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Instrumental Activism: 10 World Changing Female Artists

by Kate Sedgwick Oct 12, 2010
The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines

In front of a London audience, days before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Maines said, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The ensuing repercussions of this statement included death threats, a group of former fans gathering to publicly crush their CDs with a bulldozer as well as untold losses in ticket and album sales. Sentiment against the band was so pervasive that radio stations were banned from playing them, and two Colorado radio DJs were suspended defying the ban.

The band stood behind Maines even as she apologized and then later retracted the apology, though the group alienated much of their target demographic by doing so.

Here’s an Oprah segment about the controversy:

These days Maines is a supporter of the West Memphis 3 in the 17-year-old conviction of three teenage boys for killing a child based on nonexistent evidence.

Angélique Kidjo

Besides being an inspiring voice, opening countless fans’ eyes to African music, and spreading a positive message worldwide, Angelique Kidjo started Batonga, a foundation that supports education for girls in Africa (specifically in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Kidjo’s native Benin, Sierra Leone, and Mali).

Kidjo says of the project, “Educating girls in Africa gives them the strength and the tools they need to be the mothers of change…My mother was educated and she fought for me to go to school, despite pressure from many in our extended family who argued that only boys should be educated. And my daughter is now in school. Once an African woman is educated, she fights to ensure both sons and daughters receive an education. From this is born a tradition that is passed on and grows from family to family, from generation to generation—a tradition that is going to change the future for Africa.”

Interestingly, Kidjo made up the word ‘batonga’ as a comeback to boys that teased her when she was on her way to school – they didn’t know what it meant or how to respond to it.

Here is the official music video for her song ‘Batonga’, released in 1991:

Today, Batonga is helping more than 400 girls in these countries improve their situations and those for their future families. Since 1980, Kudjo has released 15 albums and is still recording and performing and is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

Next month she headlines “The Sound of the Drum” at Carnegie Hall, an event that tells the story of the drum as its beats travel the world, from Africa to the Americas. You can catch up with her appearances, releases and causes at her website,

Patti Smith

Electric Patti Smith is seen as a godmother of punk and fuels her music with her vision for a peaceful world.

An outspoken supporter of the Green Party and Ralph Nadar, Smith recently released Without Chains about Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz, held at Guantanamo Bay for four years. You can listen to the song for free here.

It’s likely that you’ve heard ‘People Have the Power’, one of Smith’s most widely known songs. Smith has lent the song to many causes, among them the Tibet House, and the Green Party.

Proud of her working class roots, Smith’s work comes from the gut. Her passion is one constant throughout the music she produces which at times verges on the symphonic and other times gravelly garage rock. Also a respected visual artist, author and poet, Smith is about pure expression and empowerment.


Like Kathleen Hanna and Patti Smith, M.I.A. is also a visual artist as well as a musician. Born in London to Sri Lankan Tamil parents, her family was displaced by the civil war there when she was a child and moved to India, then back to London. Though relatively estranged from her father, she has inherited his proclivity for activism, regularly bringing attention to the struggles of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, African Americans, and the Palestinians.

M.I.A. defies definition by a press bent on warping her message as seen in the recent controversy wrought by her misquotation by New York Times Magazine writer Lynn Hirschberg who presented statements out of context, painting M.I.A. as a dilettante. M.I.A. fought back posting secretly taped portions of the interview to provide context and clarify her message. But maybe all this controversy brings more attention to the topics closest to her heart.

Here’s ‘Pull Up the People’ from her first album ‘Arular’:

You can see what M.I.A is up to these days on MySpace or on her official website, She is very active and vocal about her views on human rights on her twitter page where you can find her at @_M_I_A_.

Sarah McLachlan

Sarah McLachlan had seen pretty massive success by the time she began Lilith Fair in 1999. The previous year she had a very successful tour with other female artists inspired by her frustration with treatment women receive in the recording industry, with one show called Lilith Fair after the first wife of Adam from medieval Jewish lore.

The tour ran for three years (1997-1999) and then returned this year raising $500,000 for charities for women and families chosen by a vote among attendees at each stop.

Also an animal rights activist, McLauchlan donated her song ‘Angel’ to the ASPCA for their campaign to support animal shelters in the US, jerking enough tears to raise $30M for the organization. She participated in Philadelphia’s Live 8 Concert to encourage cancellation of Africa’s World Bank debts, and funds a music outreach program in Vancouver for inner city youth.

Find out more about what she’s doing at


According to BBC, “[Shakira] is the only artist from South America to reach the number-one spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, the Australian ARIA chart, and the UK Singles Chart.”

Besides being a breakout artist who crossed over from the Latino to mainstream markets, the quadrilingual singer from Barranquilla, Colombia uses her powers for good. Like Kidjo, she is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Her foundation Pies Descalzos [English version Barefoot Foundation (named after her hit song of the same name which she founded at age 19)] has provided education to about 30,000 Colombians and is especially for disadvantaged and displaced children in her home country.

Live performance of Shakira’s ‘Pies Descalzo’:

In January of this year, she announced plans in conjunction with Pies Descalzos to build a new school in Haiti to aid in the recover effort there. If you’re interested in happenings in the world of Shakira’s activism (mainly in the field of childhood education) you can check out the news section on the foundation’s website.

Community Connection

Fired up? Read Social Activism with Compounding Interest on how and why to start an NGO before you’re old and rich or browse MatadorChange for ideas about how you can support positive change in the world.

Or if feminism is more up your alley, check out Nancy Harder’s piece Is Feminism Worse off Than Ever?

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