Amara La Negra
Photo: Courtesy of VH1
Janelle Monáe, MILCK, Amara La Negra: 9 Women Change Agents In Music
They say a woman's job is never done, especially when she's always busy reinventing the wheel. No matter the facet of business, women have pioneered a number of significant changes in the world that continue to echo into today's society. Music is no exception.
From journalism to television, conducting, composing and sound engineering, there are a number of women who felt change was not only necessary, but within reach. These "change agents" have grasped for something bigger than merely achieving "firsts."
In celebration of Women's History Month, here are nine women who have dominated their respective fields and promoted change that defies all barriers of entry. Their groundbreaking work will undoubtedly continue to transcend milestones and make history.
By now, many know the story of Riot Grrrl, the feminist punk movement that Kathleen Hanna pioneered in the early '90s while a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. The musical movement came as a response to the growing (yet underdocumented) incidents of sexual harassment and assault that women endured both on college campuses and even while attending concerts. Riot Grrrl ushered in a new wave of feminism that has continued to evolve and hold firm even today.
Through her own music as frontwoman of bands such as Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin, Hanna used her platform for change — with charged up lyrics that demanded more for women as well as taking her celebrity and using it for politics (Le Tigre reunited to provide support for the 2016 presidential campaign for Hillary Clinton). An advocate for Lyme Disease awareness, as well as a continued pundit on feminism, Hanna created an earthquake with Riot Grrrl and the aftershocks will live on forever.
In 2017 MILCK unleashed her anthemic song "Quiet" into the heart of the Women's March. The song became a musical touchstone for the entire movement as MILCK joined forces with 25 other women to perform the track in various mediums across Washington, D.C., during that monumental moment in history. But MILCK's career didn't begin with "Quiet" and it certainly won't end with it.
The Chinese American artist born Connie Lim has since inked a record deal with Atlantic Records and released the critically acclaimed This Is Not The End EP. Self-described as a "sonic healer," MILCK's music transcends the charts she's rested upon. It's music made to inspire with honesty, integrity and raw talent.
It was eight years ago when Janelle Monaé first entered the mainstream with her major label debut, The ArchAndroid. Monaé's undeniable originality as the leader of her own Wondaland Arts Society (and Atlantic Records imprint) was both refreshing and much needed, armed with music that bent genres out of their archaic shapes accented with sci-fi soul.
Monaé has continued to shapeshift the world at large. At the 60th GRAMMY Awards, she bravely and confidently delivered her "Time's Up" speech, which has been referenced as a significant turning point. With much of the music industry's sexism and misogyny having remained clandestine and systematically buried, Monaé boldly unearthed it.
From acting in Hidden Figures to releasing a steady stream of sounds that promote individuality and sexual fluidity, Monaé is proving her voice is her platform, whether singing or speaking.
While a beautiful instrument in its own right, classical guitar has perhaps lacked the mainstream push of other instruments in its class. But don't tell Sharon Isbin. The GRAMMY-winning virtuoso has been crafting music with her nylon string for more than four decades and breaking new ground to boot. In 1989 she founded the Juilliard School's now-acclaimed guitar department, housing students from more than 20 different countries.
At the 43rd GRAMMY Awards, she took center stage in winning Best Instrumental Soloist for Dreams Of A World — Works Of Lauro, Ruiz-Pipo & Duarte. "When I received the GRAMMY in 2001, it was the first time that a classical guitarist had received a GRAMMY in 28 years," she reflects.
Isbin has ushered in the stamp of approval for the classical guitar in the world of mainstream music and continues to make strides. The April release of her Concerto De Granada with Enric Palomar will add to her extensive catalogue, which has seen her work with a number of artists from Heart's Nancy Wilson to Josh Groban and Joan Baez. "It's really a responsibility for a performer of an instrument like mine to expand the literature and to do it with extraordinary composers," says Isbin.
Amara La Negra
Amara La Negra quickly rose up the ranks as a breakout star on VH1's "Love & Hip Hop: Miami, " though it's how she's using her platform that is the real win. Born Diana de los Santos, the Afro-Latina artist combatted colorism during her turn on the show and has since continued to be a spokeswoman for showing pride as a dark-skinned woman in a music industry riddled with prejudice.
Her music fuses her combined heritage, with her first single, "Insecure," arriving this month. While many have graduated from VH1's franchise to move on to greater things, it’s clear that La Negra is not just leaving a star, but letting it be known that black is beautiful in every part of the world.
For over two and a half decades, Karrie Keyes has held the coveted position of sound engineer for the legendary grunge pioneers Pearl Jam. Known for their live shows, the GRAMMY-winning band relies upon Keyes' direction to continue their legacy of unstoppable stage performances. Her early days of working every mini-music circuit from punk to gospel culminated with this life-changing opportunity, though her mere presence is the added testament to her longevity.
Keyes also took a 10-year turn as the monitor engineer for Red Hot Chili Peppers. Through her positions as the "girl" onstage with some of the biggest bands in rock history, she has won awards and, more importantly, shown a whole other world for other women who love music and are searching for their fit within it. Major Keyes alert.
Next year will mark 10 years since Mindy Abovitz launched Tom Tom Magazine, a publication dedicated solely to women drummers. As a drummer herself in an all-girl band, Abovitz noticed the dearth of exposure given to women who drummed, often only a novelty without any depth to their stories.
"In 2009, my sole goal was to infiltrate the internet — just saturate with stories about girls who played drums plus pictures and art and anything in reverence of the female drummer," says Abovitz. "My only intention was that someone in Tokyo and someone else in San Francisco would be able to type 'girl drummer' in their Google search bar and their results would be one of the actual female drummers."
She's moved from web to print media and drum academies to her latest venture: a podcast via Tidal called "The Beat + The Pulse," coming in April. Guests will include actor/comedian Fred Armisen and fellow drummer Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney. "The goal is to inspire people to make change," she says of the podcast. "I want people to hear stories of these folks that took it into their hands to make change and ideally be inspired to do the same."
In the world of conducting, GRAMMY nominee Marin Alsop has proven to be a consistent, dominant force in the space. Her résumé is unprecedented. In 2007 Alsop became the first woman appointed as music director for a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Prior to (and during that time), Alsop was the first female principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and in 2012 she became the first female principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra.
In 2019 Alsop will be the first female chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Wins such as these show how Alsop's presence in conducting not only broadens the awareness of classical music in today's world, but how it inspires other women to explore conducting as a potential career option.
Olga Tañón is often referred to as la Mujer de Fuego (Woman of Fire) and with good reason. While the GRAMMY-winning Puerto Rican native has built a career that is more than 25 years strong, her place as a social activist has become as impactful as her music.
In 2009 Tañón participated in the Concert For Peace in Havana, and in 2013 she marched on Washington for immigration reform. She's an advocate for making her native Puerto Rico the 51st state of the United States, along with championing for the rights of its citizens. Tañón's music has drawn her fans closer, yet they stay for the messages of change that she delivers on and off the stage.
(Kathy Iandoli has penned pieces for Pitchfork, VICE, Maxim, O, Cosmopolitan, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and more. She co-authored the book Commissary Kitchen with Mobb Deep's late Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, and is a professor of music business at select universities throughout New York and New Jersey.)