MUSIC, TO the casual listener, may sometimes feel ingenuine. With radios cycling through what seems like the same few songs every thirty minutes, individuality and imaginative sound feel absent. However, outside of the realm of the *Billboard* Top 40s chart, which ranks the most popular songs at any given point in time, artists, specifically female artists, make waves with fresh, new sounds and push the boundaries of conventional genre. By embracing experimental styles, sexual sensationalism and emo-infused hip hop, female artists seek out their identities and unapologetically produce work that celebrates themselves. Despite the crowded field of music, the following six women own their own unique identity and style, and work to change the way that audiences think of music. These six women, while they may not always be at the top of the charts, are putting in work in their respective circles and deserve more attention for the work that they do.
Janelle Monáe: Sexuality, Blackness and Futurism
Janelle Monáe’s latest work, *Dirty Computer* is sexually liberated, politically charged, visually stunning—and number one on American R&B Charts. The 14-song record was released with a 48-minute “Emotion Picture” rather than separate music videos. It is a large departure from Monáe’s earlier works. In previous albums, Monáe sang and acted in music videos under an alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather. However, in *Dirty Computer* Monáe not only sheds the identity of Cindi Mayweather, but she is also upfront and vulnerable about her own identity in the public light.
The Emotion Picture for *Dirty Computer* is set in an Afrofuturist world. It follows the journey of Jane #57821 and the erasure of her memories by unidentified government officials. Afrofuturism, or the aesthetics associated with the Black Diaspora and futuristic references, serves to celebrate identity while creating political commentary. On one track,“Django Jane” Monáe raps about getting “an Emmy dedicated to the highly melanated” and makes references to significant African American achievements in film and art (specifically the *Moonlight* Oscar win). Other tracks on the album express her own personal narrative, political leanings and observations of the world.
However, one of the most poignant pieces that Monáe shares is in regard to her sexuality. Monáe recently came out as pansexual in an interview with Pitchfork. Shortly after, Merriam Webster Dictionary searches of the word “pansexual” rose by 110 percent. Monáe’s song “PYNK” pays homage to her queer identity. She whimsically ends the song’s infectious chorus with a funny but sexually telling pun, “Cos boy it’s cool if you got blue, we got the pink.” The song is intended to liberate its listener. PYNK not only has lyrics celebrating sexual fluidity and female same-sex relationships, but its music video also features Monáe dressed in all pink and wearing “vagina pants.” Monáe becomes a master of auditory and visual vulnerability and expression in *Dirty Computer,* and has provided not only fans, but regular people to seek out more information about queerness, and hopefully Monáe herself.
Charli XCX: Experimental Pop
While Charli XCX may not be as politically charged or vocal about her background via music, she made waves with the experimental pop sounds and features on her most recent album, *Pop 2.* Charli XCX may be a household name from her more normcore pop songs like “Boom Clap” or her infectious chorus on Iggy Azalea’s song “Fancy.” However, Charli’s latest work brings new and unconventional sounds to pop music. For example, her song “Tears” features autotuned screeching in the background of an emotional chorus; “I Got It” falls somewhere in between a chant rap and pop song with a catchy chorus; and “Unlock It” features a beat that sounds as if millions of bubbles exploded in your ear. These aren’t songs that you would hear on the radio—but they’ve received praise from well-known music outlets such as, Pitchfork. There is boldness in the fact that she chooses to make music that is more experimental and evolutionary rather than fit neatly into the well synced Top 40’s airwaves.
However, the production of music is only half the reason why Charli XCX’s *Pop 2* earns her a spot on this list—the features on the album are just as important as Charli herself. *Pop 2* features artists who Charli thinks represent the future of pop music, and each one has their own character and identity. The album’s second track “Out of my Head” features Tove Lo, a pop artist whose music blends pop, R&B and electronic music into a cohesive package. On the other end of the spectrum Charli also features Kim Petras, a rising pop star who first made headlines when she was 16 years old for being one of the youngest people in the world to have a sex change operation. The German signer's identity and presence on the album is political — it makes a statement that transgender and queer people are a mainstay in music. Another queer artist, Pablo Vittar, is featured on “I Got It.” Charli XCX’s feature list is long on *Pop 2*, however each one has an identity that Charli XCX uses to sew together her own idea of the future fabric of pop music.
Rico Nasty: Bubblegum Trap meets Screamo
Somewhere in a blend of *SoundCloud* rap, goth aesthetics, attitude and poise, Rico Nasty reigns queen. Rico Nasty’s bubblegum trap music manages to be light and catchy, yet poignant at the same time. She is able to lay hard raps over catchy beats that are reminiscent of pop songs that one may hear on the radio. However, Rico Nasty also mixes screamo and emo elements into her music. Rico Nasty even coined a term to describe her blend of the two genres: “Yinging,” or a hybrid of the words “yelling” and “singing.” By self-defining as an artist who blends a traditionally black-associated music form (rap) with a perceived white-associated one (emo), Rico Nasty forces her audience to rethink the definition of the norm.
However Rico Nasty does not just stop at music—with her ever-changing hairstyles, emo fashion sense, and quirky design choices for album artwork, she has a visual image for her audience that is hard to find elsewhere. Her bold choices for visual aesthetics allow her to differentiate herself from other artists within the bubblegum trap community, which is mostly seen in her colorful music videos. Not only is Rico Nasty combining sounds that surprise the ear, but she also translates this mixture into her overall look and aura. Rico Nasty shows that even the most uncanny combinations can work—and reclaims Punk as an art form for Black Artists to experiment with.
Elizabeth Eden Harris, otherwise known as CupcakKe, first made an appearance in the music industry back in 2016 with her song “Vagina.” The song went viral overnight on *SoundCloud*, and CupcakKe’s rap career began. In the early stages of her career, CupcakKe made a name for herself with sexually explicit lyrics and images to accompany her music. Her second song to generate mass recognition was “Deep Throat,” where CupcakKe raps about oral sex from a female perspective, a twist on the less graphic nature of female rap imagery. Although CupcaKke has a loyal fan base, she continues to receive backlash due to the sexually explicit nature of her lyrics and music videos.
Despite the negative criticism CupcakKe received, in many interviews she makes it very clear that haters and commenters on the internet will not distract her from expressing herself as she sees fit. CupcakKe challenges societal norms by boldly incorporating themes of sex in her music to desensitize the general public. This reflects in interviews when she explains her strong dislike of individuals shaming her for addressing these topics so openly. CupcakKe believes that no one is educating young adolescents about their bodies, and is thus taking the role upon herself through her eccentric style of rap and musicality.
However, outside of major media outlets CupcakKe’s persona is more than just the sexual imagery she portrays on stage. She grew up in an impoverished community in Illinois and was raised by a single mother. This understanding of reality carried into CupcakKe’s career. Since her rise to fame, CupcakKe provided shelter and monetary aid for fans in dire situations—there were multiple instances where fans tweeted to CupcakKe and requested food money, and CupcakKe replied asking for the easiest way to help her fans out. Contrary to popular belief, Harris is not just CupcakKe. The versatility of her persona on and off stage enables her to expand her public image and defy the common notion of who others perceive she is.
Yaeji- Twist on Language and Beats
The Korean female DJ industry is a fairly small and regionally-exclusive community still struggling to attain influence. Yaeji is changing that. Yaeji’s music primarily focuses on solitude and being stuck in one’s thoughts, which is a stark contradiction to her bubbly and energetic vibe onstage. Her most popular song “Rain Grl” combines club energy with her rap, taking her music and beats where other artists wish they could. However, Yaeji’s unique twist on music comes from not only her style, but her mastery and use of language as well.
Yaeji seamlessly transitions between Korean and English in many of her songs. Her music plays a significant role in placing Korean language music on global charts outside of Korea. In “Drink I’m Sippin On,” Yaeji’s English pre-chorus easily transitions into Korean, which to the untrained ear hardly sounds like she switched languages. She integrates visuals in her music that allude to her upbringing as well. In order to thrive in an environment that constantly questions her ability, Yaeji established dominance over her domain not only utilizing the Korean language, but also creating impact as one of few successful women in this industry. Yaeji is admirable for blending not only beats, but pushing the barriers of language in music production.
Princess Nokia: The Art of Brujeria, Rap and Emo
Princess Nokia originally debuted with her EP *1992*, a work that featured motifs from her upbringing in the Bronx, New York. In it she addresses her experiences with oppression and ostracization. Her word choice is bold and evokes feelings of proudness of her Puerto-African identity, especially in her song “Brujas.” This specific song exudes admiration towards her heritage, yet offers criticism of the system that often aims to exclude her people. Some of the lyrics include, “We more than just pins in dolls and seeing the future in chicken parts...Everything you got, you got from us.” Princess Nokia challenges the stereotypes that women like her face by embracing and celebrating them through her song lyrics.
These same brute and thought-provoking themes are conveyed in her successful podcast “The Voices In My Head.” In this podcast, Princess Nokia sheds a light on what life is like for a person of color and how she overcomes every obstacle that comes her way. Despite all the barriers she encountered in life, she is unapologetically from the Bronx and proud of her Puerto-African heritage. The podcast also delves into how she fell in love with the emo and goth genres. Princess Nokia believes that the appeal of these genres to individuals, who she described as hood kids, stemmed from their rough upbringings. For her, losing a parent at a young age and growing up in the foster care system resulted in inner turmoil. Nokia explains that minorities are often exposed to oppression and pain, and carry burdens in life. Music becomes their escape.
Nokia strongly believes that minority struggles are often underrepresented in media. Her new project *Girl Cried Red* incorporates her angsty youth by marrying the genres of rap and emo in an unexpected but successful way. This project talks about mental health awareness through the lens of a minority. It also delves into themes about love, growing up too quickly and yearning for a better future. The album’s beats are composed of soft melodies, serving as a juxtaposition to the darker lyrics. Nokia introduces her own personal hardships through music in a way that is soulful and impactful, yet pleasant to the ear.
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Each of these artists aim to create their own influence through their distinct music genres and styles. They establish an empowering atmosphere for each other, Even if they may not have mainstream recognition, their presence in the music industry opens the creative arena for future artists to further experiment and popularize these styles. The widespread inclusion of less traditional artists is suggestive of how the industry will continue to change for the better and develop new forms of expression. The aforementioned women (and many more) pave the way for future artists to celebrate themselves in similar ways, and are worth an addition to your current playlist.
***Andreas Pavlou and Jessica Rocha follow pop culture and music closely. For more opinions, analysis or conversation you can email Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org, Tweet Andreas @andreas__pavlou, or listen to his podcast “Bottoms on Top” on the Apple Podcast App and SoundCloud.***