by Inda Lauryn
Black women in music have always mixed their politics with their art, whether or not they intended to do so. This year, not only did many black female music artists excel in the music industry, but they also held it down by making an impact on larger society. Whether they addressed police brutality, feminism, sexual empowerment, or the value of black women’s lives, we are grateful for these black women in music who held it down while lifting us up.
Photo credit: XXL Magazine
Many Black women have a love/hate relationship with Azealia Banks, but we simply cannot ignore her. When she is on her A game, she spits truths about race, gender, and sexuality we have always known. This does not mean we ignore problematic statements she has makes, but she does offer an opportunity to have dialogues regarding race and gender in the music industry. Banks’ confrontation of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea struck a chord with many who have acknowledged the role white privilege has played in Iggy’s success. Her recent impassioned thoughts on racism in the music industry during a HOT 97 interview shows that she is keenly aware of the realities of race and gender in determining who makes it and who gets left behind, despite talent and drive. Banks makes us want to root for her, particularly since the release of her acclaimed debut album Broke with Expensive Tastes.
Photo credit: Instagram
This year, Beyoncé made it known that she was undeniably a feminist, although she has supported women’s empowerment through her entire career. For instance, she tours with The Suga Mamas, which includes 10 women musicians and background vocalists from diverse backgrounds. She also continues her empowerment work off the stage with the Beyoncé Cosmetology Center in the Phoenix House Career Academy, a holistic rehabilitation treatment center for substance abuse; Chime for Change (co-founded with Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini), a campaign which supports projects addressing education, health, and justice for girls and women; and donating millions of dollars to a housing complex for homeless in her hometown of Houston. Although mainstream (white) feminists continue to criticize Knowles for her sexualized image, it is undeniable that she has become a representative for feminism. In her own words, “You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist and a feminist—whatever you want to be—and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.” She embodied all of these things in her latest music video “7/11,” the latest anthem for many Carefree Black Girls.
Photo credit: Young Turks
FKA twigs has been one of the most interesting new faces in music this year. Her debut album LP1 was named TIME’s #1 album of the year and made #9 on Pitchfork’s list. Twigs also made #16 on Rolling Stone’s top album list with her Grammy-nominated effort. However, with all the accolades, the one thing that stands out about Twigs is that she defies genre with her sound no matter how many critics try to pigeonhole her into R&B. (Her sound is more reminiscent of Fiona Apple and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons than Beyoncé and Rihanna.) In interviews, twigs discussed her struggle to create music on her own terms, despite the pressure to conform to the expectations others have based on the color of her skin. FKA twigs speaks to the creative, eccentric black girl in all of us who wish to be free from society’s limited expectations.
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Janelle Monàe has always been about letting black girls be their authentic selves and breaking expectations of what black womanhood should be. Monàe has stayed true to herself since she came on the scene in her black and white “uniform.” This year, she enjoyed the continued success of her 2013 album The Electric Lady, and also released a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and took to Sesame Street to show us the “Power of Yet.” She continued spreading her messages of self-love and acceptance, while also voicing her frustrations with racism by publicly showing her support to Ferguson protesters over the summer. Still, Monàe stays endearing to black women everywhere because she opens herself up, making her easy to identify with—such as what happened during a recent interview on the now defunct Queen Latifah Show.
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Ms. Lauryn Hill has always been near and dear to black women. I know we’re all still listening to 1998’s classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill while awaiting the release of new music, and we’ve stood by her through her various trials and tribulations. This year, Hill showed that her voice is still relevant when she released “Black Rage,” her response to the summer protests in Ferguson. Set to the tune of “My Favorite Things,” Hill expressed the black community’s frustration, pain, and outrage in the wake of several tragedies that showed us just how far we have not come as a country. She has also been performing again, showing the power of her endurance.
Photo credit: FADER Magazine
It’s possible that no black woman in the music industry stirred up more controversy this year than Nicki Minaj. First, there was the anger over her use of Malcolm X’s image for her single, “Lookin’ Ass N*gga.” Then she was both celebrated and maligned for her song and music video for “Anaconda,” Minaj brought the discussion around black women’s bodies and sexual agency front and center. And she stirred up further controversy with her lyric video for “Only.” She has become even more outspoken on creating her image on her own terms and frequently tells young black girls to love themselves. Furthermore, she constantly calls out and confronts double standards of race and gender in the music industry as well as in larger society.
Photo credit: Teen Vogue
Willow Smith is our favorite #CarefreeBlackGirl. While many black children—especially black girls—are not allowed to explore and self-define their identities, Smith has done so repeatedly with the support of her parents. This is refreshing, as she lives a way few black girls ever get to experience. Her outspokenness has gotten her criticism, rather than praise, for creating her own style and expressing herself in ways that make others feel uncomfortable. She and her brother Jaden are often labeled as bizarre or weird for expressing their self-confidence and self-consciousness, when they are simply being teens. In the meantime, Smith continues to make music—such as her recent collaboration “9” with SZA and a well-received performance at The Fader Fort.
Inda Lauryn is a regular contributor at For Harriet.