7 women who paved their own way in the music industry

Who run the world? Girls.

January 21, 2017

Women making music shouldn’t be looked at in a different scope than their male counterparts. Music should be universal, and free from constraints. The operative words here are should be.

It would be naïve to assume that stereotypes, sexism and double standards don’t occur in music, and women often bear the brunt of unnecessary criticism when it comes to aesthetics, competency and power. We can pull the veil over our eyes, but that doesn’t make it disappear.

However, this not a piece set out to explain objectification, or point out the disparaging statistics and imbalance between men and women in music (on both sides of the industry), nor is it some kind of hate letter. 

This is a piece that is meant to triumph certain artists that are taking their careers by the horns and slicing their way through a sometimes muddy and challenging musical landscape.  

This is a piece about women paving their own way in the music industry.


Björk has always been otherworldly. She’s an artist that transcends through experimentation, plus one who entertains as a sort caricature on each of her albums and performances, and she’s been doing this for over three decades.

She doesn’t litter her music with misogynistic contentions, and for the most part, has remained mum about sexism and double standards in music. Still, she’s not shy, noting to Pitchfork that, “everything a guy says once you have to say five times.” She’s also has expressed support for women in their 20s, letting them know that they’re “not imagining things” when it comes to the balance of gender power in music. She’s talked about her own navigation of the artistlife, and how in order to get her ideas to be taken seriously she learned she’d have to “pretend that they—men—had the ideas.” She doesn’t pummel her music with such discourse, but she doesn’t throw it under the rug either. And, she’s not impressed with how little credit she, and women in general, get for their work.

The Icelandic artist, who writes and co-produces all her work, recently used her platform to sound off about her experience at the Day and Night Festival. This past December, Björk took to her Facebook page to talk about her DJ performance at the festival and how belittled women can be in music. She took aim at the media after stories were published scoffing at her idea to DJ, suggesting that she was “hiding” behind the decks, and how it was peculiar to not see her “performing.” Male performers DJing at the festival were left unscathed from criticism.

“Women in music are allowed to be singer-songwriters singing about their boyfriends,” she said in her Facebook post. “If they change the subject matter to atoms, galaxies, activism, nerdy math, beat editing or anything else than being performers singing about their loved ones, they get criticized. Journalists feel there is something just missing… as if our only lingo is emo…”

Björk’s enigmatic self may be private, but she is not immune to sexism, and she lets it be known.


Hailing from the west coast and rising within the Montreal music scene, Grimes’ unique talent helped push a unique brand of experimental electronica into the mainstream. She didn’t do bubblegum pop, or stick to being the voice in the chorus for Top 40 DJs—she writes, produces and performs her own style of sonic weirdness.

Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, based her name on grime subgenre, although for a while she had said it was taken from the character Frank Grimes in the Simpsons. She has continuously put out boundary-defining, oddball videos that are contextually and aesthetically imaginative, and has yet to compromise her own artistic vision.

Speaking of aesthetics—she likes to rebel against societal standards. In an interview with Stella McCartney, published in Teen Vogue, Boucher said she that she began shaving her legs because she was, “rebelling against my previous body hair because now people get mad when I shave my legs. So I’m like ‘I have the right to shave my legs.’ I think people policing my body either way is bizarre.”

Grimes has also spoken out on how she “refuses to be sexualized,” and has discussed her disdain for men thinking that she needs their help. In her own words: “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offer to ‘help me out’ without being asked, as if I did this by accident and I’m going to flounder without them,” she said. “Or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers.”

She told Rolling Stone that she has been in “numerous situations where male producers would literally be like, ‘we won’t finish the song unless you come back to my hotel room.’”

Still, she has not compromised.

She’s an ever-evolving artist and recently even started a new Instagram dedicated to her artwork.

Lily Allen

Lily Allen has garnered a reputation as a strong, sharp-tongued artist; one that comes without a filter. Similar to Amy Winehouse (a comparison she criticized), Allen’s brand of music didn’t fit into the moulds of typical British female pop acts; it was edgier and unapologetically raw, often drawing on ska and reggae influences.

In 2009, Allen took a step back from music, returning in 2011 with her own record label, In the Name Of (Cults were the first act signed to the label). The label folded in 2014, however, in 2016 Warner asked her to start up a new record label, now dubbed Bank Holiday Records.

She’s shared stages with Mark Ronson, opened her own clothing store with her sister, faced (and won) a seven-year battle with a stalker, changed her name to Lily Rose Cooper (only to eventually change it back), and feuded openly with Azealia Banks. She writes her own music, named her third studio album Sheezus (a nod to Kanye West), and has been an outspoken women’s rights activist. She has a certified triple platinum record (It’s Not Me, It’s You), plus numerous chart topping songs including “The Fear,” and she continues to steer her car down her own winding path. Even if she fails, she gets back up and tries again. She has resilience.

She also has insight.

“You will notice of the big successful female artists there is always a ‘man behind the woman’ piece,” she told NME. “If it’s Beyonce, it’s Jay-Z, if it’s Adele, it’s Paul Epworth. Me? It was Mark Ronson and the same with Amy Winehouse. You never get that with men. You can’t think of the man behind the man, because it is a conversation that never happens. If you are Ed Sheeran or someone, no one ever talks about who has produced or who is the man behind Ed Sheeran.”

Tanya Tagaq

Not only has Tanya Tagaq helped introduce throat singing to the mainstream, but she has been an instrumental force in giving Indigenous musicians a platform to perform (and speak) on. The Juno Award-winning artist also secured the Polaris Music Prize in 2014 for her third album, Animism, and while performing at the Polaris gala, Tagaq made damn sure that attention was given to her people and the crisis they were facing: Her transfixing performance featured a backdrop screen showing the names of 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women.

She has helped transform the way we look at traditional throat singing (if not exposed it to us for the first time), but she proudly draws a lens on activism and awareness as well.

“For many years, my whole shtick was trying to spread awareness for Indigenous rights and human rights, but when I was younger, people would just roll their eyes,” she told Exclaim.  “So I [started] doing this wordless performance to have people understand what it felt like to be an Indigenous woman. And it worked! People were leaving thinking ‘Why am I feeling this? What’s resonating within me?’”

Tagaq was recently named to the Order of Canada, an honour bestowed on a fraction of Canadian musicians, and she’s collaborated with fellow innovator Bjork.

Erykah Badu

It’s hard to believe that 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Erykah Badu’s seminal debut album, Baduizm. Baduizm came with top-charting hits like “On & On” and “Next Lifetime,” which immediately put the neo-soul songstress on the map. Baduizm wasn’t just an album, it was a movement; alongside the rest of the Soulquarians (a collective that also featured J Dilla, Questlove, Q-Tip and Talib Kweli), Badu helped foster the birth of neo-soul, breaking the rules while showing that sticking to your roots could be profitable, too.

It’s no surprise that the four-time Grammy Award winner will be honoured this year at Essence’s Black Women in Music, joining previous winners like Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott and Emeli Sandé. Essence editor-in-chief, Vanessa De Luca, said it best: “From the time that she first hit the scene with Baduizm, we all fell in love with the genius that is Erykah Badu.” Badu is an iconic woman that was instantly unforgettable and her talent, style and dedication to the art form shows that music can survive in its truest form: as a sincere labour of love.

Margo Price

2016 was a pivotal year for country star Margo Price. After scraping through the Nashville scene for over a decade, never compromising her style, Price ended up selling her car and engagement ring to finance what would become her breakout album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.  The album was rejected by label after label until Jack White’s Third Man Records ushered it into its catalogue – it debuted at Number 10 on the Billboard charts, even without a charting single to steer it.

Many were banking on a Grammy nod for the 33-year-old, but that didn’t happen, even after an appearance on SNL, a publishing deal, countless talk show stints, and the Emerging Artist of the Year award at the Americana Honors and Awards.

Still, while she may not be country’s golden girl at the moment, it doesn’t seem like that’s her goal. Instead of trying to sell the kinds of records and songs that commercial radio would eat up, she’s stayed true to her roots, projecting a country voice that has Nashville lifers singing her praise and newcomers to the genre intrigued. That’s not an easy feat: impressing the public, the icons and the newbies, but she’s doing just that.


Even if you’re not a fan of Beyoncé’s music, you can’t deny that her presence is powerful. Sure, she may have a great team around her, but even since her Destiny’s Child days, it was plain to see that there was something larger than life about the Texas-native; it was inevitable that she’d go solo. When she did, it was done with such care, never showing dislike or mistrust with her former bandmates. Instead, we saw the transition as a triumph, a growth towards her predestined stardom.

Her albums, her daring Black Panthers-inspired Super Bowl performance, her ongoing vocal honesty, her vulnerable-meets-aggressive music catalogue, her overt video messages and symbolism, her Parkwood Entertainment company, her continuous “what is she going to do next” grip—Beyoncé is an essential voice for women.  Her work is executed with a boss mentality, and her empowering energy is downright inspiring.

On her Parkwood Entertainment company and label: “It’s exciting, but having the power to make every final decision and being accountable for [the artists] is definitely a burden,” she said in an interview with ELLE. “To me power is making things happen without asking for permission. It’s affecting the way people perceive themselves and the world around them. It’s making people stand up with pride.”


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