In August, the non-profit organization recognized its 27th anniversary by celebrating an eclectic list of young female artists across the country. From its inception in 1995, Honey Jam’s multicultural artist development programs have cultivated a safe space for many women to hone their skills, provide support and share their talents. Just judging by some of the names of alums: Juno Award-winners Jully Black and Haviah Mighty, Grammy award-winners Melanie Fiona and Nelly Furtado, actor Jordan Alexander and writer and director of the 2020 film The Photograph, Stella Meghie—it’s easy to see just how vital Honey Jam is to the music scene.
Founder and director of PhemPhat Entertainment Group, Ebonnie Rowe, is the mastermind behind Honey Jam. It all began with a bold response to misogyny in hip-hop from Rowe while running a mentoring program called Each One, Teach One. After exploring issues about men’s behaviour towards women in hip-hop on the Power Move radio show, she was asked to edit an all-female edition of Mic Check. The Mic Check celebratory event was the inaugural Honey Jam, which took a life of its own moving forward.
As you can imagine, 27 years in this industry speaks volumes about her longevity and perseverance. But a good percentage of her drive derives from the inspiration she draws from the artists to keep her going.
“The only reason I am still doing this after all of these years is the artists because, as you know, I’m not getting a villa in the south of France (laughs). So the only reason is the artists and being inspired by them. By hearing their feedback about what the different experiences and our programming provides to them, how everything has impacted them, and how they have benefitted from it—what is the point if they’re not getting value from it? It’s for them. And their successes! All of the amazing things that they are achieving. It sometimes blows my mind. So that inspires and pushes me to keep going. I’m a proud mama bear over here,” says Rowe.
Rowe has every right to be proud. She’s built a much-needed Canadian platform that focuses solely on the representation of a spectrum of female artists across all musical genres in the industry. But as Rowe says, it’s the ‘truth in advertising’ that she is here to fulfill. Honey Jam’s brand is meant to be the needed support system where it’s null and void.
She says, “It makes us unique. Nobody else is doing what we’re doing. We believe all of the different genres deserve to shine. Also, we want new generations of people to appreciate the artists and give them a platform. If everyone attending the auditions does hip-hop, we will go out and look for artists in different genres. We like to go out there to curate a potpourri of genres so you can get a fantastic musical experience.”
Rowe has always been a force to contend with. She doesn’t back down or allow anyone to get in the way of moving forward and achieving what she sets out to accomplish. While in the beginning, she dealt with many intentional roadblocks (physical violence and blocking of support) due to continuing misogynist viewpoints on the hip-hop side, Rowe refused to be held back by negative connotations or obstacles. Back then, in a male-dominated world where some may have wondered how she dared to do what she did, she simply learned to navigate.
“People didn’t take women seriously,” says Rowe. “There were not many women doing entertainment and concerts and stuff. Guys were looking to liaise with other guys. They would see me and wonder, ‘who is she fronting for?’ They would be looking for their boy, and I was like, no, you actually have to deal with me. You could see that was frustrating for them because I’m not a pushover (laughs).”
But with time also comes change, not only in opinions but also in technology. One of the most significant differences Rowe has seen since the inception of Honey Jam is how the digital age has entirely shifted the game. Imagine couriering your bio accompanied by your clips on a VHS cassette rather than simply emailing everything or sending it via Dropbox.
“There was no Instagram. There was no YouTube. There was no Facebook. There was no Soundcloud,” says Rowe. “All the ways millions of people can access your music now that did not exist. So many artists are discovered on TikTok and YouTube—none of that was happening then. There were no digital cameras! You had to take your film into the store to get developed (laughs). Having access to information as well, just being able to Google something. Imagine. So, technology has been the greatest, massive, seismic shift since we started.”
If anything, technology has also leaned in as a connector in the midst of it all. It’s allowed Rowe to expand and fortify her network and for artists to increase their fan base worldwide. With the emergence of the internet, various online apps, websites and media, the outreach is endless and has no bounds. Over time, Rowe was able to branch out and bring the taste of Honey Jam to the Caribbean with Honey Jam Barbados. The concept is presently on hiatus, but you can still find the sister branch on Instagram sharing and promoting Bajan talent.
The extensive reach allows artists to stay connected and tapped in like never before. And it plays into the essential aspect of Honey Jam that Rowe has seen and heard from participants. It has nothing to do with their programs but more the forever feeling artists walk away with and carry forth: the organization is a family.
“The most common thread relayed to me is that they love the sisterhood,” Rowe says proudly. “It’s the immediate bond that lasts forever. Because it’s not a competition, there’s no cattiness. So, the first time they meet, you would think they have known each other for 15 years. Then they support each other's shows and start co-writing, which is a very emotional thing. It’s the Honey Jam fam. That’s what we call it.”
Rowe has dreams of creating Honey Jam pop-ups across Canada, and I’m sure she won’t stop there. She would also love to take artists to various musical cities worldwide to experience the many musical facets available. She would love to put together all these unique experiences and more, but it’s all contingent upon sustainable funding. Rowe would like more stability to make all of these possibilities come to fruition. And with her sheer persistence and determination, I do not doubt she will.
Asking Rowe about what the next 27 years have in store, she laughs and says, “Girl, I’m just trying to get through the next in blocks at a time! I’m still traumatized by COVID. I just laughed when anybody planned anything. 2020 when COVID started, was our 25th anniversary year. The plans, I tell you! You can imagine our biggest milestone to date, and then it all went up in smoke. The stops and the starts. The ‘okay, you can gather now, but oh no, wait, a new variant.’ It was very jarring to our psyche. So we’re just working our way out of that. And I tend not to make any definitive plans down the road. I’m just trying to be present and focus on what’s now. I have many dreams that I would like to achieve with Honey Jam, but we are always out to consistently improve and continue to strive for what our brand represents.”