Ebonnie Rowe of Honey Jam: “Be the change you want to see”

“Be the change you want to see” — never sit back and wait for someone else to create the changes you want to see. Take the initiative to do whatever you can to achieve the goal. Starting Each One Teach One and then The Honey Jam Showcase was my way of “being the change”. As a part of […]

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“Be the change you want to see” — never sit back and wait for someone else to create the changes you want to see. Take the initiative to do whatever you can to achieve the goal. Starting Each One Teach One and then The Honey Jam Showcase was my way of “being the change”.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ebonnie Rowe.

Recipient of the 2021 Canadian Independent Music Association’s Trailblazer Award, featured in “Canada 150 Women Conversations with Leaders, Champions, and Luminaries” and CEO/Founder of the Honey Jam Showcase, music inclusivity trailblazer Ebonnie Rowe has distinguished herself as a woman dedicated to the growth of female inclusivity within the music industry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Both of my parents encouraged us and led by example to give back, volunteer and care about the community.

The Honey Jam origin story began in the early 90s after a friend died suddenly. This was a shock and a loss that caused me to re-focus and take stock. I started thinking about how you can be here today and gone today and I felt an urgency to do something that meant something before it was my time to leave the earth. I wanted to have a purpose driven life that helped others. So, I dropped out of the University of Toronto and started a mentoring program for at risk Black youth called Each One, Teach One.

While running the program I interacted daily with young women and many of my female mentees told me that their little brothers were calling them “bitch” and “ho” because they heard it on college hip hop radio. This was totally unacceptable and so very damaging. So, I approached the biggest hip hop DJ in Canada to discuss how women were portrayed in Hip Hop lyrics and videos after receiving those complaints to let him know about the unintended consequences of the lyrics of the music. He told me he would give me the entire 3 hour show to produce and discuss these issues.

Listening to the show was the editor of Mic Check magazine who contacted me to put together an all-female edition of their entertainment magazine. The celebration wrap party for that issue in May of 1995, intended to be a one-off show, was called “Honey Jam.”

At the end of the party everyone asked me when the next one was. Clearly there was a need and a void — there was no other such platform for female artists — so I thought, OK let’s do it for a year and see how it went. And now we are celebrating 26 years and a long list of artists that have gone on to acclaim: Grammy winners Nelly Furtado and Melanie Fiona, Juno award winners Jully Black and Kellylee Evans, Polaris Prize winner Haviah Mighty, singer-songwriter and actor Jordan Alexander, feature film director Stella Meghie and 2021 Juno Award winner, Savannah Re.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

When Honey Jam first started in 1995 it was disruptive in that we were breaking ground to shine the spotlight on women in music, and more specifically the hip hop genre, which was a male-dominated boys club at the time.

Back then, there was no one else doing this and it was met with much resistance and skepticism from some men in the industry as we were treading on their “turf’’ without permission, so to speak. We even had some who tried to sabotage what we were doing.

In 1997 we broadened our scope to include all genres of music and embraced all cultures.

Our “disruption” has always been about not accepting the status quo and pushing to normalize inclusion in spaces we aren’t traditionally seen or embraced.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A clear memory I have is one from when we first started out and the push back we got after our radio segment. It’s not so much a mistake as more of a nod to just how naive I was to think that I could just step in on this male-dominated music scene and demand change without any push back. I remember in those early days having some men wanting to beat me up along with trying to sabotage what we were doing. Looking back, I could perhaps say that was one of the “funniest mistakes”, in that it was crazy that I did not even consider what I had the audacity to do.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Indeed it takes a village to achieve most things. I look up to people who are authentic, purpose-driven, brave, who give back, lift as they rise, push through obstacles to overcome adversity and win in the end.

And means I have had the privilege of having had so many mentors. Many of them had no idea that they were my mentors and many I’ve never met. People my age, half my age, twice my age — men, women — so many. Just from watching these individuals — how they move in the world and their achievements — I drew inspiration and strength.

But I can say, one of the earliest mentors that had an impact was Malcom X. I discovered him at the age of 11. He talked about our responsibility to be a part of the solution and that, when we point our fingers at someone else we should look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what we’re doing to affect change. His “by any means necessary” became imprinted on my spirit. No excuses, just always keep pushing towards your goals.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder as they say. Disruption by definition is going to change the status quo which always results in making some people ecstatic and others who don’t welcome the change uncomfortable.

For example, there may be a disruption in an industry regarding how they produce in terms of using more automation resulting in being able to produce more, quicker and at less cost. But that disruption also has a downside in that it requires less staff and people will lose their jobs. Every positive change will result in a challenge somewhere for someone — the collateral damage of progress. The question is: whatever the negative fallout is worth, is it for the greater good — which again is subjective depending on what lens you’re viewing from.

Look at the disruption of the global pandemic. By no means was this a good situation. Many are/were affected, some in a hugely detrimental way and others have reaped massive benefits. However, what we have discovered is there have been many developments that have come out of this experience that would otherwise have taken many many more years.

So there is no one size fits all where you can generally say that disruption is “always good” or “always bad”. It’s very nuanced and you have to look at all sides and then everyone’s judgment is subjective as to what it means to them. But, what I do think is good, is the opportunity to experience all that these disruptions bring because it develops people and societies.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. “Be the change you want to see” — never sit back and wait for someone else to create the changes you want to see. Take the initiative to do whatever you can to achieve the goal. Starting Each One Teach One and then The Honey Jam Showcase was my way of “being the change”.
  2. “Always be open to learning and constructive criticism” — there is no finish line and there is never a point where you will know everything so always seek knowledge, update your skills and never let your ego prevent you from listening to constructive criticism and adjusting when it makes sense to do so. Again, this was something I have had much practice with throughout my career and most especially since Covid-19
  3. You have control over your life. Don’t just let life happen to you — use your agency, your power. Don’t settle for less — ever.

The pandemic hit everyone and it changed everything. No gatherings, social distancing and the uncertainty of it all meant that the Honey Jam Showcase could not look the same or be produced in the same way as it was before. I remember being told, “Just write off the year and move all your plans to next year.” But that just did not sit well with me. In fact, I got angry at the thought of what I felt was just giving up. The truth is you don’t sit back, give up and take a nap. It’s not an option. Not with such important work still to be done. So, I did not settle, and I pushed until I found a way to make our 25th anniversary a great one for our participants, in spite of the pandemic.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’ve made so many plans that were upended and had to be rescheduled multiple times due to the pandemic. Many are in survival mode at the moment; getting vaccinated, ensuring our loved ones, especially elderly parents are cared for, continuing to deal with the economic fallout, especially how it eviscerated the entertainment industry.

It takes a minute to recover from that, to get back to yourself.

I don’t currently have a grand “shake things up” master plan, I’ve started just trying to get through life in 15 minute increments as I navigate what comes!

But, I’m hopeful and optimistic about the future and when the dust settles a little, rest assured, all will be revealed. The next chapter is percolating — stay tuned!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

To be a woman who is strong, takes charge and has opinions has not always been a positive thing and so, I think women have felt the need to diminish/ adjust their personalities in order to fit in, not offend. For as long as I’ve been alive these traits that are criticized in women are championed in men. But I am so pleased at the times we are living in where women are no longer satisfied to operate behind the scenes or to diminish who they are to satisfy these archaic norms. Today, women who are disruptors pay no attention to that noise and are just focussed on a mission and getting it done by any necessary means without needing to be approved of or win popularity contests. We are focused on addressing the issues that will change the narrative for other women to come, just like those women who paved the way for us.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Again I have to reference Malcolm X here. His autobiography changed my life. In it he talks about personal responsibility, about our need to be part of the solution to our community’s problems. I also loved his mastery of language and his ability to evolve in his thinking.

All of that is in my DNA. It’s how I move in my personal and business life day to day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Tongue in cheek but also on a kind of serious note, I’d like to inspire a movement like the DBAD movement. It’s a simple code of conduct that accepts all cultures, all nationalities and all genders encapsulated in 4 words. “Don’t be a Dick”. Period. That kind of covers everything! If everyone just treated everyone in their orbit well, like they would like to be treated, then we would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The heights of great men won and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were upwards toiling in the night.” The relevance is that I had to make a lot of sacrifices of time with friends and family to achieve my goals and many in my circle would complain that I wasn’t able to attend various events or when I did it was just for a short amount of time. My father would tell me that quote as a means of support to drown out the noise and focus on the mission at hand.

How can our readers follow you online?

On both Instagram and Twitter — @thehoneyjam

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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