On Saturday, January 21st at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, artist Janelle Monáe stood before an ever-growing crowd and stated: “I am so proud to stand here as a woman, an African-American woman; my grandmother was a sharecropper. She picked cotton in Aberdeen, Mississippi. My mother was a janitor, and I am a descendent of them, and I am here, in their honor, to help us move forward and fem the future.”
Even though I traveled to D.C. to witness the historic march, I, unfortunately, was not able to see Monáe’s powerful speech in person; stuck on a metro train caught in a three-hour delay due to the sheer number of people making their way into the city, I was only able to hear Monáe’s words after the march had ended, stretching out sore legs in my aunt’s house. There I was surrounded by my family, all of whom are immigrants. All marched underneath the blank slate of the cloudy sky for their rights, both as women, and as immigrant women.
It was there that I listened to Monáe’s voice blast out of tiny computer speakers, talking about her pride to march both as a woman and as an African-American woman: Enfolded by the faces of women whose femininity enclosed a duality.
In 1989, civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” as she studied the overlap between race and gender. In her prominent essay, she focused on the struggle of Black women, stating that the discrimination they experience does not fall deftly into the categories of either “racism” or “sexism,” but rather, due to their converging identities of being both “African-American” and “woman,” is a combination of the two. From there, intersectionality grew to become generally known as the concurrence of multiple social identities and the consequent surrounding systems of discrimination and oppression.
Monáe’s song that she performed at the march, “Hell You Talmbout,” brings to light the conflict that can exist within the intersection of being Black and being a woman. A majority of the song simply lists the names of the many Black women unfairly killed by the police followed by a repeated chant of “say her name,” as a reference to the recent #SayHerName movement; while the names of the Black men illegally and immorally killed by police forces have started to gain national attention (like Eric Garner or Freddie Gray) the names of these women (like Sandra Bland or Mya Hall) are much less well-known, pointing to the idea that there is an invisibility in intersectionality; within their bisecting identities, the unjust and inequitable crimes against Black women have become excluded and hidden from the public eye.
The inclusivity and recognition of intersectionality in mainstream feminism is necessary, especially from the women who do not share the same conflicts and experiences. The issue of unfair violence and police brutality against Black women does not include White women; part of the way we can help include the perspectives of black women in mainstream feminism is by making sure our voices are never raised louder than the women of color who are affected daily.
However, America has never had a positive history of creating equal spaces for marginalized groups to feel comfortable speaking in without the threat of being pushed to the side.
The music scene, specifically, has always been a platform for social change, especially for the progression of women’s rights. However, within that context, there has previously been a monopolization of recognition and relevancy. Especially within third-wave feminism, White women have been primarily thought of as the instigators of the infusion of feminist ideals in music, creating a space where female artists of color have either been talked over or ignored completely.
When looking at the history of music and feminism, the second-wave feminism movement that started in the early 1960’s and lasted throughout the late ’80s was relatively restricted, both in terms of how little it leaked into pop culture and how little it included marginalized groups. However, in the sequential third-wave feminism movement beginning in the early ’90s, borders became much more relaxed, and the movement began to cross boundaries, bleeding into music, art and public discourse. Third-wave feminism took on a more individualistic approach to feminism; it critiqued second-wave feminism for being exclusively White, middle-class women, and tried to alter the term “feminist” to fit a more inclusive definition.
While the third-wave did embrace the importance of intersectionality in theory, this openness was not always directly translated into practice. Third-wave feminism’s materialization in music is still considered a primarily White woman effort, with the overwhelmingly all-White riot grrrl movement taking up most of the spotlight during the ’90s. Bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney explored the empowerment of female sexuality in their music, redefining what it meant to be empowered through aggressively and explicitly calling attention to their own female sexuality. The problem arises when this particular expression of female empowerment during the ’90s is considered the only expression of emancipation. And it usually is, with many people solely noticing the riot grrrl movement, linking it to the girl power of the Spice Girls in the early 2000s and completely ignoring the efforts of artists of color; bands like TLC and Destiny’s Child, while well-known, were not given the same revolutionarily and radically feminist status as the riot grrrl bands, despite sharing the same timeline and emergence.
Part of it has to do with the fact that these divergent bands came from different genres of music, but part of it also has to do with the fact that riot grrrl’s (and, more generally, White women’s) expression of female empowerment was considered the principal form of expression; the zine-filled clamor of angry performances where lead singers stripped themselves down to solely bras turned into the face of third-wave feminism in music, overlooking the fact that empowerment read differently for women of different races; women of color had (and still have) a harder time portraying themselves as agents of their own empowered sexuality because of how they have historically been painted as hyper-sexual and debauched in comparison to the pure and innocuous standard of white femininity.
Ignoring the role of intersectionality, and the subsequent stigma that surrounded artists of color as they strove to find their place during the sexual revolution of third-wave feminism, can lead to the emphasis of the accomplishments of White women while simultaneously viewing the activities of women of color as merely contributions, if not inadequate representations of female empowerment.
Principally: to ignore the many different forms and voices feminism can take, both inside and outside the realm of music, has the power to distance, ostracize and suppress. It is an issue that did not die out in the ’90s and still is extremely prevalent today. In fact, as the Women’s March on Washington began to gain more and more attention, apprehensions began to rise as well, with many women of color wondering if the steps of the Capitol on January 21st would be a space reserved mostly for White women or a space inclusive of all identities.
It is a concern born out of a history of marginalization, and a concern I held myself as I considered the multi-faceted identity of my own family. However, as I saw Janelle Monáe’s commanding rendition of “Hell You Talmbout,” as I saw Alicia Keys standing tall as she honored all the different ways femininity can be expressed, as I saw posters of all varieties champion for the recognition and celebration of Black women, Hispanic women, Muslim women, undocumented women and LGBTQ women, my apprehensions slowly began to fade away.
While the current situation for minority women, specifically for women of color, is far from perfect, the relative inclusivity of the Women’s March on Washington (though far from perfect itself) gives rise to hope: both within music and within the overall social sphere of feminism. Women of all distinctive individualities are moving to march forward, not back.