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How I navigate the music industry as an artist with a disability

01 Oct 2018

Let me start by asking you a question, can you name any “mainstream” artist(s) that have a disability? Other than Stevie Wonder?… No?… Why do you think that is?

My name is Miss Jacqui, I’m a spoken word artist and songwriter (amongst other things) and I just so happen to have a disability (I have two main conditions Spinal Muscular Atrophy and Sickle Cell Anaemia). However, I’ve never let that stand in the way of my talents shining through. I’ve been on the poetry circuit for about 10 years now and I’ve been making music unofficially since my early teens.

There aren’t any musicians in my family per say however, I come from a big family, I think my parents were hoping we’d become the British version of the Jacksons. Having come from a family who were and are appreciators of great music, music has always been a huge part of my life. My love for music started from when I use to record the radio onto cassettes when I was small, wanting to know how everything all worked.

I grew up listening to a lot of gospel and country music, but also a lot of jazz and soul. I think that’s why I’m lyrically driven, I’m fascinated by people’s individual stories and how people’s using their own voices to advocate change or even just convey an emotion when I run out of words to express myself.

The music that I make isn’t genre specific but I care about the lyrical content in all my music, I want my work to be lyrically accessible for everyone whether they’re into poetry or not, while still carrying a strong message that anyone can relate to. I make music that makes people see the world differently. So that I inspire and make people feel comfortable about being themselves.

I took an extremely long break to focus on acting and poetry due to some of my frustrations when it came to the music industry like not being taken seriously for my talent because I have a disability or always being forced to perform off to the side or not at all.Also,  the lack of knowledge around access and disability awareness started to take away my creative outlet. I’ve been merging poetry with music for about five years now, I performed at the 2012 Paralympics Team-Welcoming Ceremonies and Opening Ceremony, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Park Theatre, Bernie Grant Art Centre, Battersea Art Centre, etc. but I’ve never performed at a music venue. Why? Because a lot of music venues are not accessible for disabled artists they’re either in basements or up a flight of stairs or the entire building itself is inaccessible. Now to me this is clearly a problem and it has affected my career and I’m confused that at a time in which representation is so important why hasn’t the music industry caught up with the fashion industry, or TV and film?

But not only are music venues not accessible for disabled artists but music studios aren’t either. There are three types of music studios:

1) Cheap and in someone’s home (which probably isn’t accessible)

2) Affordable and down a flight of stairs or has a step into it or even a step into the recording booth

3) Extremely expensive and completely accessible which is hard for an up and coming disabled artist.

Some ask “why don’t you just build your own home studio?” And my reply to that is I simply don’t have the funds or the space to do so.

The music industry needs to acknowledge that this is a major issue and it’s something that needs to change, because if not now then when? There should be an infrastructure that supports new talent regardless of what disability they may or may not have, such as having more venues and studios that are affordable as well as accessible. There needs to be more discussion about these issues and how much of the industry is affected radio stations, festivals, tours, etc. There also needs to be urgent positive action to make the industry better for all kinds of artists present and future.

Right now I’m alone and I’m on a one-woman mission to help the music industry recognise that independent talented artists who just so happen to have a disability are out there and I just so happen to be one of them and I want the same chances and opportunities as every artist to be seen and to be heard. I am trying to break as many stereotypes as possible when it comes to being a black woman with a disability, and what music/art people think I should be making. I am here to challenge the music industry’s perceptions of who can and should be an artist.

My journey so far has been one with more than a few obstacles, more than a few frustrating situations, more than a lifetime’s worth of stress but I wouldn’t have changed it because I have learnt how to adapt, learnt what my strengths and weaknesses are and I’ve learnt a lot of lessons along the way that will continue to serve me in my career.

I’ve pushed pass a lot of obstacles to create my debut single ‘Freedom’ which is about breaking the rules for a reason, setting yourself free from anything that is holding you back from reaching your full potential whether that be society, life, or work. ‘Freedom’ is about knowing that going against the grain, sometimes inspires other to stand up for themselves and make a change. It was hard work especially with male egos and opinions on my creativity and what I should or shouldn’t know, the lack of access and constant lift breakdowns that stopped entire sessions from happening that I’ve had planned for weeks, to literally no budget, to health and family needs, to just life stuff and trusting in my abilities, but I am excited and proud of what I have created and the work I will continue to create.