Music is a universal language. At a time when hierarchies plague modern society, music transcends geographical borders, class and gender.
So, despite the fact that gender equality won’t be achieved until 2186, it’s only fitting that women represent some of the greatest musicians of our time.
On this International Women’s Day, UNILAD celebrates the female recording artists who have made a difference in the music industry – and continue to empower women everywhere.
The eclectic singer redefined what a female performer could be in the 1970s, when she burst onto TV screens in an ethereal swirl of glitter and glam rock, peering out from under lashings of eyeliner and a majestic mane.
Bush was the first woman to reach number one in the UK charts with a song she wrote – Wuthering Heights. Kate paved the way for women in the music industry to create their own brand, style and have their own individual voice.
Queen Bey is a force to be reckoned with: A brand that showcases the creative and political power women possess. Although she’s sold a meagre 85 million records to date as a solo artist, Mrs. Knowles-Carter’s endeavours to empower black women earns her a spot on this list a thousand times over.
…And I’m not just saying that because the notoriously loyal Beyhive will have my guts for garters if she didn’t make the grade.
The born and bred Brit songstress boasts a rare mix of breath-taking vocals, beguiling beauty, and potty-mouthed charm, translating into songs that can make the hardest soul weep. Us millennials have grown up with Adele, whose career kicked off with the album 19.
The Hometown Glory singer has documented her development as a women, with two more album releases; 21 and 25. Adele has been candid about the difficulties she faced being female in her 20s, all the while making the rest of us feel like less of a failure. For that, we salute her.
Madonna drove the pop-culture female sexual liberation of the 1980s with her permissive lyrics and her ever-changing aesthetic. She proved that a woman can be whatever she wants to be, whenever she damn well pleases.
She has sold more records than Elton John, and is only marginally beaten in the rankings by Michael Jackson, enjoying more musical longevity than many of her male counterparts.
Trailing in Madonna’s wake, Rihanna has sold 230 million records worldwide, taking the second spot in the ranking of the most successful female artists in history.
More importantly, Rihanna has worked beyond the realms of the recording studio, as the CEO of Puma – championing diversity on the catwalk – as well as diligently pursuing her charity work, for which she was endowed with the Harvard Foundation award for Humanitarian of the Year 2017.
Missy Elliott is the Fairy Godmother of every young girl who grew up listening to rap music, thinking it was a man’s world.
After all, who could have blamed them? Albums were adorned with male rappers on soap boxes talking about men asserting their dominance over women, who were – more often than not – eye candy.
That is, until Missy came along with the likes of Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill. Her music and her larger-than-life persona proved that a noisy, loud, confident, brash woman is as powerful as she is important.
No woman in the music industry has done more to promote inclusiveness across the board. With the passion of Janis Joplin, the eclectic sound of Annie Lennox and Cher’s theatricality, Lady Gaga gauged the zeitgeist of our time.
Gaga makes the so-called outcasts feel like they are part of a movement; a group of little monsters making their own way in the world, on their own terms.
For many 20-something-year-old women, Gwen Stefani was the first person to acknowledge that it was not always easy to be dubbed Just A Girl.
She was the female voice of a generation brought up on old school feminism, left in limbo between the movement for gender equality experienced by our mothers – and the powerful backlash.
Stefani’s time with No Doubt and her subsequent solo career also showed that being Just A Girl was cool, painful, powerful and creative all at the same time.
Inspired by the likes of Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys has become a master of melodies and a principled performer, known now for her activism as much as her album releases.
A major player in the contemporary feminist movement, Keys has made a point of shunning societal beauty conventions by abandoning cosmetics and standing up for gender equality publicly at the Women’s March and other high-profile events.
Sri-Lankan born M.I.A – otherwise known as Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam – talks global politics with her discordant bars; the perfect antidote to the one-dimensional pop princesses of the early noughties.
Since garnering chart success with Paper Planes , M.I.A. has continually subverted the norm of female singer songwriters; she’s been sued for swearing at the Superbowl and has been dubbed a conspiracy theorist. Her radical creativity is a breath of fresh air.
The Swedish singer, Robyn has graced the radio waves with her eccentric ethereal dance music. But more importantly, she has helped raise awareness for the obstacle women face in tech industries.
So much so, Robyn even launched her own festival called Tekla, to encourage women into STEM careers. The festival includes workshops on programming, robotics, 3D printing, game development, electronic music, and more.
Tegan and Sara
Twin sisters, Tegan and Sara Quin plucked the heartstrings of many an angst-filled teen with their sincere electro-pop. As gay women, they have both endeavoured to help other young women and members of the LGBT community come to terms with their sexuality in a safe, welcoming environment.
The Everything Is Awesome duo made the world a little bit more awesome when they set up the Tegan and Sara Foundation which they call a ‘fight for economic justice, health and representation for LGBTQ girls and women.’
Founded in 2011, this Russian feminist collective of performers, artists and musicians have fought the law to tackle society’s inequality.
Their musical offerings take on any issue, from Trump to immigration to abortion rights.
They were the mainstream, diluted teen pop Riot Grrrls of not-so-distant yesteryear. They literally invented Girl Power and spent their career putting cat-callers and sexist music industry big wigs in their place.
They inspired a global phenomenon – and subsequent campaigns for gender equality – sparked by female friendship. Although their inclusion may be predictable, the list would not be complete without the Spice Girls.
These women – musicians, songwriters, mothers and daughters alike – all represent a different version of what it means to be a woman.
Their melodies, lyrics and their place in music history send a powerful message to young women everywhere on IWD 2017: We weren’t all created different, but we are sure as hell equal.