By Tallon Kennedy
When Beyoncé dropped “Formation” back in February, it was like you could feel a seismic shift in the music industry. A shift that was both socially and politically charged, as well as deeply womanist.
The music video featured a reclamation of 18th century fashion, flipping the script and portraying black people as the ones in power. By invoking images such as a black child dancing in front of riot police, the music video also became an artistic statement in favor of the black lives matter campaign. The racist backlash against the video was almost instant, and completely expected.
There are few black women as influential in America as Beyoncé, and our patriarchal white supremacist society is only okay with a black woman being a powerful figure as long as she stays “respectable” in her politics: she’s not allowed to have radical ideas— she’s not allowed to exude black pride— and she must be both sexy, but not too promiscuous. For years, Beyoncé has carefully towed this line, building her successful career and popular image within the constraints society places on the black woman. However, in 2016, Beyoncé is done with your constraints and is done with your ideas on who she is supposed to be, and what she’s allowed to do. But this shift isn’t just limited to Beyoncé— if you have paid any attention to women in music this year, you’ll find that 2016 isn’t just the year of Beyoncé— it’s the year of women, womanhood, and womanism.
Much less known than Beyoncé, but just as important to this growing trend in the music industry, is Asian-American artist Mitski. In June, Mitski quietly released her 4th studio album Puberty 2. Her popularity since has grown, due much in part to the album’s lead single “Your Best American Girl.”
In the song, Mitski draws on the anxieties of being an Asian-American woman in an America that portrays female beauty as belonging to white women. Even when Western media is trying to be diverse and inclusive of women of color, Asian-Americans are routinely left out of this conversation without representation. In the explosive chorus of the song, Mitski sings “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / but I do, I think I do. / And you’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.”
It’s a powerful statement on expectations of female beauty, and the resulting cultural clash, portrayed through the difficulties these expectations present in Mitski’s romantic life. The music video of the song is equally powerful, depicting Mitski as being dropped as a romantic interest by a stereotypically “beautiful” white guy in favor of a stereotypically “beautiful” white girl. Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” is a womanist statement on race and womanhood from a perspective we rarely encounter in the media.
Sri-Lankan artist M.I.A. also made waves this year when she released her song “Borders,” a song that criticizes Western countries that refuse to take in Syrian refugees. “Guns blows door to the system / Yeah fuck ’em when we say we’re not with them. / We solid and we don’t need to kick them. / This is North, South, East and Western” M.I.A. says in the song’s chorus, calling for an empathetic unity across the globe, that recognizes all human life as valuable.
Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles, also released an album this year, her first since 2008, and it similarly combats stereotypes of black women. In the song “Mad,” Solange states “I got a lot to be mad about,” drawing on the stereotype of the angry black woman, and proclaiming that her anger in a political climate adverse to black life is completely rational.
These examples of women asserting their sociopolitical voice, through their artistry and through their experiences, has made the music industry a place ripe for all women to fight back against these damaging stereotypes that silence the female voice. Even though all of these examples are diverse and unique, drawing on disparate experiences of oppression both race-based and gender-based, all of these artists have one thing in common: they are stating that all life is valuable, regardless of where you are from, or the color of your skin, or your genetic makeup, or even your gender.
In Angel Olsen’s masterful MY WOMAN, released in September, Olsen croons “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman.” It seems this is what women in the music industry are daring the populace to do this year— daring people to consider their gender and racial biases— daring people to see the social pressures that mold our perception of what “woman” is— daring people to understand how the experience of “woman” is a result of the collective intersectional experiences of women based on their race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. 2016 is the year of womanhood in music: it’s a year that has challenged the public’s understanding of womanhood, as well as a year of portraying the current ever-changing definition of womanhood.