Over the last forty years, politically charged music has largely been associated with either white punk bands like the Dead Kennedys or Black male hip-hop collectives like NWA. The 90s then saw the rise of the riot grrrl punk scene with acts like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney front and center challenging the patriarchy in their own way. However, the scene still managed to exclude women of color from its project despite the fact that the very people who paved the way for them were those very women! From Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and Alice Bag of The Bags, to Odetta, Nina Simone, and Joan Baez, women of color have been pioneering and revolutionizing music and using it to give voice to the social issues of their time, and yet they continue to be erased and forgotten from music history's collective memory.
Women of color may still be the most oppressed, marginalized, disenfranchised, and erased demographic in the world, but we're also the backbone of our movements of resistance; the most radical, militant, and brave fighters; and we've been expressing that revolutionary spirit musically (and otherwise) for a long-ass time despite our erasure from folk, punk, hip-hop, and art in general. Now, a new wave of artists and bands like Ana Tijoux, M.I.A., Beyoncé and Las Cafeteras are bringing political issues out of the underground and into the mainstream and forcing pop culture to accurately present women of color for who we actually are: bad-ass radicals who speak-up, speak-out, and fight for justice.
There is, of course, a gradient in the levels of radicalization and militancy among these female artists with Ana Tijoux, Shadia Monsour, and M.I.A. being the furthest on the left, but the reality is that they're all talking about gender inequality, or racism, or reproductive and economic justice/injustice to some degree, and they're doing so in ways that are effectively reaching more people than ever before. Beyoncé, for example, has done more to bring the word feminism into the mainstream than any other person or band ever has, regardless of how many people think she's "feminist enough" or the "right" type of feminist. Bey is today's most recognizable feminist icon and that matters because she's not only the world's most famous pop star, she's also a Black woman — three things that used to be mutually exclusive. The very fact that she's introducing millions of young women, especially young women of color to the concepts of gender equality and telling them that it's OK to embrace their sexuality and to speak up about what matters to them is incredibly important because consciousness-raising is a process, and not one-size-fits-all at that.
Then, on August 24th, after years of countless think pieces, blog posts, and twitter spats debating whether or not Beyoncé could or should be considered a feminist, Queen B gave her final answer to that boring-ass question by appearing on stage at the 31st annual MTV Video Music Awards (which were viewed by 13.7 million people around the world, btw) in front of a giant TV screen with 20-foot letters behind her that spelled out the word FEMINIST. And that, ladies, gents, and non-binary folks, is how you make it do what it do.
And sure, Beyoncé may not be a Marxist (yet), or a Black Power militant (yet), but I will bet good money that you'd have a hard time finding one young Black woman on the front lines of the #BlackLivesMatter movement who doesn't have "***Flawless" ft. Nigerian feminist scholar, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on their smartphone/iPod/iPad/whatever. Of course that's not to say that listening to "***Flawless" will consequently prompt one to join anti-racist organizing efforts or become a crusader for social justice, but it is to say that she's absolutely on the radar of young women of color who are finding out that they deserve better than they're being allowed to have, and that their voices and opinions matter despite mainstream rhetoric to the contrary.
Likewise, artists like M.I.A. and Ana Tijoux are reigniting the political imagination and redefining what it means to be a politically conscious rebel artist. M.I.A., born Mathangi Arulpragasam in London to activist parents from Sri Lanka, spent her childhood in the civil war torn country before returning to the UK in her teens and has been producing some of the most controversial, provocative, and highly politicized art and music of the last decade. Similarly, Ana Tijoux was born in Paris also to activist parents who were exiled there following the U.S.-backed Chilean coup that violently overthrew Socialist president Salvador Allende and installed ruthless dictator, Pinoché. Tijoux returned to Chile in her teens once democracy had been restored and has been putting out some of the most inspired hip-hop albums in recent years. Albums which are distinctly Latin American (meaning mestizo) and which honor indigenous resistance. Both women artist are producing the kind of music and art that is challenging capitalism, imperialism, racism/white supremacy, gender inequality, sexism/misogyny, police brutality, gentrification, gov't surveillance, and all other forms of state violence.
Since her debut in the music scene, M.I.A.'s been anything but shy about speaking truth to power, and in a 2010 interview with Clash Magazine she spoke out about the deliberate silencing of the world's oppressed stating that:
Sometimes I repeat my story again and again because it's interesting to see how many times it gets edited, and how much the right to tell your story doesn't exist. People reckon that I need a political degree in order to go, "My school got bombed and I remember it cos I was 10-years-old"... I think removing individual voices and not letting people just go "This happened to me" is really dangerous.
This, unsurprisingly, has gotten her into trouble on several occassions, like that time she gave the finger to everyone she don't fux with during the 2012 Superbowl halftime show and had the crybaby fuckboys over at the NFL suing her for $15 million in "damages". Or that one time she was denied an entry visa into the U.S. to work on her second album Kala with producer Timbaland and then blogged about it on her MySpace page basically LOLing at the U.S.:
the U.S immigration wont let me in!!!!!... so il see you all one day, for now ill keep reportin from the sidelines. to my people who walk wiv me in the America, dont forget we got the internet! Spread the word! or come get me!!!!!! ill be in my bird flu lab in china! liming and drinkin tiger beer with my pet turtel.
Her latest (and greatest, in my opinion) is the self-directed video for "Double Bubble Trouble" which breaks all the rules and you know, just casually comments on all sorts of shit like our governments’ (and by extension, our societies’) love of and obsession with guns, unmanned drone everything, institutionalized racism, and legislated Islamophobia. Not to mention the video totally makes you want to cop some bomb-ass censorship grillz to wear to the next anti-gov't surveillance/pro-whistleblower protest. (Big ups to Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and all the other whistleblowers out there, btw). Basically, M.I.A. is like the best of Tumblr, the global left, and pop-art all wrapped up in one bad-ass Brown Sri Lankan woman.
On the other side of the world, Chilean rapper and mestiza woman, Ana Tijoux is walking around dropping dope-ass rhymes about women's liberation, socialism from below, and indigenous resistance from South America to Palestine, essentially making her 2014 album Vengo, musical and radical gold, and exactly the kind of creative political art the left and the world are in desperate need of. Tijoux and her latest album are at once explicitly (and unapologetically) political, AND effortlessly cool which is why she's blowin' the fuck up in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In an interview on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman last summer, Tijoux explained how growing up in France when her family and roots were from Chile she found comfort and solace in hip-hop; that she thinks "hip-hop is the land of the people that doesn't have a land." She noted that during her time in France, most of her friends also had roots in the global south like Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, and the Congo and that they all felt "that hip-hop was almost like a family for us"; a way to form an identity and "understand who we were or where we go." She goes on to explain why political theory needs cultural workers like musicians, just as much as musicians need political theorists:
When you see a teoría, a theory, and so many stuff like — because I don’t feel that — I’m not an intellectual, academic; I’m just a musician. And we work with emotion, and it’s so beautiful when you see other people working in other places that can touch you and make you have a reflection, and then you make like some mixture with that and you make songs, you know?
And I mean, that's essentially always been the raison d'être and beauty of hip-hop, right? To give voice and platform to the oppressed and dispossessed in ways that are FUBU — for us, by us — and that speak to universal struggles and help us understand that our lived experiences are part of a larger global dynamic.
In the U.S., we've also got our own set of badass acts like Chican@ band, Las Cafeteras who hail from Eas' Los (East Los Angeles), the predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American side of L.A. where fellow Chicana and punk rock icon Alice Bag is also from. Their debut album, It's Time features songs like "It's Movement Time", "Mujer Soy" and "Trabajador, Trabajadora" which are essentially all history lessons paying tribute to women, working class folks, single moms, immigrants, and indigenous communities resisting genocide. In "La Bamba Rebelde" (perhaps their most popular song) they proudly declare that they don't believe in borders and will continue to cross them ("yo no creo en fronteras, yo cruzaré, yo cruzaré") and that like Zapatista women they will fight for justice ("como las Zapatista yo luchare!").
Last fall, Las Cafeteras publicly declared themselves in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement which erupted in response to the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri’s racist police, consequently kicking off a series of unprecedented national protests and actions, and with the #AyotzinapaVive movement which also came into being around the same time after 43 education students from a rural teacher's college in the Mexican state of Guerrero were kidnapped and believed to be murdered at the hands of the state for daring to fight for the right of indigenous people to education. Artists and other cultural workers that recognize the commonality in the violence done against different groups of oppressed peoples, and who publicly stand in solidarity with grassroots movements to lend their fame and influence to raise awareness and demand justice are exactly the kind we need more of.
From L.A. to N.Y.C., and from London to Chile, it's women of color who are talking about and fighting all forms of oppression, challenging economic inequality and capitalism, and leading our movements. And sure, Sleater Kinney is back with a new album and that's great, but it's women of color who've been rewriting the rules, reigniting the political imagination, connecting the dots between our different types of struggles, and taking up issues that go beyond just "smashing the patriarchy." Anyone who pretends or argues that their contributions are less valuable than white punk bands or male hip-hop collectives cuz they rock heels not combat boots, or cuz they’d rather twerk than mosh, is straight up wrong and gonna feel mad salty when Bey and M.I.A. take over the world and our international movement's anthem becomes Ana Tijoux's "Shock":
"Veneno tus monólogos,
tus discursos incoloros.
No ves que NO estamos solos?
Millones de polo a polo!
Al son de un solo coro
marcharemos con el tono,
con la convicción que basta de robo!
Tu estado de control,
tu trono podrido de oro,
tu política y tu riqueza, y tu tesoro, NO.
La hora sonó, la hora sonó:
No permitiremos más, más tu doctrina del shock!"
(Your monologues are venom,
your speeches, colorless.
Can't you see that we are not alone?
There are millions of us from pole to pole!
To the sound of a single chorus
we will march to that rhythm,
with the conviction that we've had enough of your thievery!
Your state of control,
your corrupt throne of gold,
your politics and your wealth,
and your treasure, NO MORE.
The hour has struck, the hour has struck:
We will allow your shock doctrine NO MORE!")
This article appears in Red Wedge Issue One: "Art + Revolution." Order your copy today at the Red Wedge shop!