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The 2017 Women’s March was about sexual violence against women, LGBTQ rights, equal pay, and abuse of power, among other things. The Trump era established the conjuncture? for this march. The election and inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. President were among the many events that had led to a crisis, and the Women’s March was a cultural rupture+ that occurred because of all the things that the Trump administration continues to represent in a patriarchal culture driven by capitalism.
The Women’s March provided an opportunity for musicians and artists alike to speak out against abuses of power through music and art as Dr. Angela Davis not only encouraged at the March; but advocated this for years, as pointed out by Dr. Shana Redmond. At the same time, the issues of patriarchy, capitalism, and commodification continue to remain entrenched in the music industry and form a resistance of its own. The late Stuart Hall and co-editor Tony Jefferson of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham give an insight into the idea of hegemony and how it operates in ways that facilitate abuse of power and keep it firmly in place.
Hall and Jefferson argue in Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in post-war Britain of 1975 that “[h]egemony… is not universal and given to the continuing rule of a particular class” (40). Hall and Jefferson maintain that “it has to be won, worked for, reproduced, sustained” (40). Hegemony, as Antonio Gramsci points out, is a “moving equilibrium” that is always changing or adapting to the circumstances at hand.
In doing so, we come to a better understanding of how these power dynamics create the contradictions and inconsistencies we see in recording artists and their relationships within a hegemonic culture.
Many artists in the 1970s championed the cause of female empowerment, such as Lyn Collins, known for the song “Think (About It),” and most artists in the new millennium have exercised social responsibility in using their music and art as a means of protest, like Janelle Monáe and Alicia Keys, who both performed at the 2017 Women’s March. However, I argue that the message of “female empowerment” should come from recording artists that have no financial interests in, or political backing from, the entertainment conglomerates that own their image, likeness, sound, or intellectual property. Otherwise, crucial issues, like female empowerment, can be compromised and contradicted by conflicts of interest that, on the surface, speak to women’s issues, but lend themselves to capitalist and patriarchal influences. Therefore, as long as the capitalist, the patriarchal power structure that controls the artists controls the message of female empowerment and how this message is distributed, then the abuses of power that suppress female empowerment will prevail.
The hierarchal structure of the entertainment industry—and particularly the music industry—is where the majority, if not all, of the power brokering and decision-making develop in spaces of unaccountability. It is from these spaces that the abuses of power about which Janelle Monáe and Alicia Keys speak affect female recording artists, in all areas, from equal pay and opportunity to mental, physical, and sexual abuse. In other words, the patriarchy abuses its power because it can.
The abuses of power that women endure when they sign with record labels and agree to production deals connect Lyn Collins, Janelle Monáe, and Alicia Keys as female recording artists. In 1972, Collins was signed to James Brown’s People Records and promoted a message of female empowerment with the single “Think About It).” On the surface, it appeared as though Collins had written the song for women. On the contrary, this song about female empowerment was conceived, written, arranged, and produced by James Brown, from a privileged, conservative, male perspective reimagining and appropriating a black feminist paradigm. Similarly, Janelle Monáe and Alicia Keys, like other recording artists today, are commodified as products that are at the music industry’s disposal to advance other products, political movements, or social causes determined to be beneficial to the corporate interests of the existing power structure. While it is true that Monáe and Keys write and produce most of their own material, the record company receives a percentage of the intellectual property and retains the final say on any material that they release, unlike an artist who represents their own independent company without financial ties to, or backing from, another major recording label. Ultimately, Collins’ “Think (About It)” became one of the most sampled records in music history, and yet Collins was not compensated for her contributions that have helped other artists, aside from James Brown, sell millions of records.10 Likewise, Monae, Keys, and other contemporary artists like them have been sampled, re-interpolated, and even streamed without receiving adequate compensation. These issues are a result of abuses of power that all female recording artists have dealt with since the inception of the music industry in the early 1920s with the advent of the gramophone and the race records of the blues. What this underscores is that the abuses of power that recording artists like Monae, Keys, and Cardi B are battling today are the same ones that Collins faced, as well as other artists that followed her, like Janet Jackson and Pebbles in the 1980s and Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu in the 1990s.
Artists have been singing about female empowerment since the early days of the blues. According to Angela Davis, women’s blues singers were able to champion “black working-class life” while challenging “the assumptions about women’s place in both the dominant culture and within African-American communities.” (120).12 However, unlike most the artists that have been following in their footsteps for decades, Janelle Monáe and Alicia Keys appear, at least on the surface, to have more control over their brand and how they are marketed to the public. They write and produce their own material, which allows them more autonomy to sing about issues that are important to women. In a song like “Django Jane” (2018), Janelle Monae can declare her defiance of patriarchy, and in “This Girl Is on Fire” (2012), Alicia Keys can declare autonomy from the influence of patriarchy in the same way that Janet Jackson did with her 1984 release, “Control.”
However, the fact that an artist sings about female empowerment does not mean that she does not receive any input from her record label and management team. For example, when Lyn Collins performed “Think (About It)” in 1972, it was considered to be a powerful statement of empowerment for black women at a time when their voices were ignored by black nationalists and black patriarchy on one side and by white capitalists and white feminists on the other side. Naturally, one would assume that Lyn Collins wrote the song. In fact, it was written by James Brown, whose views contradicted the message of female empowerment for black women oppressed by patriarchy. He was a black man who supported Richard Nixon at the time, and he was one of the richest and most powerful black entertainers, with his record label distributed by Polydor.
In this context, the message of “Think” becomes a half-truth; it tells just enough of the truth to keep the youth buying the record, but not enough to inspire the burning of bras and flags in the streets because, then, the message would go from being politically tolerable to intolerably militant. As the lyrics were not written from a woman’s perspective on resisting patriarchy, Lyn Collins was left with very little freedom to make the song about issues that were affecting women on a deeper level. After all, when one sings about female empowerment, it should reflect the experience of someone who is living it. When this message is uncompromised, it encourages women who are not in the same position to control their own narrative. This example is one of the reasons why it is difficult to measure the true impact of the messages of artists like Collins, Monke, and Keys, since the power structure that is directing the narrative or co-writing it promotes a worldview that is inconsistent with the audience or social movement for which the song is intended.
Not all artists are focused on social awareness or consciousness raising. To some, music and art are about dollars and “sense”—if the work does not earn them a whole lot of dollars, then it does not make a whole lot of sense. From this standpoint, the opportunity to get involved with a social or political cause is only as good as the artist’s ability to exploit it. A young artist like Cardi B represents one side of this argument. On the surface, her appearance on the 2018 Grammy Awards suggests that she is in full control of her career and artistic direction and vision. On the other side, Monáe’s and Keys’ appearances at the 2017 Women’s March exemplify female empowerment in their control over their artistic vision, voice, and social consciousness. Whether the intent is sincere or not, the spirit, energy, and provocativeness that challenge the patriarchy at various levels together reflect what Angela Davis means by music and art as protest. 16 Yet, for the power structure entrenched in the world of music, entertainment conglomerates have always been less interested in the social cause or the people than in the artists and the demographics they represent, and how the trends that they reflect and shape can boost the market share and bottom line, rather than any interest in empowering women to enjoy a better way of life.
Artists like Janelle Monae and Alicia Keys, and even Cardi B, are typically signed to contracts that cast doubt on whether recording artists, in their position, are the best spokeswomen to endorse female empowerment, given that recording artists—and especially female recording artists—are commodified as products that help sell other products. One of the ways this is demonstrated is in how a Janelle Monae song like “Tightrope” and “Dance Apocalyptic” are used in advertisements by means of her brand as a recording star. And then how Janelle Monae’s brand as a model and actress is featured as the face of Cover Girl and in ads for The Gap. In each case, female empowerment is used as a tool or product to sell more products globally. Parallel to this argument, in his 2016 book, Noise Uprising, Denning discusses the
recording industry’s use of 78 rpm shellac discs as products to sell gramophones.” Once again, we can refer to Collins. As a recording artist with Brown’s label, she made her national debut of “Think About It)” in an appearance on Soul Train, which was sponsored by advertisements for products geared toward the African American community. Moreover, while the artists were not paid for their appearances, performing on Soul Train was essential for radio airplay and record sales in the African American community. In this sense, not only are corporations complicit in ecording artists in the service of a social or political statement and cause but also artists, for the sake of their careers, are complicit in their own exploitation as the benefactors.
This paper has examined the implications of record companies’ control over the image and likeness of artists. It has also examined the complications that arise when artists are invested in a system that reduces their image and likeness to a product that can help advance or capitalize on issues regarding female empowerment. However, with recording artists like Lyn Collins, Janelle Monae, and Alicia Keys, it is also important to examine the role that both male and female executives collectively play in sustaining the existing hegemony. For example, former R&B recording artist Perri “Pebbles” Reid discovered the group TLC and signed them on to her label, Savvy Records, and then facilitated a joint venture deal with LaFace Records, of which her husband Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds were the CEOs. Under Savvy Records, the members of TLC were groomed and fashioned by Perri Reid as artists representing female empowerment to the women of their generation. At the same time, the group went bankrupt to get out of the contract because they were not paid by Arista’s Clive Davis, the parent company who had a joint venture with LaFace, which had a production deal with Savvy as an imprint.
In this scenario, all three companies are record labels on the surface. But what distinguishes one from the other is the amount of power they have in relation to each other. Arista as the parent company funds and distributes the products produced by LaFace. And Savvy, as a production company, is one of the sources that provides LaFace product and content developed independently of LaFace that is also distributed by Arista; through its imprint deal with LaFace. In a lot of ways these business arrangements begin to resemble multi-level schemes at best. And modern-day share-cropping at worst. The irony of this story is that Perri Reid had had a hit record about female empowerment herself in the 1980s, titled “Girlfriend,” which was written and produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface and performed live on Soul Train, approximately fifteen years after Lyn Collins’ debut on Soul Train.
In this sense, there is a clear give and take from all parties involved—the executives, who are willing to give up a little power in order to retain their power overall, and the managers and artists, who help ensure that the exploitation of women is not completely eradicated in order to remain in business. The hegemony may take on a new look; it puts on a new dress or slips on a new pair of pants to appear progressive or sympathetic to the cause of women. However, in the end, making records about female empowerment, doing benefit concerts celebrating female empowerment, and writing books about female empowerment does not eliminate the problem. Rather, using the image, sound, likeness, and intellectual property of recording artists as hosts of infomercials marketing widgets makes the problem more profitable, in contrast to progressive, conscious provocateurs instigating change for women worldwide. This raises the question, therefore, of whether a recording like Collins’ “Think About It,” Monáe’s “Django Jane,» or Keys’ “Girl on Fire” honestly speaks for the women it is empowering or for the artist, and for the patriarchal structural responsible for the business decision.
In summary, this paper has unveiled the problematics of recording artists representing “female empowerment” while being controlled by patriarchy. We have also seen the contradictions of recording artists purportedly fighting patriarchy while having a financial interest in its perpetuation. The paper has also explored the ways in which both men and women at the executive level, who have an interest in maintaining patriarchy, can allude to progressiveness while enabling the hegemony to continue in another form, conceding a little power to preserve the greater power structure. This raises questions about the viability and credibility of recording artists and entertainers supporting social and political causes that are compromised by the financial and political interests of the power structures that support the artists’ social platforms. Is not that music and art as tools of resistance have lost their ability to change people. In some cases, these tools are even more powerful now than they were in the past. Technological advancements, in the forms of computers, the internet, and social media, have made music and art even more powerful today because of their global reach. Like all weapons, if they fall into the wrong hands, they have the potential to destroy as many lives as quickly as they can transform others. This is why we should be cautious of taking music and art at face value and adopting works as anthems and slogans, given that the messages are developed, controlled, produced, and delivered by the dominant society—that is, those much more heavily invested in patriarchy than in female empowerment—no matter who the artists are or which side of this divide they claim to represent.
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