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Do women need to “step up” in 2018?

As expected, after a year of harrowing revelations regarding sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, the 60th Grammy Awards ceremony paid tribute to the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ movements. Big names carried white roses in honour of the fight against sexual assault, while others arrived clad in white as a symbolic gesture. Janelle Monáe introduced her performance with a rousing speech asking for all those in the industry to work together to make it a more inclusive space for women. And in a moment that has since been shared online innumerous times, Kesha offered a touching rendition of her single ‘Praying’, which linked the singer’s personal story of abuse with the larger cultural reckoning over sexual assault as the artist stood flanked by fellow female artists. It was a sign of female solidarity, of women stepping up, together, against abuse and injustice.

Despite all this, the awards themselves snubbed female talent. Of the eight awards presented during the main portion of the Grammys, only one was received by a woman. The reason? Female artists need to “step up”, argued president of the Recording Academy Neil Portnow in an interview following the ceremony. Women have the creativity and potential, but they are simply not bringing it to fruition. Portnow’s comments were met with immediate backlash, and rightly so. Not only did they completely dismiss the obstacles to female success in the industry, exemplified by stories such as Kesha’s and speeches such as Monae’s, they were also just outright wrong. Female artists did step up in 2017—working against all odds to produce truly incredible and often groundbreaking music.

As a black woman subject to racial prejudice, and a former stripper subject to all the stigmas surrounding that, Cardi B made her presence felt in a notoriously male-centric genre

In 2017, for example, Cardi B became the first female rapper to top the US Billboard charts since Lauryn Hill’s ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ in 1998. ‘Bodak Yellow’ became the rap anthem of the year, receiving public approval from established female MCs such as Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliot. It stayed atop the charts for three consecutive weeks, tying with Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ as the longest running female single at the number one spot. As a black woman subject to racial prejudice, and a former stripper subject to all the stigmas surrounding that, Cardi B has defied the odds and made her presence felt in a notoriously male-centric genre.

The American MC wasn’t the only woman smashing glass ceilings in rap. In March, Nicki Minaj broke the record for the most Billboard entries by any female artist. On the UK scene, female grime artist and shortlistee for BBC’s Artist of the Year Nadia Rose dropped her first album, Highly Flammable, an impressive demonstration of the rapper’s verbal dexterity and swift flow. 

Rapsody was another female MC to impress with an album. Laila’s Wisdom may not have achieved the commercial heights that Cardi’s singles did, but it was a success among critics. Rightfully so—the album is arguably one of the most unique hip hop projects to come out last year, a blend of funk, soul, and rap. It was an ambitious feat, with 14 tracks that tackle heavy stuff: drug abuse, mass incarceration, gender politics, and police violence. Like Kendrick Lamar, on whose album To Pimp a Butterfly Rapsody was the only feature with a guest verse, the MC can combine irresistibly good rhythm and flow with lyrical depth.

In pop, female artists also delivered. Both young, British, and effortlessly cool, Charli XCX and Dua Lipa produced hits that dominated the charts this summer. In 2017, Charli released both an album—Number 1 Angel, full of catchy tunes such as ‘3AM (Pull Up)’—and a mixtape—Pop 2, packed with unashamedly experimental pop and faultless features. Meanwhile, Dua Lipa’s debut album has the artist’s smoky voice shift seamlessly from strong pop hits like ‘Hotter Than Hell’ to soft ballads like ‘Homesick’.  Stylistically, Dua Lipa is not particularly innovative— but as the first album from the 22-year-old, it heralds great things.

It wouldn’t be a fair recollection of women’s contribution to R&B this year without a mention of Sza’s Ctrl

British female talent was also prevalent in R&B last year. West-Midlands singer Jorja Smith released a series of singles last year in the build-up to her 2018 debut album. ‘On My Mind’, featuring and produced by grime artist Preditah, combines Smith’s soft vocals with sizzling, garage-inspired beats. Already this year, Smith has released a single with Stormzy, ‘Let Me Down’, which trended as number one on YouTube. She was nominated in the Best Female category in the 2017 MOBO Awards, and featured on the BBC Sound of 2017 list. Like Smith, Birmingham-based Mahalia Burkmar has been marking her place in R&B with the release of soulful singles last year. In ‘Sober’, honeyed vocals glide across chilled beats, while ‘Hold On’ is an infectious tune that you can’t help but bob your head to.

It wouldn’t be a fair recollection of women’s contribution to R&B this year without a mention of Sza’s Ctrl. The album is a true masterpiece, as well as an unashamed exploration of womanhood.  It was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for accumulating over 500,000 in album-equivalent units and pure sales. In 2017, it was women who kept R&B fresh and relevant.

2017 also saw the emergence of brand new female artists. Norwegian pop singer Sigrid is only 21, but already has two critically acclaimed singles out, and has been selected as the BBC’s Sound of 2018. Her debut ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ raked up more than 30 million listens on YouTube and Spotify combined. Sigrid’s precocious rise echoes that of now world-renowned superstar Lorde, who also released music this year. Melodrama, Lorde’s second album, had a lot to live up to. It did not disappoint, receiving widespread critical acclaim and debuting at number one in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and America. Lorde remains witty and honest, producing some of the most unique pop music of the moment.

From old artists innovating their sound or producing more of what they’re best at, to fresh talent bringing novelty and change, women most certainly ‘stepped up’ in 2017

And she isn’t the only one. Kesha, formerly Ke$ha, re-emerged in 2017 from her five-year musical hiatus as a new kind of pop artist, raw and unpolished. Kesha made the news when, in 2014, she accused her producer Dr Luke of sexual abuse. The subsequent legal battle and the court’s decision to refuse Kesha’s request for a release from the contract she has with Luke could have left even the most resilient of artists drained and disheartened. But Kesha fought back with the release of Rainbow, by far her strongest work and a poignant account of suffering and resilience.  

Older to the industry yet less mainstream, Laura Marling is another artist who ‘stepped up’ in 2017. Marling’s Semper Femina is a beautiful concept album about femininity. The folk singer blends literary allusions with plain-spoken confessions of love and loss. The delivery hinges on Marling’s idiosyncratic vocals—so charged with feeling the tracks feel more like intimate confessions than studio productions, quivering under the burden of their own emotional weight.

From old artists innovating their sound or producing more of what they’re best at, to fresh talent bringing novelty and change, women most certainly ‘stepped up’ in 2017. Across genres, female artists overcame countless obstacles to produce truly groundbreaking music. We can only hope that in 2018 they receive the acknowledgement they deserve.


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