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The Spark: 6 socially conscious musicians on the women who inspire them

In times of crisis and upheaval, we’ve found ourselves especially grateful for music that speaks to the political and social issues of our moment. This year, facing the uncertain future of reproductive rights, turbulent midterm elections, continued climate catastrophe and the ongoing pandemic, we wanted to better understand how artists make music that directly confronts current events. So as part of Turning the Tables, NPR Music’s project about the history of popular music, we asked a handful of musicians a question: Who taught you that music could be a vehicle for social change?

Below, you’ll find links to all the videos we made, featuring six visionary artists: S.G. Goodman, Adia Victoria, Kathleen Hanna, Sadie Dupuis, The Linda Lindas and Moor Mother. They each told us a story about a pivotal musician who taught them that it’s possible to write great songs that speak out against injustice and challenge entrenched systems of power.

S.G. Goodman on Hazel Dickens

NPR | David Gahr/Getty Images

S.G. Goodman and Hazel Dickens

NPR | David Gahr/Getty Images

You can watch our video with S.G. Goodman here.

“Hazel Dickens is my No. 1 when it comes to understanding how music can be used to change people’s hearts and minds,” S.G. Goodman tells us. Goodman is a songwriter from western Kentucky who says she’s long been an admirer of Dickens’ “high, lonesome sound,” and the way the bluegrass trailblazer from West Virginia infused her values into her songwriting.

“One thing I love about Hazel Dickens is that in no way was she ever virtue-signaling,” Goodman says in her video. “She was on the picket lines. She was an insider to a coal mining family. She wrote about what she knew, and I think that’s a really good roadmap for singer-songwriters today, and probably always will be.”

Goodman points to the relationship between Dickens’ iconic song “Black Lung,” about the disease that afflicts coal miners, and Goodman’s song “The Way I Talk,” which includes the lyric, “a sharecropper’s daughter sings the blues of a coal miner’s son.” She says she sees similarities in “the way the world looks at those two types of occupations,” and how many people “lack a bit of understanding how people are trying to make a living.”

“It was powerful for me to make sure the world knows that that’s not lost on me when it comes to what my family does for a living,” Goodman says, “and it hasn’t been lost to people from the coal mining communities either.”

Adia Victoria on Fiona Apple

Adia Victoria and Fiona Apple

NPR | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Adia Victoria and Fiona Apple

NPR | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

You can watch our video with Adia Victoria here.

“Fiona Apple, in her art, showed me how I could burn the entire world down,” says Adia Victoria. Victoria first encountered Apple’s music when she was 15. “I heard the song ‘Fast As You Can,’ and I was stopped in my tracks,” she says. “It wasn’t quite a poem; it wasn’t quite a song; it wasn’t quite a stream-of-consciousness. It was all of these things and more. … [It] was exactly what I needed.”

Victoria’s music is rooted in the tradition of the blues, and she considers Apple’s music, with its raw honesty and direct confrontation of pain, part of this legacy, too. Victoria specifically mentions her song “Get Lonely” — about “wanting to get back into yourself after having been thrown out into the world and just reclaiming yourself bit by bit” — as having been influenced by Apple’s songwriting.

Though Apple’s music isn’t explicitly protest music, Victoria says we ought to think about it in those terms. “I think of the political as the personal,” she says. “It starts in the personal. So much in [Apple’s] music is about owning and claiming oneself, even — and especially — when that stands in defiance with the main narrative of what a woman should be, what an artist should be.” Hearing Apple’s music “allowed me to own my gaze and my experience and my own subjectivity,” Victoria says, “and I think that’s a massive feminist achievement.”

Sadie Dupuis on Pauline Black

Sadie Dupuis and Pauline Black

NPR | Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella

Sadie Dupuis and Pauline Black

NPR | Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella

You can watch our video with Sadie Dupuis here.

“Pauline Black taught me that music could be a vehicle for change,” Sadie Dupuis says. Dupuis plays in the band Speedy Ortiz and makes solo music as Sad13. She says she first heard the music of Pauline Black’s band, The Selecter, as a kid, when her parents gave her a compilation from the quintessential ska label 2 Tone Records. Dupuis was impressed by how The Selecter mixed an adventurous sound with the central tenets of second-wave ska, like gender equality and anti-racism. “That made a big impression on me — that these songs could carry these important messages,” she says, “but also have really weird arrangements that felt very joyful.”

Soon after, Dupuis says, she started writing her own music. “I’ve gone a less direct, more poetry-routed way with my lyrics,” Dupuis — who is also the author of several books of poetry — says. But she’s still inspired by the way bands like The Selecter were “really rooted in this history, and responding to it directly, and knew that music could be an important force for getting these kinds of messages across.”

Kathleen Hanna on Mecca Normal

Kathleen Hanna and Mecca Normal

NPR | Erin Altomare/Flickr

Kathleen Hanna and Mecca Normal

NPR | Erin Altomare/Flickr

You can watch our video with Kathleen Hanna here.

“Mecca Normal … made me feel like I could make political music without compromising writing great songs,” Kathleen Hanna says. The feminist punk icon, known for playing in the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, says she first encountered the Canadian duo — made up of Jean Smith and David Lester — in the late 1980s, when she was running a gallery with some friends. Mecca Normal played there as part of its Black Wedge tour, for which Hanna still has the flier; it promises “five political dynamos, hardcore poems, wild vocals, shredding guitars, radical voices crushing militarism, smashing sexism.”

Hanna says that, at the time, she was used to seeing bands whose songs were about how “their girlfriends were jerks and didn’t do everything that they wanted” — but hearing Mecca Normal address real, serious issues in its music was inspiring. Hanna was just starting to make her own music at the time and knew she wanted her songs to confront sexism, but felt unsure of herself. Seeing Mecca Normal, she says, “gave me confidence that I was on the right road.”

“When I heard Jean get up there, totally unapologetic,” she says, “and I knew that they set up this amazing tour that was based around the combination of music and politics, I felt like: I can do this.”

In her video, Hanna is wearing a T-shirt from a company she founded, Tees 4 Togo, that raises money for girls’ education in West Africa.

The Linda Lindas on Alice Bag

The Linda Lindas and Alice Bag

The Linda Lindas and Alice Bag

You can watch our video with The Linda Lindas here.

“Alice Bag taught us to make music that’s true to ourselves,” says bassist Eloise Wong of The Linda Lindas. The teen punk band considers Bag a local legend — “a really big part of LA music history and LA music culture,” says guitarist Lucia de la Garza — in addition to being a punk singer, activist, writer and, as Wong puts it, “a doer.”

Wong remembers feeling inspired the first time she saw Bag perform: “She’s making these super catchy songs and they’re talking about really important stuff,” she says, “and she performs in a way that is so captivating that you just can’t help but listen to it.”

The band feels inspired by the way Bag sings about issues like sexism and injustice, and how she lifts up the community around her. Drummer Mila de la Garza mentions how Bag “always has really cool hair colors and outfits” — and that it’s meaningful how Bag can “not only look super cool on stage, but she can sing about really important topics while doing that.” She cites the song “77,” about pay inequality, as just one example.

Bag helped The Linda Lindas understand that “it’s OK for us to speak our mind and talk about what we think is not OK,” guitarist Bela Salazar says. “To see a woman doing that is very powerful.”

Moor Mother on Nina Simone

Moor Mother and Nina Simone

NPR | Ian Showell/Getty Images

Moor Mother and Nina Simone

NPR | Ian Showell/Getty Images

You can watch our video with Moor Mother here.

“Nina Simone taught me to be fearless, to speak my mind,” says musician Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother. “She taught me that anything is possible.”

Ayewa is a poet and musician from Philadelphia; in addition to her work as Moor Mother, she performs with the groups Irreversible Entanglements and 700 Bliss, is a founder of the Black Quantum Futurism collective and teaches at USC’s Thornton School of Music.

Ayewa first encounter with Simone’s music was via her powerful protest song “Mississippi Goddamn.” Ayewa says she was “completely transfixed” when she heard the song. “I honestly just went into the corner and wrote down every word from this song,” she says. “It was such an important moment.”

Ayewa was inspired by how “the stories of women — particularly women that come from Nina Simone’s family [and] Black women from all over the world” — were so central to Simone’s music. It inspired Ayewa to center those stories in her music as well, and she says her experience with Simone’s music has been a “continual push to get what I honor, what I care about, out into the world.

Alanté Millow produced the videos in this series. The Turning the Tables team is: Marissa Lorusso, Ann Powers, Suraya Mohamed and Hazel Cills.

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