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By Jhoni Jackson
Identifying as femme is a revolt against the patriarchy in itself; it is an inherently political act. The prevailing cisgender white heteronormative world in which we’re all prisoners tells us that femininity equals weakness, that no matter your gender, femininity as a quality means you’re less than. Even within the LGBTQIA community and feminist realms, there exists femmephobia: the notion that feminine women aren’t gay enough or aren’t legit feminists because they’re submitting to societal expectations of appearance.
In all cases, discrimination and bias against femmes is misogyny — and the resulting byproduct of a patriarchal society. Surviving the system is a struggle, and working to dismantle it can be emotionally and physically damaging. Thankfully, there are femme musicians helping fuel the fight against all that residual harm, amplifying the voices of their community and fortifying the inner strength of listeners with their own creative labors.
Feminism has entered mainstream pop in a massive way lately, and we’re grateful for it. Still, in the sales-driven mentality of the mainstream, it too often manifests as white-washed or dialed-down interpretations of what feminism truly looks and feels like. Yet it’s in the independent music world where artists are significantly less compromising in their messages.
So we’ve gathered a list of five artists and bands most effectively delivering the message of femmepowerment in their music, each intersectional warriors endeavoring to practice inclusivity in their inspiring work and highlight the many routes — not all efforts are right for everyone — to the ultimate task of rendering the patriarchy obsolete.
The patriarchy is relentlessly pervasive, and its oppressions are numerous. The ideal strategy to dismantle it, then, is to target as many sides as possible. Feminasty, the full-length debut from Miss Eaves released in early August, combats so many of its destructive effects by promoting self-love, sexual empowerment, body positivity, and the strength to not only shake off the fuccbois but to challenge them.
In videos like her massive, viral “Thunder Thighs,” a summertime parade of body positivity, and “Hump Day,” where actual women are seen in full agency of their own sexual pleasure, Miss Eaves (a.k.a., Shanthony Exum) makes good on her mission to cast women and people of all types in the spotlight, representing a truer spectrum of real folks.
“In mainstream media, a woman can be sexy/sexual if she looks a certain way, but if she does not fit the mold, then she is repulsive. I reject this view of sexuality, as I believe everyone has the right to express sexuality as they want (provided it is consensual),” Exum says. “I am an intersectional feminist, which means in addition to fighting sexism, I also fight ageism, racism, homophobia, classism, and other forms of discrimination, because all of these intersecting issues affect each other. I want to celebrate as many different bodies as possible, although I am limited by the people I can get to volunteer to be in my videos.”
As a rapper who’s also a designer, illustrator, and street-style photographer, Exum’s brand of hip-hop is a most stylish one. Vocally, she’s matter-of-fact with a hint of menace. Fused with deep-cutting electronic beats, Miss Eaves’ tracks are the most potent of feminist jams.
Subtly glitchy beats smoothed by silky-soft vocals are the stuff of Maya Songbird’s undeniably hooky experimental pop, a combo that evokes an idiosyncratic type of spirituality. A proud self-proclaimed cosmic weirdo, Songbird points in part to her upbringing as an influence; her bio explains that growing up in the historical Castro District of San Francisco cemented her own liberation — something she strives to spread to others through her music.
“All friends are accepted. A place for peace. A place to share things happy in your life,” she emphasizes. “All things happy. Rainbows only.”
Her own posts there, as well as across her public social media channels, are intimate revelations and insightful, personal anecdotes, which offer a level of disclosure promoting raw expression and emboldening listeners to be themselves fully and freely.
Though frontwoman Drew Arriola-Sands dubbed the latest Trap Girl release a “trans-punk love letter to you all,” The Black Market EP is actually pretty formidable, rife with fighting words for battling the patriarchy.
Romantic, it is not. With classic ’77 punk leanings and brutal ’80s hardcore build-ups, every track is a rail against the pressure and dangers of the transgender experience, including expectations of femininity. The title of the EP itself refers to the potentially dangerous black market hormones as well as cosmetic procedures that some trans folks are led to resort to for lack of access to safer options.
Arriola-Sands’ own femme presentation reminds us that there isn’t one definition that graces her end of the gender binary. Donning dark dresses and heels, winged-out liner, and working a pile of Ronnie Spector-style wigs, the Los Angeles punk-rock queen’s look is equally tough as nails and also totally femme.
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The empowerment prowess of this Detroit hip-hop and R&B artist is grounded in self-love, and Lizzo’s hooky delivery and powerhouse voice makes it contagious. Channeling a childhood spent in the Pentecostal church in its choir-like touches, “Scuse Me” preaches the gospel of feeling yourself, complete with an accompanying video that’s a body-positive rally for inner power.
The same sonic aesthetic filters into “Good as Hell,” another standout from last year’s Coconut Oil EP. Here, however, Lizzo uses that self-love to encourage escape from the rejection-dejection cycle that beckons after a relationship fails.
The titular track wraps up all the Lizzo ethos in a single slow-bumpin’ ballad underscored by reverberating organ chords. Mainly, the takeaway is the encouragement that you’ve got this. Her assuring self-declaration that “I know I can do all things” resonates beyond Lizzo herself; it feels personal to the listener and stands to reenergize the spirit. Her songs are consistently invigorating, even when she slows things down. (And more often than not, she doesn’t.)
Chew on This is the latest from Oakland act Midnite Snaxxx, spearheaded by Dulcinea Gonzalez, a Chicana punk with storied roots dating back to the mid-’90s with iconic trash-punk act The Loudmouths then, later, the short-lived Primativas.
During a lineup change shortly after starting up the Snaxxx, Gonzalez decided adamantly to seek out fellow Chicanx and people of color to join the ranks. She connected with Sammy Gutierrez of the Ogres and the La-Teenos, Camylle Reynolds of the Bad Daddies, and Chris Santamaria of Loli and the Chones — all POC musicians ready to carry out the Midnite Snaxxx mission, which has grown increasingly political.
The bulk of their tunes are infectiously fun bubblegum-punk romps. But their feminist work shows in their actions and operations as a band more than anything. When Bandcamp held its 24-hour fundraiser to benefit the ACLU’s pro-immigrant and refugee work in the wake of President Trump’s Muslim ban, the Snaxxx were one of the many artists who donated 100% of their cut from digital album sales. At their album release show a few months later, they gave all ticket and merch proceeds to Planned Parenthood. The group’s activism hasn’t let up since, either: This month, in a stand of solidarity against white supremacy, 100% of all income from album purchases went directly to the NAACP.
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Jhoni Jackson is an Atlanta-born writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She covers Latinx music and culture for Remezcla, runs a monthly queer party, and also organizes a recurring pop-up feminist bazaar. Until last year, she co-owned a mid-size venue; right now, she’s plotting a new venture. Follow her on Twitter for links to her on Instagram for (mostly) pictures of her cats.