Today is Women’s Equality Day so for this edition of Past Sounds we are featuring inspiring, daring, and revolutionary women of music spanning many genres and eras. So strap in as we take a musical journey, back in time.
Nina Simone – Ain’t Got No / I Got Life (‘Nuff Said) 1968
This year Netflix teamed up with Lisa Simone Kelly, daughter of Nina Simone, to make a documentary chronicling the life of The High Priestess of Soul. I highly recommend watching the documentary if you don’t know about the amazing life she lead. At the time of this recording Nina was already a star but she was incomplete until she turned the focus of her music towards issues of injustice and inequality, and ultimately becoming an essential player in the Civil Rights Movement. In the movie this performance follows Nina talking about how she wanted to help black people connect with their own identity and to be proud of who they are. This song is a medley of two songs from the musical hair that Nina combined to make the message even more powerful. This performance of the song is particularly moving because she switches the lyrics and there is a glorious heartbreaking moment when she belts, “Ain’t got no love,” just before breaking into “I Got Life”. Nina was brilliant, bold, passionate, a phenomenal pianist, a unbelievable singer, and an unmatched entertainer, she set an amazing example for women everywhere. She was one of a kind, an original individual and she loved herself, dark parts and all. Though the message of this song was perfect for the time and the people it was written for, the message of loving yourself just how you are, transcends time, race, and gender. There are people in this world that tell people they are less valuable because of many reasons, whether its their sex or their race or the amount of money in their bank account, and to those people all you need to say is, “I got my arms, I got my hands, I got my fingers, got my legs, I got my feet, I got my toes, I got my liver, got my blood, I got life.”
Dolly Parton – Just Because I’m A Woman (Just Because I’m A Woman) 1968
The same year that Nina Simone was fighting for her rights Dolly Parton took a stand for feminism with this record. The chorus says it all, “My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.” This resonates even today as men can get away with murder (literally) and women are scrutinized and abused for their faults. It can’t be emphasized enough how brave this was for Dolly to do in the 60’s which was in some ways the golden age of sexism and racism. Artist like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn broke the mold of the good country girl who wouldn’t do what men told them, instead they used their music to fight against the idea of being what a woman “should” be.
Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl (Pussy Whipped) 1993
You can’t have a list of female equality with Riot Grrrl founder and feminist punk pioneer Kathleen Hanna. I was so close to putting Apt #5 from Kathleen’s solo album Julie Ruin, but then I thought if we’re talking about Kathleen you want to see her jumping around on stage and screaming and being a Rebel Girl. Recently Kathleen talked about how she basically invented the term mansplaining before anyone knew it was thing, so I don’t intend to explain her thoughts and feelings in this song, but I will share some thoughts on her importance to the music world. It’s not hard to find a song about women’s equality in Kathleen’s catalog, just listen to any Bikini Kill song. In this song she sings about a girl who she wants to be(friend) but everything she says about the girl is true of her. In The Punk Singer, the rock doc about her life, her friends and contemporaries say things about her that basically mirror the lyrics of this song. No one had seen a girl look like her, act like her, sing like her, scream like her. Hanna set the stage for feminism as we know it, she was an important player in Third Wave Feminism. She used her music to help so many women who were abused, undervalued, and angry take a stand and fight for the rights and the treatment they deserve. Kathleen’s husband, Adam Horovitz from The Beastie Boys, described Hanna as “a force,” not just for feminism but her musical impact is also unbelievable. She had an effect on so many of her contemporaries, not just the Riot Grrrl bands like Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney, but mainstream successes like Sonic Youth and Nirvana. You can hear her influence on artists like Karen O and modern female lead indie-rock band’s like Sleight Bells and Alvvays. After an 8 year hiatus due to health problems Hanna started The Julie Ruin in 2013 and continues to make incredible music to this day. She is feminist icon and a true folk (actually punk) hero and some of the great female artist of our time would not be the same without her work.
Lauryn Hill – Doo Wap (That Thing) (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) 1998
Lauryn Hill’s lead single off of her seminal solo album topped the charts and got her two Grammys, but the message is still vital decades later. In the song she speaks to young men and women warning them to watch out for guys or girls who are “only about that thing,” whether that thing is sex or money, she urges them not so let themselves being taken advantage of. Ms. Hill tells girls, “respect is a minimum,” and one the most powerful lines in the song is, “It’s silly when girls sell their souls because it’s in.” Our culture promotes so many things that don’t actually matter and it is so easy for girls to fall into habits that disrespect and undervalue them without realizing the magnitude of their actions. Women are casually mistreated, and especially in black communities the “money takin’ and heart breakin'” mentality is very harmful to women. Lauryn Hill is just one example of a black woman who didn’t stand for it and made her way in hip hop which is a hugely male dominated artform. She is an inspiring leader and especially today the message of this song is desperately need among America’s youth, “Stop actin’ like boys and be men. How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”
Jenny Lewis – Just One Of The Guys (The Voyager) 2014
Former Rilo Kiley Frontwoman and current amazing songwriter and performer, Jenny Lewis, not only has the gift of writing catchy, powerful music, but she is also a badass feminist soldier ( just look at the Che Guevera-esque garb she and her Nice As Fuck bandmates wear). Jenny also has a great sense of humor, which is apparent in this quirky yet powerful, star-studded music video. With the help of Kristen Stewart, Brie Larson, and Anne Hathaway, Lewis mocks male stupidity and insensitivity, speaks of the struggles of being an independent woman, and ultimately celebrates womanhood with the final empowering verse, “I’m not gonna break for you, I’m not gonna pray for you, I’m not gonna pay for you, that’s not what ladies do.” Jenny Lewis is one of the most important and talented musicians working right now, she’s Stevie Nicks mixed with Kathleen Hanna mixed with Joni Mitchell. If you haven’t delved into Rilo Kiley, Nice As Fuck, or her solo work, do yourself a favor and get familiar.
Jamila Woods – Blk Girl Soldier (HEAVN) 2016
I know this one is very recent but a month ago is still the past, and I couldn’t get Jamila Woods out of my head when talking about revolutionary women of music. People talk about Nina Simone and Kathleen Hanna giving a voice to people who didn’t have one, that is exactly what Jamila Woods is currently doing. Not only is her music innovative and addictive and beautiful, but she is speaking for one of the most marginalized groups in our country who should be one of the most celebrated groups in our country: black women. Speaking as a white man, it is so easy to be oblivious to the suffering of others in our society. When I hear Jamila sing a line like, “Look at what they did to my sister last century last week. They make her hate her own skin, treat her like a sin,” I’m reminded that there are people in this world who need music to say the things that others are tuning out. American’s want to be happy, that’s the “American dream,” so we often try to avoid unpleasantness, even though it’s unavoidable. When someone makes a powerful song saying, “this is what I’m living right now in this time, it’s not a history lesson, it’s not 12 Years a Slave or The Help, it’s real life in modern America,” that makes us wake up and pay attention (and if it doesn’t then you’ve got issues). Every line of this song is so powerful and she ends the song by listing women like Rosa Parks and Assata Shakur, designating them, “a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight.” It is important for all of us to fight against these injustices, for so long people have gone to extreme lengths to keep women down, “but what they don’t understand is she don’t give up.” If you don’t listen to any other album this year listen to this one. Jamila’s voice is essential in the turbulent times in which we’re living. Jamila is a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight.