela.

“Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music,” said Mandela at the time.

Somehow the current political climate seems to have given permission for behaviours and attitudes that we thought we had seen the back of. 

The Women of South Africa (WoSA) that collaborated and published an open letter on 26th June 2020 to President Cyril Ramaphosa, demanding economic power and financial inclusion might be on to something.

Time is definitely up for the unequal status quo. 

More women composers are needed, and it’s certainly not about allocating them a quota or tokenism, it is about talent.

We live in stressful times, so women your struggle can’t just be yours alone. Let’s raise our voices and sing out loud, especially during these troubled times in our country. 

Let us demand that in support of August – the month of women – that all broadcasters must play music composed or performed by women.

As Maya Angelou would say, “People remember how you make them feel”.

So ladies, as you compose, I encourage you not to leave your emotions behind, bring them to the music score, bring them to the airwaves, and let your compositions and creative work resonate with your souls … compose and sing for the many women who don’t have a voice. 

Emancipate yourselves.

After all … It starts with a Note.


Nicholas Maweni is the independent chairman of the board of SAMRO, Chairman of Valued Citizens Initiative. He is a former Chief of Staff for both the Ministry of Arts & Culture and the Ministry of Justice & Constitutional Development, and a previous MD of the Black Business Forum.