By Sunni Anderson
Sitting across from songwriter and producer Ester Dean as she settles into a Zoom call from her bright studio, I perceive her warm aura through my monitor. Vibrant pink furnishings accent the room, like a visual representation of the electric feminine energy at work. A successful hitmaker for legends like Beyoncé (“Count Down”), Rihanna (“Rude Boy”), Selena Gomez (“Come & Get It”), and Katy Perry (“Firework”), she knows firsthand the power women have to shape the future of music, both on the mic and behind the soundboard. Now, she is using her platform to open doors for the next generation of music-makers.
Starting out in underground studios in Omaha, Nebraska, before relocating to Atlanta at age 20, she understands that the obstacles barring entry to the music industry, like purchasing equipment and renting studio time, can be difficult to overcome. Today, less than 2 percent of producers are women, and fewer still are women of color. That’s why Dean collaborated with Girls Make Beats to expose girls to the careers of producers, DJs, and audio engineers. The program offers one-on-one mentorship with working professionals and provides music equipment for hands-on courses, which Dean hopes will make the journey more accessible, especially for those from underprivileged backgrounds. She is working in collaboration with Mattel, who even created a music producer Barbie doll to inspire young women to pursue a career in the industry. “If you want to know what a girl sounds like, let her make beats,” Dean tells MTV News. “If you want to know what the essence of a woman is, have her make music.”
Dean remembers it was “hearing Black women sing and just have all the swag” that inspired her to step into her creativity unapologetically. “Mary J. Blige, Kelly Price, Faith Evans, SWV with the b-boy outfits. Women in the R&B, hip-hop genres made me want to do everything they were doing.” Seeing artists that looked like her gave Dean the confidence to pursue a career in music, which underscored for her the importance of representation. She tells MTV News how she believes that the next generation can close the gender gap by exuding confidence in their work, showing up with a business-first attitude, and never seeking the validation of the boys.
MTV News: From your time and experience, can you speak about the representation of women behind the scenes and why you believe that narrative exists?
Ester Dean: I have only been in the music industry for 10 years. I watched the secret, turned it into my manifestation, and came to California, worked like a dog. And I didn't see just males. I didn't just see females. I saw a group of people in their working lives. The first time I looked at an interview and it said that other people had written the song I wrote, I was like, how did they get that magazine to say that?
The gap is when you're working in the back, you don't come up to greet the people in the front. You know, the chefs don't come out. I've learned, if I have PR, when the song came out, I was also involved in the conversation. I do believe whether it's a woman or a man, the gap between people knowing who wrote the music and who produced the music is based on PR. It's like, you can say you did it all day on Instagram, but that ain't going to take you that far. It's going to get some likes, but it's not going to get global exposure. So I tell every producer, every songwriter, everybody I meet: Are you going to get your PR?
MTV News: When it comes to gaining support behind the scenes, what do you think women need? What has worked for you that you would like to see more of?
Dean: I was on every email you could possibly imagine. I always was my manager. Even when I didn’t have managers, I was my manager. I went to 8 o'clock meetings. I went to 10-o'clock-at-night meetings. I was always present in shaking the hand of the person that I was doing business with. Rihanna or Beyoncé or Nicki, I was going to show up, and I never let anybody speak for me. But if you are under a manager who has 15 people, your song is just a stream of consciousness. I think representing yourself in the room is how you get representation. You are your representation.
Every girl should think business first because that's what boys are thinking. Am I getting credit? Am I getting paid?” All those things are conversations about what goes on the album's credits, what goes into the internet. What's your elevator pitch? I've always worked on my elevator pitch of “Ester Dean did this with these people, but I am here to only represent myself.”
MTV News: Why is it important that we have more women producers show up unapologetically in the music industry?
Dean: It's important to have a balance. I was thinking this morning, I said, what does music sound like in a woman's essence? We do hair. We do makeup. We put on our clothes — I got on pink. Girl, I decorated this whole house pink because it's my essence. So what does a pink album sound like? Nicki Minaj. What do pink beats sound like? What does a purple beat sound like? What does a unicorn producer look like? Because that's what girls do. We are very magical.
MTV News: Who are some examples of what that femininity might sound like?
Dean: Chloe x Halle, they are producers. They have been producers. I met them when they were babies, and they were in there, making beats with all their harmonics. And they had every note to it. That's what a woman producer sounds like.
MTV News: What is your vision behind Girls Make Beats and your collaboration with Barbie?
Dean: We give feeling, right? Guys give feeling, too, but we give a different kind of feeling. Can you imagine a 13-year-old who had her heart broken, and she goes to the beat machine and she just starts playing her heartbeat? Or it's her birthday and she starts making sounds that sound like her birthday. It's going to sound different. It's going to sound amazing, just as much as a 13-year-old boy doing it for his first win. So I feel like the gap will be closed once they understand that there's a system for you and there are tools.
That's why I love Barbie for putting the mixing machine in there, the computer with the screen next to the producer. When she plays this with her toys and she plays with her Barbie producer doll, she will have to imagine herself making a beat. She would have to hear the sounds. She would have to produce this out in her head. And then when she says, “I want to make music for Katy Perry, I want to make music for Beyoncé, I want to make it for Dua Lipa, I want to make music for Chloe x Halle,” she's going to have to go listen to them. She's going to have to go see what they felt like.
MTV News: How has the industry evolved toward closing the gender gap?
Dean: The music industry is a grind-time kind of thing. You're not even friends with anybody. You’ve got your head down and you're working. We are all in a race by ourselves. It's a competitive game. And then every track that comes out doesn't have people's real names on it. It'll be like “Slick Beats” or “8.5 Beats.” With so many people, you don't even know if it's a girl or guy. You don't even know if it was five people. You don't know if it was one person.
I believe women need to know that they can be it. I don't know if girls know that they could pick up the beat machine, and now we're here as representation to tell them, yes, you can.
MTV News: What do you think the future holds for the next generation of female music producers, DJs, and audio engineers?
Dean: The future for girls is creative expression. This is therapy for me. So just thinking about all these women who are trying to self-care and self-cope, when you can just put it through sound and you can make it through sound. I think it's going to be a lot of healing. I think, overall, mental health is going to get better. Overall direction is going to get better because this is a very technical kind of career. And somehow you start finding your own voice. Whether it's through sound or your own voice through music, you're going to find yours. Anytime you create something from scratch, you start finding who you really are. If you want to know what a girl sounds like, let her make beats. If you want to know what the essence of a woman is, have her make music. And it's going to pour over the world like a rainbow.
It all starts with imagination. I think girls can start reprogramming themselves to take care of themselves and not need the validation of a boy. Validate yourself. As long as we plant these beautiful seeds, the world is going to change. It's going to evolve, it's going to become more musical, and it's just going to be a beautiful experience. I believe that.