Honey Jam: 20 Years of Shining a Light on Top Female Talent

Published Friday May 22nd


If necessity is the mother of invention then Ebonnie Rowe is the daughter whose work turns obstacles into opportunities. As the founder and CEO of PhemPhat Entertainment Group, Rowe has fostered the talent of young Canadian women musicians for two decades, particularly through the production of Honey Jam, an annual all-female, multicultural, multi-genre showcase held in Toronto.

In 1995, Ebonnie was a legal assistant who also ran the Each One, Teach One mentoring program. Through her efforts, the outspoken Rowe found herself confronting the issue of sexism in hip-hop culture, and in the music industry more broadly. She was invited to edit a special all-female issue of Mic Check magazine, which launched with a wrap party dubbed ‘Honey Jam.’ It was meant to be a one-off, but Honey Jam resonated and sparked a series.

“There was no real outlet for women as DJs and MCs­,” explains Rowe in a conversation with TD Music. “The first ones were very hip-hop focused because Honey Jam came out of how women were negatively portrayed in hip-hop culture. I thought I’d give it a year and see how it went. Now here we are, 20 years later.”

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Initially held at an intimate venue, Honey Jam soon grew to fill a 700-person club after promoter Jonathan Ramos invited PhemPhat to produce the party as part of his Hip-Hop Sundays event.

The second one we did with Jonathan, in 1997, was when Nelly Furtado performed,” Rowe recalls. “Things changed a lot because shortly after that, she blew up.

“After that, we had to be more serious. Before, it was just for the love so if you’d said to me ‘Ebonnie, my niece can sing,’ I’d say ‘Okay, bring her.’ But once Honey Jam was on the calendar of industry people, the press was coming, and expectations were so much higher, we had to put more structure to it. We had to deliver.”

To do so, Rowe added auditions, complete with music industry judged, to ensure the talent featured at the annual summer concert would be remarkable. It worked; other musicians who received early career boosts on Honey Jam stages include Melanie Fiona, Jully Black, and Kellylee Evans.

Now, 20 years deep, Ebonnie feels that the playing field has leveled a great deal (“There’s so many more women in the industry. I felt revolutionary in the beginning, but I no longer feel like I have to come with an ice pick at the glass ceiling.”), and sees Honey Jam as a developmental program for young artists. Along with the concert spotlight and related prizes, there are workshops, mentoring and networking opportunities, and other benefits.

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“But what most artists talk about is the warm, welcoming and supportive space to be themselves - a sisterhood of sorts,” shares Rowe. “Because it’s not a competition, the girls bond immediately. They can be relaxed with each other, they go support each other at their different shows, and form their own little artistic community.”

TD is pleased to support the efforts of PhemPhat, including through sponsorship of the highly anticipated Honey Jam Canada Auditions, taking place Sunday May 31st at Mod Club Theatre. Each year, roughly 200 young women perform for one minute each, giving it their all in front of an audience that is a mix of friends, artists, industry people, and music loving spectators. Though only 15 to 20 will be ultimately be chosen to perform at this year’s Honey Jam Canada Concert on August 13th, Ebonnie emphasizes that the vibe during auditions is absolutely celebratory.

“It’s not a tense atmosphere at all. The artists aren’t actually told on that day if they’re in the show so after they perform, they can leave, but they stay. They stay and cheer on the others. Everyone is very supportive of each other. It’s a beautiful experience.”

The experience kicks off with a special 20th Anniversary Party taking place May 27 at Revival. As with all Honey Jam events, everyone is welcome.