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Women of Color Address Diversity in the Workplace

Mike Wharton • October 2020Tech Talk • October 8, 2020

Top: Salinda Walker and Gabi Parra. Bottom: Rebekah Foster and Geeta Kanna.

The early months of 2020 have seen a wellspring of discussion regarding lack of diversity in the live entertainment business. At the vanguard of those observations has been the Roadies of Color United (R.O.C.U), which celebrated its ten years of existence with its first annual conference in February 2020. From that conference, several of its core leadership have had the opportunity to bring its platform to a wider audience through their website, PLSN and other publications.

The feedback has been positive, engaging and enlightening. However, throughout the many responses, a consistent observation has pointed to the need for more discussion about the challenges facing women of color in the live event business.

PLSN reached out to several women who have made their mark with exceptional careers through their passion in a challenging industry. With an assist from Lance “KC” Jackson, we now shine the spotlight on the following professionals, well known to many, to shed further light on this issue central to our times.

Salinda Walker

Salinda Walker

Salinda Walker’s professional career started as a definite trial by fire. After Walker earned a degree in sound engineering at Columbia College in Chicago, a friend got her a job as an unpaid intern at local sound company, Sound of Authority. After only two days at the company, she was informed she would be going onsite to assist at a local festival.

“We started at 7a.m. and finished at around 9 p.m. that first day. It was hot, [with] no food [and] no stagehands, but I was determined to learn. We got through the show and loaded the truck, then they said, ‘Let’s do it again tomorrow, at the New Regal Theater, 10 a.m.’” She never looked back, noting “a sense of accomplishment that comes with a successful event that is immediate and present at the closing of the doors on the last truck…. It’s intoxicating.”

Walker went on to work a myriad of shows in positions from runner to, ultimately, production and stage manager. Her career spans over 30 years working with James Brown, Destiny’s Child (the originals), Lenny Kravitz, The Isley Brothers, Sting, Grateful Dead, Ice Cube and Ozzfest. Salinda toured with Whitney Houston on the 1993 trek featuring her Bodyguard hit, “I Will Always Love You.” For the past 15 years, Salinda served as a production manager on the Tom Joyner Foundation’s Fantastic Voyage Cruise, which has presented Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, Michael McDonald, Diana Ross, Larry Graham, Jeffrey Osborne, Mary J. Blige, Robin Thicke, LL Cool J, Earth, Wind & Fire, Charlie Wilson, Snoop Dogg, George Clinton/Parliament Funkadelic and many others.

“Amongst the many challenges is that you are immediately treated as if you don’t know your job. In some cases, you are not even considered for the job because you are not a man and won’t fit in on the back of the bus. Your skills are questioned, and even disregarded, until you prove that you know as much or even more than your male equivalent…who might be poorly doing the job.” More info at www.iriseproductionsllc.com

Gabi Parra

Gabi Parra

Gabriela (Gabi) Parra currently works with David “5-1” Norman with their company Tour Forensics. She began her career as student, working on the venue side doing everything from working as a ticket taker and usher to stagehand and runner for shows. This well-rounded background helped her when she was in the right place at the right time to replace a departing production assistant on Earth Wind and Fire (EWF) while they were rehearsing at her venue. Tony Bullock, legendary production manager for EWF, “was a huge role model who took me under his wing and taught me everything I know.”

Within the first six months of starting to tour, she traveled to Southeast Asia and Japan with EWF. “That came with its own set of challenges,” she recalls, “but definitely stands out as a moment where I really knew I found what I loved to do.”

Along with EWF, she has worked with Chicago, Nile Rodgers, Chic, Rihanna, Outkast and Eminem, among many others. Equally comfortable in the corporate world, she has worked high profile events for the Democratic National Committee, NFL Super Bowl and Glastonbury Festival.

The consistent challenge she encounters is, “people assume you’re an assistant and not anything else. There are people who will ask immediately to speak to your PM, assuming he is a man, especially when they are getting an answer they don’t want to hear. Having worked for people of color most of my career, I would say I’ve been a little sheltered from the racial biases that others might experience more often, and that’s a sad statement to have to make. But I have definitely experienced the sexism.” More info at www.tourforensics.com

Rebekah Foster

Rebekah Foster

Rebekah Foster was seemingly born to this. Her father, Rev. Wendell Foster, was a civil rights activist, supporting black theater productions by the Negro Ensemble Company and other organizations as an extension of his ministry. An actor and writer in his early years, he stayed involved with theater throughout his life. Her mother exposed Rebekah to different types of music, taking her to the Apollo Theater on Fridays and matinee operas on Saturdays. “Thus, my involvement in music and arts was a natural evolution,” moving, specifically, to her role as an audio engineer.

She hustled, putting her heart and soul into succeeding in the industry, willing to work anywhere she could for anything from a subway token to enough money to buy lunch. “Once I got my toe in the door, I kept kicking until my whole foot was in,” she says, noting how she worked for various sound companies around the NYC area, including Afrikan Roots and See Factor Industries. She also interned, assisted and engineered at recording studios, coming full circle to serve as house engineer at the Apollo as well as at Colden Auditorium in Queens.

Her resume runs the gamut from legends such as Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ray Charles to contemporary legends including Queen Latifah, Eve, Missy Elliott, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, SWV, Naughty By Nature, Marcus Miller, Outkast, Puffy, Biggie & Bad Boy Family, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Eric Clapton, Busta Rhymes, David Sanborn, Joe Sample, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip, Steel Pulse and Prince. With gratitude, she credits live and recording engineer Dennis Thompson as her mentor for inspiring her to keep going and not accepting “no” for an answer. Eventually, she formed her own company; Ujima Sound Productions Ltd., in 1987.

“It has been tough,” she says of her journey. “Notwithstanding the diversity of artists and music, the production and behind the scenes was, and to a large extent still is, a white man’s world. There were hardly any women, much less Black women, when I began. That being the case, I was challenged due to my race and my gender. Oftentimes I was dismissed, but I kept at it. I started as an engineer, but realized after a budget cut that I needed to expand my knowledge. I learned everything else so I could become an asset. Eventually, I crossed paths with those sound companies, promoters and venues that would not hire me that now had to deal with me on a different playing field.” More info online at www.plsn.me/Ujima

Geeta Khanna

Geeta Khanna

Geeta Khanna had never worked in the live entertainment business a single day before her first professional gig as production assistant for a Ne-Yo tour in Japan in 2010. Her journey is an example of being at the right place at the right time and, most importantly, working hard once the opportunity presented itself. Ronnie Stephenson, Ne-Yo’s production manager, was attending a party she was at, and the two began chatting, having met a few times on previous occasions. Upon his mentioning he was planning Ne-Yo’s upcoming tour of Japan, she jokingly exclaimed, “You need to take me as an assistant!”

“We are both believers in divine intervention,” she states. Stephenson had fired his assistant the week before, and he needed help. Three weeks later, she was in Japan. After two months, Stephenson, recognizing her value to the team, promoted her to a full-time position. “That officially started my touring career.” A professional makeup artist, she continues today to combine her makeup skills with her career at Creative Production Partners (CPP), a Black-owned company, employing mainly all Black/Indigenous/People of Color (BIPOC). All of CPP’s current tour managers are women of color that are multilingual, running large international tours for A-list artists.

“Ten years in, my mentor was, and still is, Ronnie Stephenson, the CEO of CPP. Even though I began without direct production or live performance experience, Ronnie recognized a drive, intelligence, strong people skills, and an ability to learn while leading. He invested and groomed me for the industry.” That investment blossomed from the seed of one tour into a career of tour-managing Ne-Yo, TLC, Cardi B, The Jacksons, Lion Babe, Liz Phair, Boyz II Men and Ciara.

“The main challenge of being a woman of color in this business is having to deal with the residual energy from the way it challenges others. We have to sift through a lot of misogynistic, sexually aggressive, dismissive, limiting beliefs just to be able to do our job. That in itself is draining and unnecessary to deal with on top of the actual demands and responsibilities of being a tour manager.”

Along with constant expectations that she needs to navigate various personal issues because she is a woman, she is confronted with ego meltdowns from people who are “not comfortable with me as the person in charge because of my gender, race and age.”

Looking back to her early days, the best piece of advice she would give herself would be to develop a consistent spiritual practice and self-care routine within the chaos. To those women just starting out, “Be a self-initiator and conduct yourself professionally, because nothing is less helpful them when someone does not jump in with presence, enthusiasm, and gratitude for the opportunity to build their own future.” More info at www.creativep2.com

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