Iconic Minority Women in Music - By Nikia Crawford and Jonathan Lesko

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

Media link: http://pocwomeninmusic.livejournal.com/

Throughout popular music history, minority women have predominantly fulfilled the role of the “center stage” singer, the object of desire and the “passive” receptacle of cultural projections of femininity. This phenomenon is largely the result of commercial constructions of conventional representations, set in stage by the popular music industry, emphasizing physical appearance, sexuality, public relations and non- or minimally musical aspects of performance and production. This has caused a racial and gender bias that refuses to acknowledge the creative “ownership” of minority female artists, and places an extraordinary burden on those that aspire to break the mold. Our paper then, seeks to deconstruct the representations of a survey of contemporary, iconic minority female singers in order to compare and contrast images of transgression and empowerment with the expectations of the commercial status quo.

Mathangi Arulpragasam, a British-born music artist of Sri Lankan descent known by her stage name M.I.A., has risen to mainstream stardom in recent years, particularly with her latest record, Kala. She has received much critical acclaim for her atypical vocal stylings, blending of diverse genres, fashion sense and lyrical and public political commentary. In breaking with the industry conventions for female minority singers, she has been intimately involved in the writing and production process of her music, represents a “global” image that refuses simplistic associations between ethnicity, geography and musical genre, and has confidently asserted a female perspective in her music.

In cooperation with UK producer Switch, she wrote and produced the single, “Boyz.” She also was involved in directing the video, effectively conceptualizing the flashy, vibrant, boisterous style that has since become emblematic of her commercial and artistic image. Instead of linking herself with a single geographical locale, such as Hip-hop’s celebratory use of New York City as its birthplace or cultural hub, M.I.A. transcends national boundaries, ushering in an era of musical and aesthetic “transnationalism.”

“Boyz” was filmed in Kingston, Jamaica, and its musical components recorded in multiple locales, including Chennai, India, Trinidad and Brooklyn. The video features the colors of the Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Trinidadian flag, as well as the Islamic crescent and star, used on various flags throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It stars an all-male crew of Jamaican dancers, and some of the choreography specifically speaks to contemporary dancehall trends. The lyrics incorporate Jamaican dance slang and Patois language. “Boyz” also brings to the fore striking female commentary about masculinity, exposing the aggressive, insecure, promiscuous and abusive nature that can be likened to what Kim Hester-Williams has described as the “possessive individualism” of masculinity within Hip-hop culture. She points out the foolishness of masculine rituals of binge drinking, “hustling,” and fighting, singing, “How many no money boyz are rowdy? How many start a war?” In doing so, a female voice decries the alpha male personality at the core of war-like political strife.

Karen Lee Orzolek, popularly known as Karen O, is the Korean-American lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a rock group based out of New York City. They have achieved reputable fame as a major label band, releasing several singles from two LPs, Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones. While they have made it “big,” they continue to cater to music fans with interest in “indie” rock and its anti-mainstream aesthetics.

The controversial video for their single, “Y Control,” directed by Spike Jonze, contains vivid, grotesque imagery depicting Karen O as a kind of perverse maternal figure among “orphan” street children. It is shot predominantly in a damp, dingy underground garage, suggested as the children’s home. The children commit criminal acts of vandalism and property destruction, wielding axes, golf clubs and hammers and bashing cars and pianos with bats. One scene flippantly depicts child mutilation. Another shows a child writing “We Are All Going to Hell” in graffiti. A motif of macabre is sustained in the video with a scene of a child vampire who bites Karen O’s neck, and children carrying and wrestling a dead dog.

What these characteristics amount to is a transgression of society’s conception of motherhood. Karen O explicitly betrays the social sensibility that a mother figure must create a healthy, safe and moral household, and discipline her children. Karen O’s indiscretion is thus a feminist social commentary challenging conventional “family” values, rejecting the singular and “natural” notion that a female must raise a family and fulfill the role of caretaker within the domestic sphere. Notably, the song’s title refers to the male “Y” chromosome and the oppressive “control” of patriarchy. Karen sings, “Well, I’m just a poor little baby, ‘cause well, I believe them all.” She seems to be emulating the personality of a female caught under the paternalistic arm of a patriarchic society, speaking to the way in which ideologies of male-dominance and heteronormativity become internalized, and even practiced by the oppressed.

African American hip-hop artist Missy Elliot is popularly known for her fashion sensibilities while refusing to conform to the demands of the music industry on the physical appearance of black female performers. Historically, African American females have been burdened by the expectation to sexualize the black female body, to “downplay” “blackness” (with the presupposition that it would alienate white listeners) and to obey the imposition of conventional “Hollywood” looks. Aside from developing her own independent sense of style, she has also openly declared her intention to present the “black” “roots” of Hip-hop, such as in the conceptualization of the record, The Cookbook. She says, “Whether they [African Americans] was on railroad tracks or cooking in somebody's kitchen, they was always singing.”

Elliot’s video for a single from the same record, “Lose Control,” celebrates black musical heritage and alludes to historical racial injustice. In one choreographed scene, Elliot, along with fellow performer, Ciara, recreate a setting fairly reminiscent of the video for “St. Louis Blues” by the eminent blues “queen,” Bessie Smith. It is shot in black and white and stars solely black performers. Females wear white dresses and males black pants with suspenders. However, instead of being filmed at the bar, like Smith’s video, it is filmed in the “back of the house,” seemingly in a storage area of a kitchen. This speaks to the nature of segregation and job discrimination against African Americans, who were often relegated to the aspects of service jobs that were “out of the sight” of white patrons and owners.

This survey of minority female singers provides a lens by which to view the status quo of popular music and the attempts to transgress it. These artists have broken with some of the impositions of physical appearance on minority females in the public eye. They have also actively participated in the creation and production of their music, music videos and artistic image. Furthermore, they show the way in which artistic vision and consciousness of racial and gender identity can be used to loosen the strictures of social inequality that in many ways are reflected in, fabricated and perpetuated by popular music.

Works cited

  1. Pytlik, Mark. “M.I.A.:Kala.” Pitchfork Media. http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/ record_review/44983-kala (accessed December 2, 2008).
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Boyz,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boyz_(song) (accessed December 2, 2008).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hester-Williams, Kim. “Eminem, Masculine Striving, and the Dangers of Possessive Individualism.” Genders 46 (2007): 1-39.
  5. M.I.A. “Boyz.” Kala. XL! Recordings, 2007.
  6. Wikipedia contributors, “Karen O.”
  7. Ibid., “Y Control.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “Y Control.” Fever to Tell. Interscope Records, 2003.
  10. Reid, Shaheem. “Missy Elliot’s Greatest Challenge on The Cookbook: Getting Ciara to Rap.” MTV. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1505732/20050714/elliott_missy.jhtml (accessed December 2, 2008).
  11. Ibid

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