A week ago, Ann Powers of NPR bemoaned the lack of historical recognition for the impact women have had on pop music, in an massively empowering and superbly frustrating article that concluded with the need to revise the canon by which music history has been written.
In response, Powers and an army of NPR contributors offered a list, “The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women,” as a way to redo the canon, where women are the innovators, the mavericks, and the trailblazers.
This essential list could have been epic, as a way to look at music history through foundational female albums. Instead it’s yet another illustration of a narrative that is both silently infused with the kind of institutional racism that comes through the back door, and carries an over-glorification of the Western contribution, both of which transform this "almost" attempt into an epic fail.
The list traces great contributions from 1964. Of the 150 names, only 14 names are not American or Western. If we take out Bjork, M.I.A, and Yoko Ono, the list is a sad 11 names. And only approximately a third of this list are women of colour. Missing are all the non-white and non-Western women who have moved music forward on a global scale over the last century.
More broadly, the list, the article, and recurring debates about women in music highlight two of the biggest problems in music today: the gender gap and the skin colour gap.
Contrary to what may be expected, in the world of music, women are still regularly having to deal with endless patriarchy and sexism that results in specific expectations of "beauty" to be "promotable" as artists, unequal pay, while most executive positions in the industry and most performance opportunities still favour men.
What if you are a woman of colour, a musician and not from the West?
The gender gap for women of colour and, especially, for those from non-Western countries is all about the dirty and the dark, namely ethnic discrimination, cultural conservatism, standards of beauty that lean towards being lighter skinned, religious discrimination, and religious conservatism.
And for non-western female musicians trying to break into the Western market, there are also the added social defects to contend with, like racism, Westernisation, racial fetishism, and orientalism.
While the picture is generally bleak, there are changes happening on this side of the world that are taking the conversation in a different direction.
On Egypt’s African identity border, a new narrative is gaining strength. At both the industry level and the individual, increased female presence is causing massive waves in the music scene in Africa.
Festivals in Africa, like Morocco’s Timitar Signs and Cultures, are not only offering a music platform that moves beyond the gender gap, but also spotlight the significant achievements made by women at an individual level.
Asmaa Lmnower (Photo: courtesy of Timitar festival)
At its most recent edition, Timitar attracted over 250,000 attendees to the closing night of the festival for a mostly female lineup that included women who have been using their fame and power to affect social change, like the popular Asmaa Lmnawar, who has impacted modern Moroccan pop through her instinctual ability to fuse Arab, Moroccan and African rhythms, and Fatima Tabaamrant, a national hero of sorts and a minister of parliament who has spent her life fighting for Amazigh equality.
The festival also included African trailblazers like the Grammy Award-winning Oumou Sangaré, who is famous for championing women’s rights, particularly on child marriage and polygamy, and is one of the most powerful businesswomen in Mali.
She is also one of the catalysts for another interesting experiment in empowerment, Les Amazones D’Afrique; A collective of some of the most formidable female musicians in Africa, which includes, Angélique Kidjo, Mariam Doumbia, Nneka, and Kandia Kouyaté, the group formed to use music as a tool in the process of social change and often work on promoting gender equality, a process that has resulted in their recently released and critically successful album, République Amazone.
On the global front, through their diversity, as musicians and as nationalities, the collective is also changing the two-dimensional stereotype of what African women are and what African music is, one stage at a time.
Another young innovator, who is quickly gathering a massive following and has already achieved major critical success, is South Africa’s Nomfusi.
This barely 5-foot tall singer/songwriter was dynamite on the Timitar Festival stage, easily drawing in audiences to her music with her charismatic presence, captivating sense of storytelling, and larger than life voice.
Nomfusi has created her own particular genre, afro soul, balancing her roots with the various musical influences she experiences through her travels.
While recognising the Western influences on her music, Nomfusi is quick to clarify that being influenced by a Western-born genre and being Western are two different things.
“Maybe we can start by defining what soul is. I think it’s something from your heart, something from deep within,” Nomfusi explained to Ahram Online.
“If you come with your own definition of what soul is, you can’t box it. So when I say afro soul, I mean that that it’s African influenced because I’m African, but it’s soulful because I’m speaking of something deep within me that I identify with, and it touches the next person.”
She gave an example of her song, Mama Spear, which talks about her mother who passed away when she was 12 years old, and her father who was in prison.
“The song is a highlight of every concert, and I categorise that as afro soul music. It’s tricky to say that you are running away or separating yourself from the Western world. It’s a real struggle, for a young person like me to find my balance when I’m fed so much American culture. That’s why I always try to create definitions for myself — what is this and what does it mean for me,” she says.
Nomfusi in a concert performing Mama Spear (Photo: Still from video)
A long way to freedom
Nomfusi’s impact on her audience isn’t just through her good music, but in her story.
She grew up poor and lost her mother at 12 years old, and later her aunt and sister, all to AIDS. Her father spent 21 years in prison and her foster family was violent and unwelcoming. She grew up in South Africa, where the shadow of apartheid and struggle continue to be daily realities for Black South Africans. So, how does she balance the weight of this difficult present with making music?
“That is a difficult question. For a lot of African countries that have been enslaved and occupied South Africa has become the model that found it’s way out. But I think I have to first say that South Africa is in a process of finding its way out of this thing, this pandemic that segregated, isolated and demoralised a lot of human beings, especially black human beings, which brings a lot of pressure,” she explained.
Despite the challenges, the singer feels it’s an exciting time to be in South Africa, alongside many young Africans who are proud of their roots and are interested in expressing their individuality.
“We are still on our own path of trying to find ways of surviving and redeeming our dignity as African and as black people. I think I really understand when [Nelson] Mandela said it was a long walk to freedom. A lot of South Africans thought it was just a nice phrase, but I think the man meant it from every fibre of his being.”
The singer's connnection with Mandela was cemented with her role in the 2013 award-winning film 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom', portraying the Grammy-winning singer and activist Miriam Makeba, a.k.a Mama Africa.
“Mandela did not free South Africa, but he shed a light on a certain direction that he had hoped South Africans could take and continue with. So, we are not yet free. There is still a lot that has still not come back to the black South Africans. We still have a lot of serious issues that have to be solved.”
Oumou Sangare (Photo: courtesy of Timitar festival)
Authentic and global
Nomfusi is also potential prey to the type of fetishism that often drives Western bookers and artistic programmers to seek out the kind of African artists that embody their specific narrative of what Africa is — the sad, impoverished African who rises against all odds to fulfill the great dream of success and fame.
In tandem, knowing that this narrative sells, many African artists also give in to producing music for the hit-wave in order to access the Western music market.
Yet Nomfusi has managed to stay authentic, in spite of appealing potholes on the road to success.
“In past year many people were telling me, 'You need a hit, you need a hit, you need a hit!' To be honest, I feel like I’m at the point of accepting that I’m a musician who works with writing that comes from the heart ... to write what comes to my mind, because that’s how I connect with my audience.”
“I’ve done two albums that I identify a lot with.I talk about things I’ve seen in my life; about poverty, segregation, about losing people that are important in your life. People can feel when you are saying what you know. People can also tell if you are a good actress or artist, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to be the ‘other’ artist.”
Currently, there is a gender rebalance taking place in the cultural scene in Africa that balances a "return to roots" movement along with female empowerment. Female musicians like Nomfusi are defining a new narrative based on African identity, being part of a global music scene that is beyond fetishisation and discrimination, and using music as a tool to promote socially conscious messaging.
In the process, these musicians are creating a path in the global music scene where they set the rules and define a new framework.
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