Welcome to POWER PLAYS, a brand-spankin’ new column for your feminist listening pleasure in which we gather up our favorite jams and then make ’em into mixtapes!
I really love feminist musicians. They just get me, in that they won’t tolerate this patriarchal bullsh*t, y’know? These are my five favorites, which I think you’ll love, too. If you’d rather just listen, skip to the bottom for the playlist!
1. Angel Haze
Despite still working on whether or not she fully identifies as a feminist, the work of Angel Haze, a 23-year-old rapper from Brooklyn, has certainly made more space for feminism within the music industry. A black and indigenous woman of color who identifies as pansexual, Haze gained increasing mainstream popularity with her cover of Macklemore’s “Same Love” in 2013. She is an artist with an incredible talent for story telling, as proven in her cover of Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” where she discusses her own experiences with sexual assault. She’s also discussed eating disorders and homophobia, and remains pretty unproblematic and aware of the context that she’s working in. Not only does Haze not hide her identity, she pushes it to the forefront of her work, making it impossible for listeners to pretend that she is anyone other than exactly who she is.
Haze has also publicly spoken about how women need to support each other, saying, “There’s always someone enforcing that you have to be better than her. Women have to protect other women. I feel like ultimately, we should all probably try to protect each other. That’ll work better.” Her words radiate feminism and fight against the girl-on-girl hate that is so wholeheartedly encouraged by the music industry.
Angel Haze is a raw, talented female rapper with a positivity that radiates through her work. In her 2014 track, “A Tribe Called Red,” Haze reinforces this further with the phrase, “Don’t give up,” which reverberates deeply through the song’s hook.
With songs like “Galang,” “Boys,” and “XXXO” M.I.A., a Sri Lankan refugee and visual artist, exists in a musical space that smashes together a combo of hip-hop, alternative, and electro beats. As a female artist of many talents, M.I.A. is able to pull together music that accomplishes her goals – not the goals of anyone else. If she wants to make a pop hit, she will; if she wants to push something more outwardly political, she will – either way, M.I.A. remains one of the top feminist artists of 2014.
The activist’s most obviously feminist song is “Bad Girls,” featured in Matangi, M.I.A.’s fourth studio album. Released in 2012, the pump-up song questions the Saudi Arabian law that bans women from driving. The right to drive campaign began in Saudi Arabia in 2011, and, in “Bad Girls,” M.I.A. shows solidarity with rebellious women drivers. The video for “Bad Girls” features a number of women driving, a testament to M.I.A.’s activism.
In a 2013 interview with NPR, M.I.A. discusses her background, culturally-based misunderstandings between her message and interpreters, and her independence.
“I did the journey myself — nobody had to come to my village and save me and articulate my story. I’d learned the language myself, I built the platform myself, got to a microphone myself, got nominated for a Grammy and an Oscar the same month, to make the biggest platform possible in America. Then I told the story — and it didn’t translate. A lot of people were like, ‘Just make music; don’t talk about politics.’ But I was in a very difficult position: I was the only Tamil rapper [on the international stage], so when a whole bunch of Tamil people were dying, I had to tell you about it.”
And M.I.A. isn’t finished bringing reality to her listeners. In 2013’s “Boom (Skit),” M.I.A. makes commentary on her feeling unwelcome in the United States as a result of her race and ethnicity. This is where M.I.A. gains further feminist credibility – she is consistently intersectional, pulling from her own identities to make music that encourages listeners to question their understandings of the world in hopes that they will walk away more socially conscious (and maybe with a fun beat pumping through their heads as well).
3. Nicki Minaj
When we talk feminism, too often we forget Nicki Minaj. Easily one of the most popular female artists and rappers in the industry, Nicki Minaj has earned loads of awards and recognition without losing her unique creative spirit and dedication to bringing something new to the industry. She refuses to be trapped in the box that so many female artists are forced into and has instead reached far and wide, grasping at different personalities, appearances, and acts – and she’s good at it. Her talent layers with her identity in a way that encourages women to recognize that they don’t have to be any one thing; they can experiment with who they are.
Even more importantly on a larger scale is Minaj’s commitment to using her fame to point out misogyny in the music industry. One of these most notable moments was in 2012 when she tore apart the word “bitch,”stating, “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He bossed up. No negative connotation behind ‘bossed up.’ But lots of negative connotation behind being a ‘bitch.'”
At the end of the day, Minaj is not only a rapper and an artist – she’s a businesswoman, and she wants to be seen that way. She is careful to maintain a certain amount of control over her career and has profited as a result. In a 2013 interview with Rosenberg of Hot 97, Minaj addresses not only the limits placed on black women (something important in itself), but she takes it a step further to address why she keeps control of her business and refuses to let people take advantage of her. She says:
I handle my business, and also, I speak up for myself. If I was not like this, so many people would have taken advantage of me. What people don’t understand is that when I came…when I was doing this…I took a lot of shit from people…from men…who didn’t want me to realize my own worth, who didn’t want me to know the truth about who I was and how good I was.
Minaj is an artist who is both serious and playful, and who embraces both sides of her self. Her videos alone illustrate the staggering difference between either side of her, with 2011’s “Super Bass” being colorful and playful, and 2014’s controversial but arguably empowering “Lookin Ass” being shot entirely in black and white.
4. Janelle Monáe
Last year, 28 year old R&B/funk/Afrofuturistic artist Janelle Monáe exploded onto the music scene with artful performances, dance moves both impressive and adorable and a determination to rock the way that we look at black female artists.
Her most recent album, The Electric Lady, was released last fall (but a music video for the title track was just released in July!) and features striking tracks that bend genres: a goal of Monáe’s. In the album itself as well as in her performances, which overwhelmingly feature women of color, Monáe blesses the music scene with something very new, very necessary, and very feminist.
In “Q.U.E.E.N”, a song that features fellow WoC and activist Erykah Badu, Monáe continues to challenge oppressive social norms that exist within the music industry and beyond. In an interview with Jeff Benjamin of Fuse HQ, Monáe said: “‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ definitely is an acronym. The ‘Q’ represents the queer community, the ‘U’ for the untouchables, the ‘E’ for emigrants, the second ‘E’ for the excommunicated and the ‘N’ for those labeled as negroid.”
And Monáe’s challenge to society doesn’t stop there. In an interview with Gillian “Gus” Andrews of i09 in 2010, Monáe stated, “I feel like I have a responsibility to my community and other young girls to help redefine what it looks like to be a woman. I don’t believe in men’s wear or women’s wear, I just like what I like. And I think we should just be respected for being an individual.”
Basically, Monáe is incredible because she embodies what she preaches. When I saw her live last fall, I felt empowered by her very presence. She moves across a stage like she knows she’s worked hard to get there, and she doesn’t want to waste a single second – and she doesn’t. She uses every second to do something, whether she is working to pump up her audience members (who are incredibly diverse) or give a tribute or shout out, as she did when mentioning Trayvon Martin at the show I attended. She knows her power, and she uses it for good. This is why, without a doubt, Janelle Monáe earns a spot on this list of my five favorite feminist artists.
5. Little Mix
When I first learned of Little Mix I was really, really excited. The super diverse girl group made up of Perrie Edwards, Jesy Nelson, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, and Jade Thirlwall formed as a result of The X Factor and released their debut album in 2012, gaining increasing popularity. Their 2014 album Salute was not only co-written by members of Little Mix but gained definitely more recognition, especially with the title track itself.
The group is definitely putting a feminist, positive spin on the industry with their work. They’ve already become engaged with philanthropy and work with BeatBullying, an anti-cyberbulling organization. Not only are their hearts in the right place, but they have feminist overtones throughout their tracks.
“Salute” rings of Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” in its call for women to gather and be represented in a strong and empowering way.
Parts of this post were reproduced with full permission from Limelight Music Group, LLC by the same author.
POWER PLAYS, Vol. 1: My Five Favorite Feminist Artists
- A Tribe Called Red – Angel Haze
- Battle Cry ft. Sia – Angel Haze
- Illygirl – M.I.A.
- Bad Girls – M.I.A.
- The Boys ft. Cassie – Nicki Minaj
- Boss Ass Bitch – Nicki Minaj
- Electric Lady – Janelle Monae
- Q.U.E.E.N. ft. Erykah Badu – Janelle Monae
- Salute – Little Mix