I’VE BEEN INSPIRED by the creation of Vela Mag, an online travel magazine launched by Glimpse editor Sarah Menkedick. Vela features exclusively women’s writing to address what seems a clear inequality: men get published at alarmingly higher rates than women.
The beginning of the Vela Manifesto reads, “Try this with The Best Articles of 2010: Go down the list, and say out loud to yourself the gender of each writer as you go. You’ll say: man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, woman, woman, man, man, man, man.”
Let’s face it: just like it’s not easy to travel and write as a woman, nor is it simple or scripted or even accepted to be a lady musician. Despite Beyonce’s assertion that girls run the world, they certainly do not in music (or anywhere else; Beyonce, I’m confused). And I’m not just talking about top 40 music. In the worlds of indie, hip hop, DIY and punk rock, women have consistently been on the sidelines, making it difficult for younger musicians to gain mentorship and forge a new path.
But luckily, despite vast inequalities, there are female musicians who are pioneers and give inspiration to current and future generations. The band that inspired me to not only make music but to find my own voice as a writer was an all-female trio from Olympia, Washington: Sleater-Kinney (now broken up). In a famous incident, the band was once mistaken for groupies backstage at a show. Lead singer Corin Tucker’s response was: “We’re not here to f*ck the band, we are the band”.
In the spirit of that ice-in-her-veins gesture, I present five women artists who are making (or in the case of just one, have made) lasting change in their respective genres. From hip-hop to alt-country to world-folk, this is a list of innovators. Pay attention, and take notes.
Rye Rye: Baltimore, Maryland, United States
I first read about Rye Rye in a Washington Post article that detailed her rise to (club) fame, her fateful meeting with M.I.A. and ultimately painted a rags-to-riches picture of a girl who had escaped the Baltimore projects to move up in the world.
To me, Rye Rye’s video “Sunshine” feels like an ode to her East Baltimore neighborhood, which yes, is a place of gruesome violence, but also of remarkable movement and creativity. “Sunshine” featuring M.I.A., displays kids playing basketball, girls making up dances or jumping rope; above all it’s the sense that all of the children and young adults are outside, connected, their daily rhythms bumping up against each other and constantly evolving.
Rye Rye is more than a gifted performer. She possesses that rare talent of good travelers: adaptability. She started performing for Baltimore club kids at a young age, for an audience very different than her home community in terms of age, geography, race and class; and she became their queen. That same Post article called her “an ambassador”.
In one of my favorite collaborations this year, Rye Rye recorded a hip-hop track over Swedish artist Robyn’s “Be Mine”. And of course, she took Robyn’s song and injected her own story, experience, and style to create the new, “Never Will Be Mine”.
First you tell me
That you love me dearly
I don’t love you
Did I make that clearly?
It’s like Rye Rye’s fed up with the constraints of language, so she twists it around until she’s made her point. At the end of the song, Robyn repeatedly laments, “No, you never were and you never will be mine,” and Rye Rye enthusiastically backs her up: “That’s right, that’s right, that’s right.”
Marta Gomez: New York by way of Colombia
Ok, I’m into punk rock. I’ve loved it since I was 14. But there are times when I need to give in to my softer side. Marta Gomez doesn’t make pop music. She’s not an indie-electronica artist. She writes and performs straight-up, gorgeous folk.
Born in Cali, Colombia, educated at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Gomez writes and performs soft, exquisitely crafted lullabies in her poetic Spanish.
Marta Gomez came to me by accident, through a Pandora recommendation that actually, for once, hit the nail on the head. I was making tiramisu, had set the channel to Susana Baca (the Afro-Peruvian jazz goddess), and with each ingredient added, accepted more and more the fact that the boy I liked was never going to call.
Marta Gomez’s “Casi” came on and like that, I was hooked. It’s a song about unrequited love. Two days later, he called. A few months later, we broke up and I took a pilgrimage to New York City, where I saw Gomez perform at Joe’s Pub.
This is music about anhelo – the Spanish word that describes the deepest nostalgia and grief for a homeland left behind.
Here’s one of my favorite canciones de Marta, “Ritualitos”:
Lhasa de Sela: Montreal by way of the US and Mexico
Lhasa de Sela was kind of like the female version of Tom Waits. She was eclectic — borrowing from the Mexican ranchera style as much as carnival music and Eastern European forms.
De Sela never seemed scared of sounding unfeminine, and although at times her voice revealed pure pain, it was never unfiltered, always instead artful and controlled. Her tunes both disturb and comfort; they are slow and painful and show the mark of a true musician.
Lhasa de Sela’s life seemed taken from the pages of a Tim Burton film or a hippie fairy tale. Her parents, a Mexican father and American mother, moved the family all over North America during de Sela’s childhood, and she mostly grew up in Mexico. After suffering some understandable burnout from constant touring in the late ‘90s, de Sela ran away to join the circus.
Her music reminds me most of my own moments of pure consciousness – the understanding that life isn’t sad and meaningless, it’s that it’s sad and at times, too meaningful to bear.
In “Love Came Here” she sings, “Now that my heart is open / It can’t be closed or broken.”
Her life was cut short by a battle with breast cancer in January of 2010. My former colleague Felix Contreras, reported on de Sela’s passing for NPR. You can listen to his obituary for her at NPR.
Here’s her song “Con Toda Palabra”:
Gillian Welch: Nashville by way of New York and Los Angeles
In the interest of full disclosure, Gillian Welch is my step-cousin, but we’ve never actually met. My dad used to hang with her and her family and he says they were all about art projects and spontaneous sing-alongs. This came as a major shock to him, a student majoring in statistics who came from a no-nonsense farm family. Just one generation earlier, music had been prohibited and dancing was the devil’s business.
Cousin or no cousin, Welch’s music chills the bones. Critics like to use the word “haunting” so much that at times I forget what it actually means, but in the case of her music, it’s warranted.
Welch’s gorgeous alt-country songs paint a harsh landscape. She adopts personas from early Americana and begs the listener to tear her “stillhouse down” or listen to the story of a prized daughter who dies before she reaches adolescence. She narrates the life of a young beauty queen who wants to escape to the big city, who wants “to do right, but not right now.”
My favorite lyrical moments are when Welch sings about her own life. She was adopted by my dad’s stepfamily as a baby, and she narrates the loss she’s accepted as part of her birthright in “Orphan Girl.”
I have had friendships, pure and golden
but the ties of kinship, I have not known them.
In the song, “Revelator,” Welch proves that men don’t have a monopoly on whiskey-soaked songs of regret.
But who could know
If I’m a traitor
Time’s the Revelator
She and partner David Rawlings released a highly anticipated new album this summer called The Harrow & The Harvest. Warning: this music will probably make you cry, especially if you’re going through any major life transition.
Here’s one of my favorite Gillian Welch songs, “Ms. Ohio”:
Mala Rodríguez: Seville, Spain
I used to work for a show on NPR Music called Alt.Latino, and while I was there, the hosts Jasmine Garsd and Felix Contreras did an amazing interview with Mala Rodríguez. You can listen to the show they produced with Mala at NPR.
I listened in and was blown away by this woman, who speaks with natural grace and some serious intention.
I’ve heard her say that the reason for her nickname, or at least the reason it stuck, is because in this world full of hypocrites, where everything is upside down, “I prefer to be mala.”
I listen to Mala Rodríguez because she’s a word artist, and that’s not something I would say about every hip-hop professional out there. This woman’s flow is pure rhythm and linguistic power, it’s like she pulls rhymes out of thin air and still manages to make profound, existential statements.
Mala’s style has softenend a lot over the years, she no longer displays a super hardcore flow, favoring instead more lyrical subtlety. There are days though, especially after I’ve been crudely cat-called, or been called “slutty” for being the one who decides who I sleep with, when I am all about old-school Mala, those tracks where she is pissed off and still manages to transform her feminist polemical rage into something badass and eloquent.
Here’s one of my favorite Mala songs, “La Niña.” This video was banned in Spain for its portrayal of a child drug dealer: