Artists singing activism

Ani DiFranco is a singer/ songwriter and a feminist icon who has released more than 20 albums.  Her work is both autobiographical and strongly political.  She has spoken out, through and outside her music, on issues including racism, sexism, sexual abuse, reproductive rights, homophobia and war.  It is difficult to choose between her songs in terms of political messaging, but here are three favourites: Lost Woman Song, Amendment and Which Side Are You On? More

Joan Baez is a folk singer, songwriter and activist known for her distinctive vocal style and her lifelong commitment to human rights, manifest in her music and her performances at and support for civil rights, anti Vietnam and Iraq war, pro gay rights and anti death penalty rallies and marches. She committed her first act of civil disobedience at age 16, for which she was ostracised for being a ‘Communist infiltrator’.  She says that social justice is the true core of life, looming larger than music. She was honoured in 2011 with the presentation of the Amnesty International Joan Baez Award. Again, it’s difficult to pick just one Joan Baez song, but here is she performing China, The Altar Boy and the Thief and We Shall Overcome. More

Bikini Kill was a US radical feminist punk rock band and one of the pioneers of the riot grrl movement. Consisting of Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail and Billy Karren, the band wrote songs collaboratively and encouraged female centricity at gigs. Due to constant media attention and what they saw as misrepresentation and commodification of the riot grrl movement, Kathleen Hanna called for a media blackout amongst riot grrls. Check out their Rebel Girl. More

Billie Holliday was an influential songwriter and jazz singer whose vocal style pioneered new ways of manipulating tempo and phrasing.  In 1939, she performed Strange Fruit, a poem set to music by Abel Meeropol.  The haunting anti-lynching song has been called the original protest song, depicting lynching in all of its brutality and articulating the growing awareness and anger that was to find expression in the rise of the mass civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.  Some clubs refused to allow Holiday to sing what had become her signature song so she insisted on contracts specifying her right to sing it. More

Florence Reece was the wife of an union organiser for United Mine Workers which was engaged in industrial action in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931.  One night, they heard that men were coming to kill Sam Reece and he got out of the house just before they arrived. Deputies hired by the mining company entered and searched her home, terrorising Florence and her children in the process.  After they’d gone, Florence was so outraged that she tore the calendar off the kitchen wall and wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On? on the back. More

Helen Reddy started performing in the Australian vaudeville circuit at the age of 4.  She is best known for I Am Woman.  She wrote the song when she realised no records existed that reflected the positive self image she had gained from joining the women’s liberation movement.  It made little impact at first but was soon adopted by an anthem by women, leading to it becoming a No 1 hit in 1972.  It became the song of the United Nations International Women’s in 1975. She concluded her acceptance speech for the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance by thanking God ‘because She makes everything possible.’ More

Le Tigre was the one of the most influential of the riot grrl bands of the 1990s. Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, Johanna Fateman, Sadie Benning and JD Samson were feminist pioneers who also featured left wing sociopolitical and pro LGBT analysis in their writing and performance. Hot Topic  pays tribute to women artists, musicians, writers and feminists. More

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon and was a pianist, singer, songwriter and civil rights activist.  Her ambition was to become the first black concert pianist but the realities of racism and poverty forced her to direct her energies into blues and jazz. Her music was pivotal in the US civil rights movement.  Amongst many other civil rights songs, she wrote and performed Mississippi Goddam in response to the bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four black children, Old Jim Crow, in reaction to segregation in the South, and Four Women, about four stereotypes of African-American women. More

Sleater Kinney was a vital part of the riot grrl and punk movements. Founded by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, previously in riot grrl bands Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, the band was a pival rock band of the turn of the 21st century. Their lyrics mesh the personal and the political, calling against war, traditionalism, gender roles and consumerism from feminism and left wing perspectives.  In 1998 they recorded Big Big Lights for Free to Fight, a series of recordings dealing with women’s self defence. More

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