Music gets with the #MeToo movement
Finding feminist music at the VMAs and beyond
A lot of music videos are built on a particular formula, especially around the depiction of women. The three minutes that a song takes to play out are often accompanied by a line-up of women scantily clad and gyrating in the background, dehumanized props to sell the song. The music world can be highly problematic with the prevalence of misogynistic lyrics and its hypersexualized portrayal of women. With the MTV Music Awards happening August 20, it is an opportune time to broaden our horizons and look at artists (at the MTV Music Awards and beyond) who are using their craft to celebrate feminism and challenge narratives on gender and sexuality.
MTV moving with the momentum
Since 2011, MTV has been awarding videos with social messages — ones that take on current socio-political subjects — to reflect the “audience’s passion and activism around social justice issues, such as environmental justice, immigration, LGBTQ equality, and racial justice,” according to the channel. Last year it rebranded “Best Video with a Social Message” to “Best Fight Against the System” award, paying homage to artists who are using their craft to demonstrate solidarity with social movements and to provide social commentary on contentious issues that have been in the news. This year’s nominees for the category cover a range of topics from Childish Gambino’s satirical commentary on gun violence, police brutality, and the treatment of African Americans in “This Is America,” to Janelle Monae’s “PYNK”, an ode to creation, sexuality, and “pussy power”.
To the beat of the movement
Music has always played a key role in invigorating social and cultural movements, providing a sense of unity and inspiration, from Sam Cooke singing “A Change is Gonna Come” to the politically charged work of Joan Baez, and Tupac’s ability to use hip-hop to address structural discrimination.
With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements leading a dialogue about sexual harassment, power dynamics, and gender, it is worth considering the role music can play in shaping these conversations and representations of women. A recent study from Oxfam on young people’s perspectives towards violence against women in Latin America and the Caribbean specifically pointed to artists and musicians as having the capacity to shift cultural narratives around gender stereotypes and violence against women.
Among this year’s VMA nominees, Monae’s “PYNK,” Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” and “Apes**t” by The Carters tackle gender tropes in their own unique way.
Striking a social chord beyond the VMAs
We’ve put together a couple of inspiring examples of musicians around the world who are pushing boundaries and supporting the women’s rights movement.
First Aid Kit’s “You Are the Problem Here” presents a powerful rebuttal to a sexual assault case the Swedish duo read about in which a rapist was given lenient punishment. The song makes it clear that sexual assault and rape cannot be justified by youth culture or alcohol and that male violence is rooted in men’s entitlement over women’s bodies.
In “Hijabi (Wrap my Hijab),” Mona Haydar sings that she is “Takin’ back the misnomers and teleportin’ through trauma, I still wrap my hijab, Wrap my hijab”. The lyrics speak to the multiple levels of discrimination that Muslim women face as women, Muslim, and for wearing the hijab. The video confronts preconceived notions about women who wear the hijab, depicting them as strong and empowered.
In their music video “Roman,” Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila celebrates Middle Eastern feminism. The video challenges the dominant narrative of Arab and Muslim women as victims, instead highlighting powerful women who are resisting and organizing for change. The video subverts the dominant narrative of (male) musicians as the heroes, subjecting the all-male band to the gaze of a female director and ensuring that they take a backseat in the progress of the women’s movement.
The theme of violence against women finds it place in the music of many artists in Latin America, the most dangerous region in the world to be a woman. María Nieves Rebolledo Vila — Bebe as she is popularly known — tackles domestic violence in “Malo,” defiantly singing “I am going to come back like a fire, I’m going to burn your fists of steel and from the purple of my cheeks will come the courage to cover my wounds.”
Miss Bolivia gives the #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) movement its anthem with “Paren de Matarnos” or “Stop Killing Us.”. Singing “They say I disappeared because I was out there alone, because my skirt was too short, they just blame it on me,” Miss Bolivia uses her platform to bring together powerful feminist musicians including Argentina’s Sandra Mihanovich, to decry victim blaming and the excuses used to justify violence against women.
As part of Oxfam’s Enough Campaign to end violence against women and girls, we’ve worked with up-and-coming musicians to take our campaign messages to the masses. In the Solomon Islands, YouTube sensation Rosie Delmah calls on young people to step up and “Make a Change,” while in Bolivia, reggaetón artist Bonny Lovy’s “Digale Usted” has raised awareness about jealousy and control in relationships.
The songs we sing, the words we use, the images we reference, matter. They construct our world view and the impact and influence we have on others. Music can change perspectives. The question is… are you listening to it? Are you sharing it? Are you part of the movement?