As part of Turning the Tables, NPR Music compiled a list of 200 greatest songs by women and non-binary artists in the 21st Century.
As the list took shape, it became impossible not to notice that the songs in this canon share a common backbone. Many of the songs, and more namely the song's creators, owe their catchy, joyous, triumphant, sexy, strong, aching, resilient ethos to black, Latin and Afro Caribbean musical roots. From streaming to radio, the influence of Latin, Caribbean and R&B music is apparent across all modern genres in the new millennium.
To untangle this common thread, NPR Music's Stefanie Fernández and Sidney Madden charted the work of women of color on this list and examined the ways agency and identity have become central in breaking down pop music's barriers.
Stefanie Fernández: At the turn of the millennium, popular culture had a very different idea of the female Latin Pop Star across genres than it does now. Jennifer Lopez had just released her debut album On the 6 in 1999 after her breakout movie role portraying another forebear, Selena, in 1997. In 1997 and 1999, Mariah Carey released Butterfly and Rainbow simultaneous to a disintegrating relationship with her label and the fraught decision to change her image (to this day, Carey is not often associated with her Afro-Venezuelan heritage). Christina Aguilera's 2000 album Mi Reflejo, her only Spanish album, earned her a Latin Grammy before she returned to English-language pop. These performers often had to choose between their perceived "Latin-ness" and pop persona to varying degrees for the sake of their image's commercial success — and had the privilege to do so. They followed in the footsteps of those who could not choose: Selena Quintanilla, Gloria Estefan, Jenni Rivera, Celia Cruz, and so many others.
Sidney Madden: The same evolution happened, almost simultaneously, for women in the R&B world.
Some stars of the '90s, fresh-faced R&B acts like Aaliyah and Brandy, were packaged in such tight confines. But fast-forward to the new millennium and the so-called "bad girls" are leading the narrative — uncouth, unladylike and unabashedly proud of every ounce of their ethnicity as it relates to music. From SZA and Jhené Aiko to Rihanna and Solange, these are R&B rulebreakers owning their frustrations, their flaws and their humanity while discussing matters other than love, in a way that wasn't marketable in 1998.
SZA's "The Weekend," (No. 32) an ode to owning the role of the "other woman," is in direct contention with themes of fighting over a man a la Monica and Brandy's "The Boy Is Mine," which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1998. Solange's "Cranes in the Sky," (No. 12) a laundry list of backfiring modes self-care to cope with love lost and the weight of being black in America, was perfectly in sync with the vibrations of 2016, but it actually took the singer eight years to properly pin down. Finishing those lyrics required a certain level of perspective, depth and catharsis that wasn't indicative of 2008's popular R&B (the No. 1 charting R&B song that year was from newcomer Leona Lewis.)
There are obvious forebears from the '90s who walked in order for these millennial stars to run. TLC made an all-girl rapping/singing female trio marketable with 1992's Ooooooohhh...On the TLC Tip,while still advocating for safe sex, empowerment and open communication. Ms. Lauryn Hill, patron saint of acoustic, Shakespearean rap, not only surpassed expectations and set new standards for Grammy-weighted hip-hop with her 1998 debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she opened up the idea for what a female rapper could be — prophetically deep and naturally sexy but still able to assassinate your character with a hot 16. At the same time, Erykah Badu's Baduizm was a landmark in sapiosexual black art calling upon 1970s soul that made it commercially cool to dwell on the intricacies of a kickback, no strings attached.
In 2018, honest ownership (of ethnicity, of fear, of weariness) in R&B is the new revolution. I notice that there's a lack of girl groups on our list, thanks, in part, to the American market moving away from manufactured prototypes of musicians. This is probably another effect of the emphasis on hyper-transparency fostered by the Internet — fans today are seeing through the the cut-and-paste construction of girl groups. The immersion and diffusion of the Internet age that elevates individuals has helped to prioritize a sense of ethnic and artistic freedom. In a world of over-saturated connectivity, authenticity is at a premium. We watch music videos on our phones, not on TRL, which removes some of the facade that can shield artists from showing their human side, which, in turn, allows them to delve into topics that might not have seemed relatable a decade earlier and put it out in an authentic way.
Fernández: I remember coming home from middle school to watch TRL nearly every day, and I remember seeing the video for Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" with Wyclef Jean for the first time. From more than a decade into the future, I can still recall the color red, Shakira's body looking like one of those Barbies with the rubber abdomens, the fluid click of her hips from side to side. She was so Latina, certainly more than I was. This was when "Latina" to me meant all of the world's projections of fire, feistiness and spice projected onto malleable young women.
This perception has changed slowly in the course of the 21st century, though it has arguably and paradoxically benefited American market pop stars like Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Cardi B and Kali Uchis more than it has those in the Latin market, like Amara La Negra and even Shakira. Shakira's first two rock-inspired albums in the early '90s failed to give her the breakout that 1995's Pies Descalzos did in the Latin pop market, thanks in part from pressure from Sony to move squarely into the pop sphere. 2001's Laundry Service saw her cross over into the English-language market with a pop edge. With 2005's Oral Fixation Vol. 1&2 she released one album in English and the other in Spanish, allowing each to succeed in its respective market. While Shakira was able to maintain ownership of her language, aesthetic vision and Andean and rock influences, it always seemed a compromise, allowed especially when that image presented sex. A similar compromise happened in R&B, with female artists at once presenting more relatable personas than ever under the strict hand of male management.
Madden: Definitely. Beyoncé, who was a staple in the late '90s girl group era with Destiny's Child and emerged as a singular talent in 2003, didn't fully incorporate her blackness into her creative outputs until after having her first child, Blue Ivy, in 2012. Her genesis as not only a solo artist but as an overtly, unapologetically black artist took place on 2013's Beyoncé.
I remember sitting on a bed in an off-campus house with my girlfriends trying — and failing — to study for college finals when Beyoncé dropped without warning. A visual album with seperate stories, themes, minute details, characters and a symphony of emotion. We were awestruck. There was crying. And dancing. And wine-spilling. (All attempts to study after that were futile.)
When you thought Bey couldn't possibly top herself, she delivered a sprawling, personal and prophetic modern day opera with Lemonade, illustrating the stages of betrayal with one storyline while still leaving room for social commentary. "I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils," Bey smirk-sneers on "Formation." (No. 19 on our list) This type of forward-facing clapback at her superficial critics had no place on Dangerously In Love. And why would it? Back in 2003, Bey was just finding her voice as a solo act, just testing the waters of center-stage sex appeal and mostly under the management of her parents.
Fernández: And we've seen the ways in which the genre influence of these pioneers has seeped into the mainstream with an unprecedentedly bold face. There are no reggae or soca songs on the list, but several listmaking artists have benefited from the use of those beats, from even the most ostensibly well-intentioned like Sia ("Cheap Thrills") or Beyoncé ("Hold Up") (The least: Justin Bieber's "Sorry" or Ariana Grande's "Side to Side.") Big Freedia ("Azz Everywhere," No. 118), the unmistakable voice of New Orleans bounce (a genre with heavy African, Caribbean and indigenous roots), is the sampled voice du jour from Drake to Beyoncé, who holds a much higher spot on this list.
Madden: Sampling and literal border-crossing are built into the No. 1 song on the list, "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. The fact that a woman who is not American and who's lived as a refugee and who is singing and rapping over a sample of The Clash about race politics and getting immigration visas shows how necessary minority voices are in the mainstream. It's clear we're moving toward tackling the real topics in music and minority women are the ones foregrounding these topics in their art inherently.
Fernández: The mainstreaming and whitewashing of reggaeton, a genre born from working class black Panamanians (like La Atrevida) in the late 1980s and pioneered in the 1990s by listmaker Ivy Queen (No. 60 with "Quiero Bailar"), by white or light-skinned Latin pop artists has facilitated the pop transformation of Afro-Caribbean genres to the point where they are barely recognizable. In the early 2000s, genres shaped and fundamentally conceived from poverty and racism like reggaeton and soca were still dismissed as classless and vulgar; the vestiges of this thinking can still be seen in the perceived vulgarity of Latin trap artists like Bad Bunny and the new wave of reguetoneras like Karol G, Natti Natasha and Anitta who seem to have been left behind by the success of their peers more palatable to the American market.
The most recent triumph: Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" has a flawless Latin trap remix in which the Dominican-Trinidadian rapper is able to flex her specifically Dominican Bronx identity, a theme which informs the English version implicitly. We have seen many sides of this rapper in a short time, but there's not a version of Cardi yet able to release those two tracks as one song to the same success, though "I Like It" is possibly the beginning of that change.
Madden: But I think a point to make here is that for these women, personal identity has emerged as a force to break down the idea of these genre by name. These artists can't easily be classified within one genre or sound.
Fernández: "Latin" and "R&B" are titles that no longer reflect the actual genres of the music they encapsulate, but the racialized roots of both. In contemporary R&B and Latin pop music, black and brown women are subverting the restrictions on image and the ability to define their own growth placed on the previous generation of artists. Kali Uchis, Princess Nokia, Xenia Rubinos, Ibeyi and Ana Tijoux aren't flattening themselves into digestible pop personas; now more than ever, we get to see (as much as they allow us to) real women who make music.
Madden: And this relationship shows that women in the new millennium, as they have in decades past, are leading the charge in moving music forward. I think one positive change that's illustrated on the list, especially as you go down beyond the Top 50, is that diffusion of the mainstream genre traits that are often defined by race. In claiming identity, artists like Daymé Arocena, Fea and FKA Twigs have pushed the boundaries of what people expect from them as artists simply because of what they look like.
Another example: Though Princess Nokia is best known for her raps on song like "Tomboy" (No. 104), the Nuyorican has put out dream pop and pop punk projects. Her latest release, A Girl Who Cried Red, is a mall goth trope inspired by her love of Slipknot, The Offspring and more.
Fernández: Exactly. Artists like Ana Tijoux ("1977," No. 99) and Xenia Rubinos ("Mexican Chef," No. 69) have a different project than Ivy Queen or Shakira. Their music is difficult to pin a genre on; they're not trying to make music that appeals to a common denominator. Similar to Princess Nokia, Ana Tijoux is currently experimenting with an acoustic project after building her best-known sound on hip-hop, infusing Spanish guitar and R&B vocals. Boricua-Cuban singer Xenia Rubinos draws her smooth, layered vocals from R&B and her rhythms from hip-hop, rumba and son. Each honor the influence of black art forms on their own. They're all trying something new, but with an independence that their pop forebears were discouraged from.
Madden: Kali Uchis is a great spokesperson for not compromising either side of her identity when creating her music. "Tyrant," featuring Jorja Smith (No. 122), and her entire debut album from earlier this year is indication of her funk, soul and bossa nova influences growing up in Colombia, but also takes into account her love of hip-hop and pop, which she honed as a teen growing up in Virginia. And she's able to have that freedom in creation and that fluidity in identity because the Internet, where she first started, has served as an equalizer for new artists. Uploading your own music, your own visuals, of your own volition is a power that singers of the 1990s just didn't have.
Fernández: The list shows not just the work that has been done by these women, but how much work is left to do, especially for intersectional gender equity. For so many artists, the path to success is determined first by race and second by gender. A newer pioneer of this list (and hopefully, a forebear for future lists) is Amara La Negra, an Afro-Latina artist who places blackness at the front and center of her performance and persona. So many black female pioneers of both Turning the Tables lists shared with the world a portrait of the black female experience, but so many were denied that complexity by way of the music business. While Amara has been vocal about the ways that experience has been used against her, the arc of her career has amounted to smashing that negotiation altogether, while reclaiming dancehall and dembow as music that belongs to the Afro-Caribbean. This degree of freedom in the industry — especially for an artist that is still up-and-coming — did not exist 20 years ago. Her success is because of her blackness, not in spite of it; that fact doesn't eliminate the obstacles she still faces.
The mainstream pop world has always benefited from the genre experiments of lesser-known black and brown women; Amara La Negra's art is all about reclaiming that. She's a bellwether, I hope, of where the music world is heading.
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