How La’Shondra Got Her Groove Back

Making music in the male-dominated realms of hip-hop and music technology, La’Shondra Hemphill—aka RyNea Soul—hopes to serve as a role model for other women in the industry. 

Written by Rosalind Fournier; Portrait by Beau Gustafson

As a young girl, La’Shondra Hemphill used to spend a lot of time in the summers teaching herself how to play the drums. She would put on a Whitney Houston album and teach herself to keep up with the time and rhythm. Music became one of her earliest passions.

Then in college, at Jacksonville State University, Hemphill got curious about music technology, and a guy she knew told her about a new software program he was using. He even gave her a copy of it…but he wouldn’t show her how to use it. “I would call him and ask, ‘Hey, what do I next?’” she remembers. “And he would say, ‘Oh, you’ll figure it out.’ He wouldn’t show me.”

It was emblematic of a major problem—essentially, sexism—that Hemphill has encountered over and over again in the music industry, particularly in music technology and hip-hop, which have traditionally been male-dominated fields. But the thing is, Hemphill did learn how to use that technology. Judging by her success as a music producer, DJ, and recently artist-in-residence at the Alys Stephens Center, she’s learned quite a lot, in fact, while developing a sound that’s purely her own.

Still, Hemphill continued to face gender bias in her career for a long time in the early days. “Men in that industry weren’t having it,” she remembers. “I would hear, ‘Well, you sound okay for a girl,’ or ‘Did your boyfriend produce that?’”

Early on, she was hired as a ghost producer for a gospel label—the pay was decent, but she received no credit for her contributions. Then she was discovered anonymously by a gospel/hip-hop label through an Internet file-exchange site. “I would put all my music on this site called, but I had no picture. It was just my music. And somebody from this label reached out to me and said, ‘Hey dude, we love your music.’ So I would send them music, and they would pay me—I was in college, so I needed the money.’” She chose to ignore their mistaken assumption about her gender, and as the relationship grew, she kept up the ruse. “I disguised myself as ‘Johnny Quest,’ because I knew if they knew I was a woman, it wouldn’t go down.” That fell apart when she was invited to go and meet the executives in Nashville and had little choice but to come clean. “They didn’t ask for any more music from me,” Hemphill says. “All along they’d been saying, ‘These beats are dope!’ But then when it was revealed that I’m a woman, it just completely stopped.

“And for a minute, it really did get to me.”

But she resolved never, ever to disguise herself again, and Hemphill has been making music under her own name—or her new alias, RyNea Soul—ever since. Now she is proud to serve as an example of a woman making music on her own terms. It’s paid off, too. Her music sells on iTunes and through other venues; she’s been working as a DJ for two years; and recently she served as artist-in-residence at the Alys Stephens Center.

All of these life experiences to date have convinced Hemphill that the most important role she can serve is as a mentor to young people and demonstrating by example that a woman can be a leader in this field. In 2012, she founded the Initiative for Creative Arts, which provides Birmingham youth with a program “to self-express by way of beat making and music production.” Its mission includes using the music to help foster creativity and teach entrepreneurial, leadership, and life skills. A spinoff of that organization, SheShock Hip Hop, is specifically designed to empower and inspire girls to engage with music technology. Hemphill is also on the board of Girls Rock Birmingham, which shares her goals of, among other things, helping girls build self-esteem and find their voices through music education and performance.

“I never had a reference,” Hemphill says. “That’s why representation and visibility are so important to me, so that women and girls have a reference, so they can see they can do this well because I did it and I am doing it.”

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