From Iran to Guatemala: How Women Are Driving Music’s Political Revolution
Whether its navigating a warzone, or becoming a public figure in a violent patriarchal society, these artists are using their music to become important voices of the times we live in.
A young girl is pictured counting rosary beads in a church. A male voiceover crackles: "Some of you may become somewhat uncomfortable as parts of this film unfold". A Presbyter, visible only from the neck down, uses a perfectly manicured hand to give the girl a small pink pill as a communion offering. In comes the music: a thumping electronic beat reminiscent of both Scissor Sisters and Le Tigre, before a woman's voice cuts in shouting, "Does your vagina have a brand? Let your vagina start a band!"
This is how a recent music video from now notorious activists Pussy Riot begins. Titled "Straight Outta Vagina", it is intended as both a celebration of all that is female-presenting, and a confrontational riposte to Donald Trump's "grab them by the pussy" remarks. The name "Pussy Riot" is now internationally recognised, their brightly-coloured balaclavas a symbol of opposition, feminism, and LGBTQ+ rights. It can be easy to forget that Tolokonnikova and fellow founding member Maria Alyokhina spent 16 months in Mordovia penal colonies on charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."
For Pussy Riot, music is a vehicle for their message. During their 2015 Glastonbury talk, Tolokonnikova joked that the group were in attendance because "We need more riots!" before tacking on "because we like music" as an addendum. Not to take away from the art of it – their songs have been increasingly crafted to be as catchy and accessible as possible, like all good campaign slogans – but politics is the clear priority. Music itself has always been used as a political tool. It has the potential to transcend the boundaries of race, gender and class in ways that other forms of art can't, and for that reason is a pretty good method of conveying an experience. It's also fun and celebratory, which are two perfect ways of fighting back against someone or something without using violence. When your identity is being suppressed, what better way to retaliate than by being yourself only much, much louder?
In the last few years, Pussy Riot have become our foremost contemporary example of this, but recently, in different countries around the world, it has become increasingly prevalent for female artists to use music as a means of tackling the forces of oppression. Some, like Pussy Riot, have a political message in mind, while others are received as political purely because they are being themselves and expressing themselves in ways that go determinedly against the cultural expectations they live in.
"I don't think I can go back," says Nadia Tehran (pictured at the top of this article) over Skype. The 25 year old Iranian artist, now a citizen in Sweden, released a video earlier this year called "Refugee", which was a creative mission statement of bold proportions. Filmed in Tehran with the help of her father, it shows the Iranian capital in a warm light – bustling markets, hazy landscapes and bold landmarks – while also challenging stereotypes. Clean-shaven men in gold chains dance and throw money while Tehran squares up to the camera and delivers bar after bar of assertive lyrics like, "I'm a refugee / You can watch me please your lady". In other scenes she is pictured singing in the streets; sitting atop a black horse wearing white trainers and a niqab; blowing ghelyoon smoke through her hijab and stating: "I am what I do and I do what I want." All of which, of course, is extremely illegal.
"I've been going to Iran every year since I was a kid, so that's a big sorrow in my life," she explains. "All the people in the video are my relatives, my friends. I wanted to build a bridge between these two worlds, but at the same time I actually kind of burned a bridge. It hurts not to be able to go back. But I know sooner or later I wouldn't be able to anyway just because I'm a woman and I'm singing and I'm being political. And that would be enough."
Tehran is an artist who lands somewhere between punk and hip-hop both in sound and attitude. Born of Iranian heritage and raised in the conservative Christian suburb of Jönköping in Sweden, her work is situated firmly in rebellion. Speaking to me from her bedroom in Stockholm, she runs through just a few of the things she finds frustrating: the way we use the internet to selectively curate the information we want, urbanisation in Sweden that sees people moving to the city from small countryside towns which then lose funds for hospitals and schools, countries closing their borders to refugees when resettlement could help to alleviate the effects of urbanisation on small towns.
At a time when international politics feels like it's reaching a moral nadir and everyone is clashing, it's animating to see everyday women in everyday situations being remarkably bold – being politically active, but also just trying to live how they want without a fight. "We've been having a picnic brunch on my floor," Tehran tells me, pointing the camera down to one of her friends who is sat cross-legged amid the leftovers. The friend gives me a wave. For a split second I forget that I'm talking to someone whose last video only surfaced because she managed to run fast enough from the authorities and smuggle the memory card in her underwear.
Sidelined by increasingly hostile anti-immigration rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia, Middle Eastern voices in pop culture this side of the millennium have been few and far between. Those that do break through are often politicised from the offset regardless of intention, purely because of their identity. There's certainly no shortage of overtly political artists – the last 12 months alone have seen everyone from Swet Shop Boys to Beyonce weighing in on conversations around race and police brutality – but the last few years have seen a growing number of women artists springing up from a grassroots level and sticking their necks out to be heard.
Nadia is a recent example in a list that also includes many. Guatemalan rapper Rebeca Lane is making socially-conscious hip-hop in a country suffering a longstanding crisis of violence against women, the Kurdish pop star Helly Luv filmed a music video on the ISIS frontline, Zimbabwean rapper AWA has used her popularity to tackle domestic and sexual abuse in her country, and, of course, Pussy Riot. "I think that maybe [what we're saying] becomes stronger and louder because it has more resistance," Tehran says when I ask why she thinks there's been a spike in non-male voices rallying against oppression lately. "When someone is fighting you, you have to scream louder because you're coming from a perspective where nobody is listening. Maybe that's why we're rising up now."
The thing about Nadia Tehran, Rebeca Lane, AWA (pictured above), and Helly Luv in particular, is they all talk about issues, emotions and struggles specific to them. Although it's useful for high profile artists to say Black Lives Matter or address the violence directed towards Muslim people, there also needs to be more room for diversity and nuance in terms of whose voices are coming through. "The most important thing is to actually let people talk about their own stories so it's not like an elite in music who has to represent everybody else," Nadia says. "Nobody can tell my story better than myself, so I'd rather have the platform to speak myself than have some famous people fighting my fight."
"Fight" is an apt word for what these artists are doing, often making personal sacrifices and putting themselves in physical danger to meet their artistic goals. Rebeca Lane is active in a country where more than 1,000 women have been murdered in the past two years and 98% of femicide crimes go unsolved. The long-running Guatemalan Civil War brought with it widespread sexual violence against women and girls, and the continued impact is still felt today. Addressing that, as well as challenging macho themes and attitudes within hip-hop, Lane speaks directly to women and girls who share her experiences. One of her most well known songs "Mujer Lunar" (which translates to "Lunar Woman"), is a lyrical call to respect women's bodies, lives and independence. "It's very frustrating living here and trying to transform your society when so many things are against you," Lane told Noisey in an interview earlier this year. "It's hard to feel alone when you see another girl like you fighting and struggling."
After receiving a grant from Astraea Foundation (an organization working to advance LGBTQI human rights around the globe), Lane (pictured below) recruited Mexican rapper Audry Funk and Costa Rican artists Nativa and Nakury to join her for concerts and workshops all over Latin America, from Panama to Mexico. "Somos Guerreras isn't just a tour," Lane said when asked about it in an interview, "it's a way of seeing hip-hop for women as a political movement."
Similarly, 27-year-old Helen Abdulla, who goes by the stage name Helly Luv, is using pop videos to project a message of peace in the Middle East in the most contentious way possible. Of Kurdish heritage and raised in Finland, where her family was granted asylum, Luv spent her teens working as a waitress and dance teacher and eventually earned enough to buy a one-way ticket to LA to have a shot at a pop career. Millions of YouTube views later, here she is, talking like a leader of the opposition and looking like Rihanna.
In 2014, she went into hiding after her video for "Risk It All" prompted death threats from Islamist groups in Iraqi Kurdistan and condemnation from members of her own family. The video features Luv – hair as red as her lipstick – draped over a lion and dancing with AK47-toting Peshmerga soldiers. In her second video, 2015's "Revolution", she stomps towards an army tank in gold heels holding a banner above her head that reads: "Stop the violence". She takes her lipstick, writes the word "Revolution" on a shell and fires it into the distance. The whole video was filmed just 3km from the frontline of the war between ISIS and the Peshmerga in Iraq.
"First of all [the Kurdish high command] told us we were crazy, and they told me 'You're out of your mind, are you serious?' I made it clear to them what I wanted to do, and what was my message, and I promised them that this message has to go international and people need to know what is going on here," Luv told Noisey in an interview. "My weapon is my music and my voice because I feel like with my voice I can get it to millions of other people," she said. "And that's exactly what happened."
In many ways it doesn't matter that all of these artists are women. Fundamentally, they are people fighting for something the same way Billy Bragg would shout about the miners' strike or Bob Dylan about civil rights, to pull up two cliched examples from a Westernised view of "protest music". But, at the same time, it does matter. Their art is framed by their experiences, and their experiences are of being women who exist intersectionally, across borders, and in hostile environments; whose rights are denied, bodies objectified, and identities often erased or lumped into binary definitions. Their rebellion is in doing what they want, whether that involves navigating a warzone, being a public figure in a violent patriarchal society, or singing alone in the streets of a country where it is illegal for women to perform in any capacity other than a backing singer. Their victory isn't so much in dodging actual bullets as it is making women and girls in their bedrooms across the world feel less alone in the process.
"I think music has always been a political tool," Tehran says. "For me it's not about having a political agenda and using my music to get that agenda out, it's more about expressing what I'm feeling and what I'm thinking – and that in itself becomes a political statement, but it's not really my goal. For a girl like me, it doesn't really matter what I do, it's always political." Does she consider her work protest music, though?
"If the climate were different this wouldn't be a protest," she says, "I'm just telling my story. I'd rather it not be a protest, but you could consider it that. I've always seen myself as a person who's in opposition to everything."
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Watch our short film about Zimbabwean rapper AWA right here.
(Photo of AWA: Max Thurlow, Photo of Rebeca Lane: Andrés Vargas)