Drummer, composer and producer Romarna Campbell (*) talks about meeting her teenage inspirations, how she nearly gave up drums and the complex challenges of being a Black woman in music. Feature for International Women’s Day 2022 by Amy Sibley-Allen
26-year-old drummer, composer and producer Romarna Campbell potters around her kitchen in South London, making a late lunch as we chat over Zoom, propping her screen up on the countertop. Whilst there appears to be some growing normality, it feels remiss to not touch on the impact of the recent pandemic-infused years: “I was touring Europe with a band when it struck,” she explains. “We were all scrambling to get home before lockdown. I’d been studying at Berklee in Boston but was in the process of moving to New York, but I couldn’t get back to America. In the end I got a flight to the UK, back to my Mum’s in Birmingham with just my tour bag and cymbals.” No-one knew of course quite how long it would go on for. “I’ve still not been back; my drums are still in my locker at school, and I’ve graduated now.”
As for many, that period provided the time to learn new things and create: “It was tough but positive in many ways, with more time for writing and music production. I taught myself how to use Ableton, so I decided to write, arrange, perform, and produce 25 new songs, solely using Ableton, for my 25th birthday.”
The year 2020 also saw the death of George Floyd and sparked a renewed focus on racism’s prevalence in the US and the UK. A commission by the charity responsible for Birmingham’s THSH (Town Hall Symphony Hall), in response to systematic racism and racial injustice, resulted in Campbell writing Inherently Political, but it was not without its challenges. “This was an incredibly tough one for me personally, some days it can be both traumatic and exhausting to talk about how hard it is to be Black.” The piece is about how assumptions are made about you every time you walk in a room? ”Yes exactly, I can literally be holding drumsticks, and someone will ask if I am the singer, for example.”
What’s clear is that talking about race and gender independently is tricky, hence the importance of recognising intersectionality. “I arrived for a gig the other day and the sound guy wouldn’t talk to me. I’m left wondering if that’s because I’m a woman, or perhaps because I’m Black? I’ve been invited to this space to create and perform but my energy is spent wondering why this guy is behaving like this. I asked directly for a bass drum mic and got nothing in return. The rest of the day I had to run all my questions to the sound guy via the pianist or bass player, because some days I just don’t have the energy.”
There is a myriad of ways these things impact on life as a musician. “I often wonder whether the reason I got an opportunity is because that organisation or venue can apply for specific pots of money,” Romarna muses. “I can’t help but think I am a ticking a box and filling a diversity quota.” Then of course there are the continual conversations around pay gap issues between men and women. “It is something I really think about before I accept a job, I’ll ask how much my male counterparts are being paid.” Which doesn’t always go down very well: “I can be seen as problematic for asking but interestingly sometimes more money is somehow found when questioned.”
As she puts the finishing touches to her lunch we shift to talking about inspirational female musicians; studying at Berklee meant being tutored by the likes of the highly acclaimed drummer, composer and producer Terri Lyne Carrington. Amongst many things, she pioneered the Berklee Jazz & Gender Institute, one of the key stipulations being all ensembles are 50% diverse. “There was a lot of kickback on that,” Campbell highlights. “But she was adamant that we need to see bands that reflect the world we live in and after a while it did became the norm. It really highlighted that I was the only woman playing in ensembles outside the institute, and it makes you question why they couldn’t do it?”
So, what is it like to get mentored by the likes of Carrington? “I was so intimidated by her,” she laughs. “I remember reading Jazzwise magazine articles about her when I was 14/15. There were two women that really stood out to me at that age, Terri Lyne Carrington and Cindy Blackman (American jazz and rock drummer). I still have those copies of Jazzwise somewhere. It took me years to realise that someone that looked like me was doing what I wanted to do!” No pressure then in getting tutored by your teenage idols! “There was a lot of pressure, I actually nearly stopped playing the drums when I started at Berklee, which was a bit of a curveball. I just felt that maybe I wasn’t good enough, but as much as I have questioned whether to continue playing drums over the years, I always come back to the fact that there is nothing like it.”
Who else impresses you at the moment, I ask? “Jen Shyu (American vocalist/composer) and Sara Serpa (Portuguese vocalist/composer) are just amazing. They co-founded M³ (Mutual Mentorships for Musicians) and recently commissioned me.” M³ provides a platform worldwide for empowering women, non-binary musicians and underrepresented gender identities through mentorships and commissions.
“I also recently came across Rachel Chinouriri (British singer/songwriter). Her music is incredible, she did some produced work recently which got labelled as soul, but it’s not, and she has been very vocal about the assumption that all Black women who sing are soul singers. She’s started an intense industry chat against stereotyping based on looks and race, saying that she might not have the ‘alternative look’ but that is very much how she would describe her music.”
Recently there has been a lot of talk about emerging artists not having had opportunities to play live. Campbell lectures at BIMM (British and Irish Modern Music Institute) and has found this to be true. “My students are killer musicians, but many have never played a gig. They’ve got as far as university but never played live, never played outside their bedroom, or they only have an electric kit at home, and they are going through the process of learning to play an acoustic. I was so lucky to perform from such a young age.”
Of course, she is talking about how grateful she is for growing up and playing with both The Notebenders and Tomorrow’s Warriors: “They gave me the chance to explore being in a real-life band with so many performance opportunities. I joined when I was nine and I couldn’t even see over the drum kit,” she laughs. ‘‘I was so little, there are photos of me, legs stretched out to the pedals and I’m like yeah, I’m the drummer!”
What are the plans for the future? “I’m trying to split my time evenly between producing, composing and playing, especially with my Trio (ft. bassist Mutale Chashi and pianist Cenk Esen). I was just awarded the PRS Women Make Music fund, so we’re going to make a record and get that touring. That’s my central inspiration and my hope is that the album comes out in November this year.” Anything else? “I’m also writing for film currently, which is exciting, but more coming on that soon. I’d really love to work with Kris Bowers (American film score composer) in the future, it would be amazing to write for a series.” On that note, I leave Campbell to eat her lunch.
(*) Romarna’s storytelling begins with the drums. The nomadic spirit of this exciting drummer, producer and composer lives in her jazz and hip hop-infused music. Her irrepressible energy can be heard on ‘Inherently Political’, a super-charged sonic assault on racism that immediately won favour with Anne Frankenstein, Jazz FM’s Tony Minvielle and had her crowned by Jamz Supernova as New Name of the Week. Her independently-released kaleidoscopic debut ‘25 Songs For My 25th Birthday’ features Soweto Kinch, Tomeka Reid, Sumi Tonooka and Lady Sanity and takes us deeper into her world of resonant frequencies and conscious vibrations. Having honed her craft with Berklee College of Music, Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Notebenders, Romarna stands on the shoulders of giants and is drawing inspiration from the view as she beats a path forward that is very much her own.