Past To Present: How Female Artists Have Empowered Their Listeners Through Lyricism

Rey Da'Costa Green

By Rey Da'Costa Green

Rey Da'Costa Green

9 Mar 2023

For International Women’s Month, we take a look at the chronology of how women have musically influenced us for the better regardless of the trials and tribulations that may have impacted them.

Music, like all other things that we as humans are surrounded by, has transgressed a surmountable amount over time. Usually, people investigate this from a technological perspective, with the shift from putting a penny on the arm of a record player to prevent skipping, manually rewinding cassette tapes, to all of your favourite songs and albums being at the click of a small touch screen button. Granted, these advancements have been literally life-changing, but one subject that is not talked about anywhere near enough is the feminine empowerment that has come with the development of music. 

From sporadic songs here and there, that contained lyrics of empowerment, to music lovers now stressing out about the absence of female artists at important events, the expansional evolution of the role of women in the music industry has been astonishing. This has been prevalent even more so in the lyricism that pertains to new-age music, with female artists overturning what was once associated with them in a derogatory manner.

November 9th, 1993 was a serious game changer for feminine lyricism, with Queen Latifah releasing a song that sticks in the minds of all listeners like glue. U.N.I.T.Y was, in my opinion, a catalyst for a new movement that feminists in the 20th century could not even imagine. The lyrics, which question the use of the disparaging terms h*e and b*tch, came at a time where patriarchy within the music field was at an indescribable high, with hardcore rap groups from all over diminishing women at every chance they could get. Granted, some of these groups stood for other matters, such as racism, liberation and police brutality, but where these were present, sexism was also, sometimes even more so apparent within their lyrics.

With this, many women have since banded together to create such an explosively compelling, dominating and formidable movement which has not only influenced the musical sphere, but also the political, domestic, and so many other areas of society, be it directly or indirectly. It goes without saying that there were many other women prior who lyrically have done an incredible job in the deterioration of the patriarchy. For instance, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruitin 1939 and Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me (1963) both incorporate elements of rawness that one would never anticipate within both eras. Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston followed, both singing their own rendition of I’m Every Womanin 1978 and 99, conjuring aspects of etherealism through the lyrics and the riffs and runs that assisted them. These artists and the elegance in which they carried themselves, regardless of the criticism that they received from the patriarchal world of music, needs to be heavily credited. However, as of the 90’s an immense influx of empowering lyrics touched the screens of TVs and computers everywhere. 

Whilst the continuation of this catalyst was sustained by female artists- with even some male artists jumping into the feminist music (2Pac’s Keep Your Head Up and Boys II Men’s A Song for Mama, for example)- a different, more direct and raw flow was consistently incorporated into the mix. Who’s That Girl by Eve, Independent Women Pt. I and Pt. II by Destiny’s Child, Wannabe by Spice Girls, Tyrone by Erykah Badu and Mr. Messed Up by Floetry all elicit this new renowned flow within the songs in a fierce and motivating way, having you considering if the person you are with is really worth all the heartache or if they’re just a Scrub (TLC really had us all in a chokehold with this classic). But these songs weren’t just catchy and successful briefly- they were so much more than that. They taught us that we as women cannot and will not be silenced about issues that we have been in the past, and the utilisation of music as an outlet is what makes this movement in particular so much more unique and defying.

Even more recently, we’ve seen a complete switch on the vulgar terms that women once depreciated; a new wave which has empowered b*tch, h*e and other sexist terms, with an OG, Lil’ Kim igniting the flame in 1996 through Queen B*tch. I know by this point, many of you reading this will argue that the likes of City Girls, Lola Brooke, Nicki Minaj, Little Simz and Ms Banks have set us back with the use of lyrics that we once complained about, but the only way to describe how cathartic the feeling of reclaiming and empowering these words is, would be euphoric. 

These artists and the impact that they have created depict how far we have come with music lyrically, but their drive for more proclaims how much more we need to do for the mark of women to be heard by all. With statistics indicating a mere 13.9% of individual women being nominated in the Grammys last year, to zero women being nominated for the new gender-neutral BRIT category, the mark of female empowerment is being heard, but not felt by many in the industry. Until the capacity of these lyrics can permeate each listener, there is no doubt that all the women mentioned and many more will lyrically fight with every fibre of their being to ensure that they are valued and treasured as the incandescent, stupefying individuals that they are.