Not your mother’s beatboxing: the rise of women beatboxers

I like beatboxing. So does my teenage son. He spends a not insignificant amount of time searching out online video clips of beatbox performances and then seeks me out to show me what he considers to be the better ones. When your teenager asks you to share in something positive, you oblige. We often beatbox binge ‘til near midnight and I have to tell him: “No, you really have to go to bed.” Then I watch them on my own.

The videos are just so good.

It didn’t take long before I became preoccupied by what seemed like a distinct lack of women in these online postings – either performing or in beatbox battle audiences or judging panels. There must be some female beatboxers, I thought, and set out to find them, assuming I’d discover a mere handful who had experienced years of sexist dismissal, who lamented a dearth of opportunity to learn and perform and perceived a general lack of comradery with other, predominantly male, performers.

I was wrong.

Music is considered to cross many barriers – language, generational (my family being an example), cultural – but what about gender? In the world of music, women are most typically awarded less credibility, are granted less air play time and are also often judged and promoted on appearance and, subsequently, objectified and commodified in a way that men are not. But beatbox seems to deviate from this norm.

Female beatboxers do exist. As a form of music, beatboxing is a style in which women are rapidly gaining ground and success while also being encouraged, mentored and inspired by other performers regardless of gender – yup, even the men. It could be argued that both they and the community itself are breaking down gender barriers and thinking, performing and beating outside the box (groan). And, though I did not doubt this, the female performers I have come across and heard are immensely talented. Most notably, they also have positive tales to tell. I spoke to two seminal women beatboxers by telephone who shared their experiences of beatboxing and the community around it.

Take, for example, current female world champion Kaila Mullady. Not only is she a very talented beatboxer, she is also a capable musician and actor who beats rhymes, raps and blends song and poetry. Much of this finds its way into her wonderful performances. Being so musically inclined, her evolution as a beatbox artist was almost organic. Even in elementary school she was creating music by rhythmically making noises, when a classmate told her she was beatboxing. “I didn’t even know what that was then,” she admits. As a teenager, Kaila continued to make music, playing different instruments and watching beatbox clips online, but in 2011 she broke her back. With her ability to perform in theatre being significantly limited by her injury and recovery, she began to focus more on her others interests and what she was good at: beatboxing.

Kaila acknowledges that prominent female beatboxers helped pave the way for her and also inspire her: “MC Beats was the first woman to really get a lot of respect in the beatbox community and Butterscotch was the first female world champion.” Other prominent female beatboxers include Bellatrix, Grace Savage, and Pe4enkata. However, it was male performers such as JFlo and Terry Lewis that inspired and encouraged Kaila and were key to her development as an artist. Yet, Kaila believes this kind of positive support is in no way linked to gender and in a tweet to the Huffington Post in July made the following unequivocal statement: “Music is not gender specific. It’s about soul and expression. Anytime someone tells me I can’t, it pushes me further.”

Although there were few women in the early days of beatboxing, Kaila states: “Now there are a whole slew of women coming up”. Sparx agrees, saying: “There are so many high level women now, they can compete with the men.”

Sparx, a Canadian female beatboxer who came second at the Berlin world championships earlier this year, was also drawn to beatboxing during her teen years. Having been inspired by seeing her first live performance, Sparx has now been beatboxing for almost three years. It’s clear her dedication and talent has taken her a long way in that time. Attending that first show when she was just a 15-year-old, Sparx didn’t initially notice any distinct gender difference or skewed ratio of men to women. It wasn’t until she started practicing and her sister phoned her one day to suggest she team up with another female beatboxer that she began to acknowledge any kind of gender division at all: “That’s when I realised that she wanted me to team up because girls are a minority in the beatbox world.”

When I was re-introduced to beatboxing, the online postings weren’t quite like the beatboxing I remembered. Some trace the roots of beatboxing to the scat singing of the jazz era, while others tie it historically to different instances or styles of music involving people using their mouths or bodies in different ways to make rhythm or beats. But what would properly be termed “beatboxing” developed in the early 1980s. “Beatboxes” were an early form of drum machine and being able to mimic the sounds they could make qualified you as a “beatboxer”. A prominent beatboxer from this era is Doug E. Fresh. Considered a pioneer of the art form, he is sometimes referred to by the title of the “Human Beatbox”.

Although I don’t recall beatbox every really going away, it always seemed very underground – something you’d occasionally see or hear only for it to disappear off the radar of popular culture yet again. But in a way, this long-held underground vibe not only seems to add to the appeal of it as a credible musical form, but enabled beatboxing to evolve and grow in a very grassroots, genuine way, unaffected by the commodification and oft glorified gains of other musical forms.

It’s not a coincidence that I’ve watched a lot of beatbox videos in the last few years. Both Kaila and Sparx explained to me the role media sharing tools such as Vine and YouTube have played in the progression of beatboxing as an art form. Kaila explains how, “before YouTube, we only really had performances and videos to learn from”. Therefore, if you lived in a location without a beatbox community, which is quite likely, you’d be hard pushed and ultimately self-reliant in terms of developing beatbox skills. However, the internet has enabled beatboxers around the world to share styles, skills, and performances while also developing a larger sense of community.

When skills are shared, practices can evolve. Beatbox is unique in the sense that it’s evolving and doing so quickly. It’s gathering momentum as an art form and, at the same time, more and more women are becoming involved. Although there were few women in the early days of beatboxing, Kaila states: “Now there are a whole slew of women coming up.” Sparx agrees, saying: “There are so many high level women now, they can compete with the men.”

Kaila and Sparx refer to each other and other beatboxers, regardless of gender, as a community and as a family. Both report being encouraged by male artists from the beginning, with the men also actively promoting them. “The beatbox family is so, so positive, especially towards females”, states Sparx

Beatbox itself is also changing. It is no longer comprised of merely (and I say that with the upmost respect) mimicking basic drum machine sounds. There’s a seeming artistic blurriness between beatbox, rap, spoken word poetry, singing, beat rhyme and looping. They’re all finding their way into being incorporated into beatbox performances and it sounds, well, very good to say the least. For artists, this field is unique in that they’re not only participating in beatboxing but effectively shaping it as an art form, as Kaila notes: “Beatbox hasn’t hit a ceiling yet. When people create a new sound, it’s a new sound.” Kaila and Sparx have also experienced beatbox as a tool that has enabled them to communicate with others without involving language. Both shared stories with me of sitting with someone and beatboxing and, in the process, learning lots about that other person and their personality, only for it to naturally conclude and them to discover that they could not communicate with words at all. As a form of music and rhythm, beatboxing also has the advantage of being a wholly portable medium. As Kaila points out: “I can play a lot of instruments, but your mouth is a human instrument – you can take it anywhere.”

Sparx 3

Kaila and Sparx refer to each other and other beatboxers, regardless of gender, as a community and as a family. It’s not just lip service (no pun intended) – they seem sincere. Both Sparx and Kaila report being encouraged by male artists from the beginning, with the men also actively promoting them. Based on my own observations of beatbox performances and interactions with championship organizers, I have to say I believe them; it really does seem like a very positive community. It’s not often in my interaction with strangers, albeit for research, that in responses to my email requests for information, I receive a wish that my week is going wonderfully well or I’m offered ways to support the community too.

When Sparx was first starting out, Kaila invited her to visit her in New York. “She encouraged me to try out for the world championships too,” Sparx informs me. I can’t believe it’s often that people are encouraged to enter and be successful in competition by their co-competitors! After competing for the world championship title together earlier this year, they’re still friends and have visited each other since. Sparx only has good things to say about her beatbox ‘family’: “This community is, by far, the most positive one I’ve been part of in my life. The beatbox family is so, so positive, especially toward females.” As I said, beatbox is a little deviant – in a good way.

Though beatboxing may be becoming more recognised as an art form, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of the lucrative performance, recording contracts or sponsorships that other musical styles can offer. As far as I can tell, beatboxers are learning, performing, sharing their skills and encouraging others for music, art, for community, fun and, as noted earlier, because it just sounds so good. Though the beatbox battle videos I’ve watched contain typically very few female judges or participants I also noticed another pattern: it also seems ultimately positive and, well, fun. Beatbox battle: the alliteration alone makes it sound like you’d walk away from an event bruised, even if this just applied to your ego. But it’s not like that. Think less rappers’ competing Eminem 8 Mile put-down style, and more Jimmy Fallon Lip Sync competition. That in no way intends to dismiss the real and credible talent of beatboxers, or to compare them to actors paid to lip sync for fun, but there’s a positive humour and postmodern, self-aware irony at times to the performances. Yet, above all, a steadfast respect for other artists is conveyed. Sparx explained to me how in competitions there is often ‘in-jokes’ competitors will bring up, but that it’s just meant to be funny. And when you watch the videos, you tend to only hear shouts of approval, never negative drones of dislike.

Street performance is also a principal mode of beatbox performance. While there are some advantages to beatboxing being an underground art form, such as credibility and space to evolve, it’s also accompanied by the challenges this can bring. As Kaila explains, “We have to go to people to perform – we go to the streets to perform, and show it’s still an art form.” Sparx also believes in the importance of maintaining the link between beatbox and street performance, especially for women: “It pushes the art form and for many people when they see me perform, it’s the first time they’ve seen a female do it.”

On a busy street, you’re only going to be heard and ultimately have a ‘voice’ if you get to hold the mic – something males are apparently more than willing, even positive about sharing. Sparx describes how: “The guys will be positive and pass me the mic and say something like, ‘Wait ‘til you hear a woman do it.’ ” According to Sparx, the comment isn’t meant in a patronising way, but said in an effort to draw attention to something different, new and great for a lot of people, that they should listen to.

Think about that for a second. Historically, city streets are a symbolically charged place for women to be seen, walk or be alone. In many places and cultures in the world, it still is. However, female beatboxers aren’t walking or moving on streets – they’re standing confidently in the middle of them, microphone in hand, projecting their voice. Living in a multicultural city like New York, Kaila observes that for some women who enjoy her street performance, standing and making noise in public and letting their voice be heard is something they just couldn’t do and she has experienced instances of women wanting to show their appreciation of what she’s doing in different ways, such as giving her food. This larger scale impact of beatboxing inspires Kaila: “What I’m doing is much bigger than beatboxing. We have a right to use our voices and we can use it in the most creative way we can.”

Kaila 1

This breaking down of gender barriers is somewhat reflected in organised championships. For example, this year the UK plans to no longer include a separate female category. When I contacted the organisers about the format change, they explained to me that they had created a separate category in the past to encourage more women to participate, but were now moving to a non-gender related format. It was Sparx who informed me about this change – she shared the information as an example of a progressive, positive move that helps women beatboxers and eradicates what can be perceived as an irrelevant, or even impeding, categorisation.

In the Canadian and US national championships, beatboxers are not currently separated by gender. Kaila feels it’s an advantage to be practicing and performing in North America; as there aren’t too many women on the scene, the women do battle in the same category as the men. Kaila sees this as empowering for both for women and men, helping beatboxers to develop new skills: “Women here are strong because they spar with men and vice versa.” She also adds that this is partly because “When we battle, we need to do what the other person can.” Sparx feels the same way: “[I believe that] One hundred percent [of] women have an advantage in North America as it isn’t split by gender.” However, when I spoke to the Canadian organizers, they expressed that they had thought about making a separate category for women but hadn’t due to number of participants. A change of format in which competitors are split by gender is not a move favoured by the female beatboxers I spoke to. Intending to be the first female entered in the Canadian Championships taking place this month, Sparx believes in the benefits of maintaining a non-gendered approach to contest, sharing that if men and women were separated, “we’d be going backwards, and if they did in the future, I wouldn’t participate”.

“Mouths are all different”, states Kaila, “Even if you teach a noise to someone it will sound different in that person’s mouth.” That’s not a gender thing – that’s a person thing

Battles and championships also seem devoid of stereotypical musical gender skewed spectacles. It’s not really a visual experience per se. If you closed your eyes and just listened, the majority of the time you wouldn’t be able to distinguish gender, just talent. Beatbox performances almost invite that focus by creating an environment centred almost entirely on sound. Championship contests and battles typically take place in what seem like, or at least film as, darkened stages. People are for the most part covered up in dark, plain, loose clothing – there is a lot of black, hoods up, etc. and it works to limit distraction from what’s going on. There are no glitzy outfits, no flashing lights; it’s a performance, not a show.

For the purposes of this piece, I focussed on input from current prominent female beatboxers and in no way intended to skim over efforts or challenges faced by women beatboxers in the past, or who have been around longer at a time when women perhaps weren’t so openly encouraged. I’m happy to report that although the conversations I had within the community regarding the role of female beatboxers were extremely positive, that’s not to say that there perhaps aren’t some gender related differences of experience between female and male beatboxers.

Sparx perceives the difference between the sounds women and men can make as minimal and while Kaila does perceive some difference, she also believes that any differences between men and women’s typical vocal ability balance each other out. As she explains: “Girls can still go to the low part of their range but they can also go a lot higher – males and females are equal – range is the only difference.” Sparx notes that, with practice, women can also train their voice to go lower, while Kaila also observes that a typical female range can sometimes be an advantage: “Women like Butterscotch and Pe4enkata have very low sounds and they can cut it with a high registered sound or not – it’s very powerful.” While some innate ability may be related to typified gender related ability, mouths and voices also differ individually as Kaila explains: “Beatbox uses one of the most unique instruments – you can’t fake the sound. Mouths are all different – even if you teach a noise to someone it will sound different in that person’s mouth.” That’s not a gender thing – that’s a person thing.

Kaila and Sparx also both appreciate that women might initially feel intimidated to start to beatbox and make moves to join the community. Sparx wants to encourage women to participate: “Anyone can do it – all it takes is a mouth. If you take a skeleton, the mouths are all the same.” Intimidation can also work both ways and impact behaviour, as Kaila notes: “Sometimes men are afraid of women coming onto the scene, but it’s tied to their egos – they don’t want to lose to a girl. That’s society’s fault – but we’re moving away from that as a community and as a world – fear makes men say that.”

Sparx 1

The praise that Kaila receives can also be somewhat gender linked, as she explains: “I do get a lot of backhanded compliments like: ‘I didn’t know a woman could do that.’” Yet, in typical Kaila fashion, she finds the positivity in this experience: “The more men I beat – until more women are doing it – will encourage others and let women know not to let anyone tell them they can’t do it – to carry on the path.” However, sometimes the sexist, skewed experiences of negativity are not so easy to spin. Though Sparx reports that “at any events, there’s no problems”, she also acknowledges that “online, there’s hatred. Sometimes girls don’t want to post because it’s intimidating.” But, again, the beatbox community steps up and protects its own. Sparx has defended friends in the past when negative and sexist comments were made online in response to their postings and, ultimately, that’s part of the larger outlook of the beatbox community, as she explains: “We all defend each other – we’re a community that doesn’t have room for hatred.”

One solution-focussed strategy Sparx employs to combat the effects of negativity online is to reach out to and connect with female beatboxers all over the world via social media. “We have a Facebook group and I’m always finding more and women are being added to it,” she explains, “we now have close to 70 members.” Not an insignificant number and as Sparx herself admits: “I had no idea there were so many [women] out there – it’s evolving, it’s growing.” Sparx would like to see this trend continue: “I hope at the next world championships there’s not just a top eight, there’s enough to make a top 16.”

Beatbox has been such a positive force in their lives that both Kaila and Sparx actively strive to share their skills and beatboxing with others. Kaila has been teaching beatbox for three years in New York City and it is something she feels very strongly about: “When there are cuts in funding in NYC, the first thing that gets cut is the arts, but they’re important – it teaches kids preference, expression and truths about themselves.” Kaila also strives to use her talents as a way to spread positivity and positive messaging in her community as much as possible, and she finds that her time spent teaching kids to beatbox enables her to empower children too: “They learn that their voice is important.” She also teaches beatboxing and beat rhyme to children with visual and mental disabilities, where it is used as a therapeutic tool. Here, beatboxing methods are applied as a more entertaining form of speech therapy that the kids have fun practicing.

Sparx also gives back to the beatbox community in a significant way. She admits to spending hours online each week seeking out women beatboxers. “I find a way to message and connect with them,” she explains, adding: “I also try to connect them with beatboxers near them.” Both Sparx and Kaila feel that this in-person connection, especially in the form of actual live performances, is a very powerful and positive experience for female beatboxers. As Sparx explains: “I push them to go to live events – it all changes at that first event. It’s the first time you meet the family and it’s a really great experience. No one forgets their first event.” Though these initial performances and connections may be impactful for emerging performers, they’re just as important for more experienced performers, as Sparx explains: “I go to so many live events – it feeds me.”

My advice? Search these women out online. While they’re using their breath to create all kinds of amazing rhythms, sounds and music, they’ll take your breath away.

If you or someone you know locks themselves in their room, listening to hours of online beatbox performances and online lessons, testing out rhythms and sounds, all the while aspiring to become a beatboxer, what advice would these very successful women have? We’ll let the last word on that topic go to the current world champion, Kaila, who advises wannabe and emerging female beatboxers in her quintessentially sincere and positive way: “Stay true to yourself and don’t worry about what people say. The community has your back, I have your back. Let your soul be heard.”

You can find out more about Kaila Mullady and Sparx on Facebook, the Global Female Beatbox page, as well as their YouTube and Vine listings.

The first image is a full body shot of Sparx performing onstage. Strong lights are visible at the top of the picture and reflect onto the stage floor next to where Sparx is performing. She holds a mic to her mouth and faces away from the camera.

The second image shows Kaila in the foreground performing on a high street. In the background, people stand and watch her. She holds a mic to her mouth and wears a cherry red beanie style hat.

The third image shows Sparx performing onstage, facing the camera. She wears a t-shirt which reads ‘Freedom of Beats’ and pink shorts. She is in mid flow.

The first video shows Kaila Mullady making different sounds using her mouth.

The second video shows Sparx making different sounds using her mouth.

The third and final video shows Kaila Mullady and Sparx in a beatbox battle. The two women take turns to make different sounds using their mouth – beatboxing – to compete in the final of the fourth beatbox world challenge.