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To borrow a phrase from Beyoncé’s 2011 empowerment anthem, ‘Who run the world? Girls.’ Unfortunately, even post #MeToo and #TimesUp, the music industry is still statistically weighted heavily in favour of (white) men.

So, throughout the history of women in music, who are the female artists who have taken on the system and used their activism to tackle issues of equality, discrimination, segregation and environmentalism?


Billie Holiday

Hulu’s recent biopic, The United States vs Billie Holiday, shows the singer as one of the mothers of the civil rights movement and one of the earliest social justice advocates within music.

When most people think of Billie Holiday’s activism, it’s her song ‘Strange Fruit’ that comes to mind.

Recorded in 1939, it’s an anti-lynching protest song originally written as a poem, inspired by a gruesome picture of two Black men hanged from tree branches.

Angela Davis, a professor of History at UC Santa Cruz, said that the song had, ‘an enormous impact. This was really the first time that, at least in popular music, such a powerful anti-racist stance had been assumed.’

Dr Farrah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, said that the singer’s insistence on recording the song was, ‘very brave and courageous of a young artist who really put her career at stake by not only singing but recording this song, and she would do so again and again. I can’t think of another song until the 1960s that has the kind of political and emotional impact that ‘Strange Fruit’ had and continues to have.’

Nina Simone

Nina Simone was a classically-trained piano prodigy who made a stand against racism from an early age.

During a recital aged eleven, when her parents were forced to give up their front row seats to a white couple, Eunice Waymon – AKA Nina Simone – refused to play until her parents were allowed to sit in their allotted place.

A supporter of Malcolm X, Simone’s work was praised by radical Black leaders: she performed and spoke at many civil rights meetings and marches and one of her most famous singles is civil rights anthem, ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’.

Chardine Taylor-Stone, in an appreciation for Tribune magazine, emphasises that, with regard to the history of Nina Simone, we should also look at her activism beyond the civil rights movement: ‘She was a tour de force who brought the message of freedom, equality, justice and liberation to everyone who had the pleasure of hearing her music.

But it’s important we don’t pigeonhole her as a civil rights activist: she was a revolutionary – a woman who engaged with the work of Marx and Lenin, and who brought that revolutionary praxis to her music in a way that continues to resonate with us today.’

Joan Baez

An activist who rose to fame in the 1960s, folk singer Joan Baez closed the first day of Woodstock in 1969.

Throughout her career, she has been a champion for civil rights and humanitarian causes. In 2011, Baez was honoured by Amnesty International, becoming the first recipient of the Joan Baez Award for Outstanding Inspirational Service in the Global Fight for Human Rights.

The award is intended to be presented to an artist from the worlds of music, film, sculpture or other mediums, who has helped advance human rights.

Baez was one of the principal performers at the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, the day on which Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

In the 1970s, she travelled to Hanoi with a peace delegation to oppose the Vietnam war and she has displayed a lifelong commitment to political and social activism ever since, in areas such as civil rights, human rights and the environment.

Causes close to her heart now include opposing the death penalty, supporting LGBTQ+ rights and environmental causes.

Dolly Parton

When it comes to feminist music artists, does blonde bombshell Dolly Parton instantly come to mind? She really should.

The woman who said of herself, ‘I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. And I also know I’m not blonde,’ has been a trailblazer in music, business and popular culture, and is an icon for working class women everywhere.

Brought up in rural Tennessee, as one of twelve children living in a two-room cabin, she made her way to Nashville and took on the male-dominated world of country music.

As she once explained, ‘When I started out, it never crossed my mind I couldn’t do it ’cause I was a woman. I was just gonna do what I did, what I felt I did best, and I never once thought that was gonna ever, you know, not work for me. And I didn’t care. I wasn’t afraid of anybody.’

Dolly’s always known her worth; when Elvis Presley asked to record her song ‘I Will Always Love You’, it would have meant signing over half of her writing credit. She refused.

It was a powerful move that reaped its rewards when the track became a huge hit on one of the bestselling movie soundtracks of all time – The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston’s version as its record-breaking single.

At the peak of the ‘women’s movement’ in the 1970s, Dolly starred in 9 to 5 with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, taking on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Parton has always been reluctant to call herself a feminist but as observed by songwriter Linda Perry in Netflix’s Dolly Parton documentary, ‘She’s mastered the design of how to be a woman and succeed in this business without making a man feel bad.’

From creating the business empire of theme park Dollywood to donating over 150 million books through her Imagination Library – not to mention putting $1 million towards COVID vaccine research – Dolly Parton is an activist who consistently makes a stand for equality and fights against discrimination.

She came out in favour of gay marriage in 2014, has spoken against anti-transgender ‘bathroom bills’ and supports anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Women in Hip Hop

Hip hop has always been dominated by men, but there are some notable exceptions who have championed women’s empowerment and challenged misogyny in the genre.

A name you might be unfamiliar with is Sylvia Robinson. Originally a singer, she later became known for her work as founder and CEO of hip hop label Sugar Hill Records in the 1970s.

The driving force behind two landmark hip hop singles – ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ – she is dubbed ‘The Mother of Hip Hop’.

Billboard called her ‘The Queen of Rap’ and she received a Pioneer Award at the Annual Rhythm and Blues Awards Gala in 2000, while Rolling Stone crowned ‘Rapper’s Delight’ as ‘the greatest hip hop single of all time’ in 2012.

As for Sylvia’s mantra, it was, ‘Don’t copy things that are out there… come up with something new, something different.’

Find out more about her career in Extraordinary Artists’ profile:

There are plenty of inspiring female rappers on the scene now, but when Queen Latifah rose to fame in the 1990s, she was definitely in the minority. Tracks such as ‘Ladies First’ and the Grammy-winning ‘U.N.I.T.Y’ saw her calling for Black women’s voices to be raised up in music.

As she told Huffington Post, ‘I chose to take the route of uplifting women by trying to make some records that had some positive thoughts… I had a problem with [misogyny]. I was never the kind of person that was going to take something lying down… I was raised to protect myself and stand up for myself and speak my mind and be true. And even if I had to stand alone, I was to do that.’

Other pioneers of ‘hip hop feminism’ include Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliot, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Cardi B, who told i-D magazine that, ‘Being a feminist is real simple; it’s that a woman can do things the same as a man. Anything a man can do, I can do. I can finesse, I can hustle. We have the same freedom. I was top of the charts. I’m a woman and I did that. I do feel equal to a man.’

Her 2020 single, ‘WAP’, with Megan Thee Stallion was hailed by many as a feminist anthem celebrating female power and pleasure.

Pussy Riot

When it comes to activist singers, they don’t come much braver than the members of Pussy Riot.

Founded by Nadya Tolokonnikova in 2011, the consequences of their feminist protest art have always been serious. Along with two other band members, she was sentenced to two years in prison in 2012, went on hunger strike and endured incredibly harsh conditions.

They were subsequently named prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

The Russian feminist protest punk rock and performance art group were based in Moscow, staging unauthorised guerrilla gigs in public places, with lyrics covering feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and opposition to the Russian president Vladimir Putin and his policies.

Tolokonnikova recently launched the Ukraine DAO (decentralised autonomous organisation), a cryptocurrency collaboration, and raised $7.1 million in just five days.

She told the Guardian, ‘I’m personally convinced that in situations like this, activism is the only thing that can keep you sane. Just looking at disasters and tragedies and not doing anything about it is really detrimental for the world, but also it slowly destroys you and makes you feel helpless.’

Through cryptocurrency, Tolokonnikova has also raised money for a shelter for victims of domestic violence and political prisoners in Russia; another fund is buying artworks from female and LGBTQ+ artists.

Billie Eilish

The ‘Bad Guy’ singer-songwriter is the voice of a new generation of activist musicians championing causes from environmental activism to mental health.

Eilish was one of the performers at Global Citizen Live in 2021, a 24-hour global broadcast event that brought together more than 70 artists, activists and world leaders to defend the planet and defeat poverty.

Eilish puts on plastic-free shows, marches with Greta Thunberg, and is now a vegan as part of her promotion of animal rights.

PETA awarded her their 2021 Person of the Year Award, the youngest person ever to have been granted the honour.

Eilish is also vocal about body positivity and autonomy; she’s been open about her experiences with Tourette’s syndrome and her battles with depression.

Women’s Rights Music

When it comes to creating a kick-ass female artist playlist, here are some suggestions:

‘You Don’t Own Me’ – Lesley Gore

The lyrics assert a woman’s independence within a relationship, and it was memorably used to soundtrack a sequence in season four of The Handmaid’s Tale.

‘I’m Every Woman’ – Chaka Khan

Chaka Khan told the Guardian that, ‘It wrecked me emotionally when I first started singing ‘I’m Every Woman.’ It was ironic that I was battling deep insecurities yet singing this huge anthem of empowerment. I thought I didn’t have the right to sing it.’

‘9 to 5’ – Dolly Parton

Unfortunately, the pay gap is still alive and kicking – play this ahead of demanding your pay rise.

‘The Man’ – Taylor Swift

Taylor was inspired by the double standards of the entertainment industry to write this track.

‘Having dealt with a few of them, narcissists basically subscribe to a belief system that they should be able to do and say whatever the hell they want, whenever the hell they want to. And if we — as anyone else in the world, but specifically women — react to that, well, we’re not allowed to. We’re not allowed to have a reaction to their actions.’

‘Independent Women (Part 1)’ – Destiny’s Child

Empowering female singers Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle’s anthem about making your own money is as shake-your-fist-in-the-air fantastic now as it was when it was released on the Charlie’s Angels film soundtrack in 2000.

‘Free Your Mind’ – En Vogue

One of the best songs about challenging your prejudices, we can’t help but feel En Vogue were way ahead of their time with this one.

‘Juice’ – Lizzo

Grab yourself a big helping of body positivity, confidence and inspiration, courtesy of Lizzo.

She revealed to Buzzfeed that, ‘I want to be an activist because I’m intelligent, because I care about issues, because my music is good, [and] because I want to help the world.’

In search of more inspiration and women who challenge the status quo? Check out our articles on the women making waves in music, film and art; the best female directors and those who have changed the game, plus the inspiring women we work with at Audio Network.

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