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Instrumental Activism: 10 World Changing Female Artists

by Kate Sedgwick Oct 12, 2010
Maybe you need a shot of inspiration. If you do, find any of these artists on YouTube, make a play list, and get your butt in gear. When the world pushed them down, each of these women came back swinging, bringing powerful music to the people and donating and bringing publicity to causes that needed more support.
Nina Simone

Nina Simone’s voice is instantly identifiable. Her cadence and artistry are unique, her temper and convictions notorious.

So strong were her ties to the Civil Rights Movement that when the passion behind the movement cooled, she simply found being an artist in the US intolerable and permanently expatriated, but not before writing ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and the anthem ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’.

Mississippi Goddam was written in response to the Medgar Evers murder in Mississippi, as well as the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that year. It expresses the urgency and necessity of equality with the lyrics:

You keep on saying, “Go slow!” “Go slow!”/ But that’s just the trouble/”Go slow”/Desegregation/”Go slow’/Mass participation/”Go slow”/Reunification/”Go slow”/Do things gradually/”Go slow”/But bring more tragedy/”Go slow”/Why don’t you see it?/Why don’t you feel it?/I don’t know./I don’t know.

Here she is singing ‘Mississippi Goddam’:

Simone never compromised her message, even at the expense of her career. Still perhaps better known for her torch songs, Simone always had an eye for social justice. She rejected the classification of her work as jazz, her reason being that jazz is a white word to describe Black music.

In the documentary ‘Nina Simone: La Légende’ (aired in 1992 on French TV) Simone says of the Civil Rights Movement, “I felt more alive then than I feel now because I was needed and I could sing something to help my people.”

Sinéad O’Connor

At the height of her popularity when Sinéad O’Connor ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II in Saturday Night Live, the widespread molestation of children and ensuing cover-up by the Catholic Church wasn’t common knowledge in the US. There were massive protests and her act was viewed as career ending.

Here she is meeting strong audience opposition at a Bob Dylan Tribute after a very strong introduction by Kris Kristofferson lauding her integrity weeks after the notorious performance:

Eoin Butler’s piece ‘Isn’t Sinead O’Connor Overdue a Massive, Grovelling Apology from Absolutely Everybody?‘ goes deep where others graze the surface in regards to this incident.

18 years later, there is a clear understanding of her motivations. Her March article in the Washington Post reveals O’Connor experienced abuse in the context of a Catholic detention center “personally,” and a Q and A published shortly thereafter goes further in clarifying her views.

This is far from her only cause. She espouses peace and sponsors GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), which provides education to girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation.

You can catch up with her life, tours and causes on her website:

Tori Amos

Amos says that her openness about her sexual assault in “Me and a Gun” flooded her with letters from fans who had experienced sexual violence and had nowhere to turn.

She knew she had to do something more than just be open about what had happened to her and co-founded RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). Their National Sexual Assault Hotline partners with 1,100 local rape crisis centers with 24 hour call responses. According to RAINN’s press release, “[t]he hotline has helped more than 1.4 million people since it began in 1994.”

Amos is intellectual, outspoken and thoughtful about feminism. When asked in a 2005 BUST interview if she felt aligned with the Riot Grrrl movement Amos said of feminism:

“Well, I feel aligned with any woman who is expressing herself, even though we do it differently. That’s the beauty of it… And of course, the patriarchy, as a system, doesn’t value the differences and uniqueness in people. True feminism, if we really want to make a difference, should be about encouraging people to express themselves. If they’re not being encouraged to do this, then somebody’s trying to control them. And that might be somebody who calls him or herself a feminist.”

Here she is performing ‘Me and a Gun’:

She has inspired thousands of people with her music and message, most recently and notably among them WWF wrestler Mick Foley who recently donated the total of his advance for his fourth book to RAINN as well as manning phones on the crisis hotline.

Kathleen Hanna

Kathleen Hanna recounts her first experience with feminism in a BUST magazine interview; her mother had taken her to a rally to hear Gloria Steinem speak when she was just 9 years old. She started as a photographic artist and moved into music in the early nineties. Her first band Bikini Kill was definitive in the Riot Grrl movement and still inspires people today as you can see in the Bikini Kill Archive Blog .

These days, Hanna is still rocking it with Le Tigre who will make you want to get up and shake it even as they cover topics as weighty as the Amadou Diallo shooting in NYC or as personal as Hanna’s memory of gay neighbors from childhood who gave her hope for a different sort of life in the future.

Here’s Le Tigre’s ‘Deceptacon’ (I dare you not to dance):

From Bikini Kill to Julie Ruin to Le Tigre, Hanna’s message is always one of personal empowerment for herself and the listener. The status quo is the enemy, be it consumer culture, sexual norms, police brutality, working a job just to get by, or deafness to minority voices.

Bikini Kill ran in direct opposition to the apathy of contemporaries such as Nirvana, encouraging fans to go further than reject what was wrong in the world and get out there and do something about it and Le Tigre is still pushing that message today. Catch up with them on and find out what Hanna is saying and supporting at

Read more about M.I.A., Patti Smith and Angélique Kidjo on the next page.

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