Essential 10: Badass Women

This article originally appeared in Songlines #136 (April 2018) p98. Download a pdf here.


With International Women’s Day (March 8) just around the corner and groups like GRRRL taking on the feminist cause in music, we celebrate some of world music’s female firebrands. Here are Alexandra Petropoulos’ picks

Rhiannon Giddens
Freedom Highway
(Nonesuch, 2017)
For her music Giddens digs into America’s history and tells stories that aren’t always easy to listen to. On Freedom Highway she tackles racial discord, from a heartwrenching song inspired by a 1797 advert selling a slave woman while her child was ‘at the purchaser’s option’ to covers of songs associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Powerful stuff. A Top of the World in #126.

Angélique Kidjo
Spirit Rising
(Wrasse Records, 2012)
The Beninese singer is an unstoppable force onstage; no audience can resist more than one song before getting on their feet and dancing. But Kidjo perhaps earns her place on this list more for the work she does off stage. A well-known activist and Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, she also co-founded the Batonga Foundation for girls’ education. Reviewed in #85.

Abida Parveen
Ishq: Supreme Love
(Accords Croisés, 2005)
Abida Parveen is Pakistan’s only internationally famous female Sufi singer. As a child, Parveen was trained by her father, the classical vocalist Ghulam Haider, who recognised the talent he heard in her and named her as his successor – bypassing his sons – when she was just five years old. Reviewed in #31. AP

Esma Redžepova
Queen of the Gypsies
(World Connection, 2001)
Over her lifetime the late Macedonian singer recorded an unprecedented number of songs and performed over 8,000 concerts, but the ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ was also a noted activist for Roma communities. Twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work helping Roma refugees flee ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, she also supported children’s charities and fostered 47 Roma boys.

Tanya Tagaq
(Six Shooter Records, 2016)
Perhaps no one deserves a spot on this list more than the Polaris Music Prize-winning Inuit throat singer. Tagaq is known for being unforgiving in her activism for Canada’s indigenous peoples. Retribution tackles the theme of exploitation – of indigenous women in particular. The title-track warns, ‘Our mother grows angry, retribution will be swift.’ A Top of the World in #124.


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