Four Female Music Artists of Color Who Inspire Me to be My Most Authentic Self

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By Jasmine Taylor

With SXSW and International Women’s Day coming this month, I find myself listening to my favorite female music artists on repeat.  Ever since 2016, and honestly even for years before then, I have been feeling vulnerable as a woman, as a person of color, as a queer person, and as a young adult navigating a concerning economy and tens of thousands of dollars in college debt.  One peaceful way I have been working to combat the ugliness I see (hear, read, feel, sense) every day is to strive to life my life as authentically as possible. I keep reminding myself that it is okay for me to exist in a world that seems to want people like me to disappear.  Since I was a little girl, I learned that listening to female music artists was a good way for me to reaffirm myself, my life experience, and the full spectrum of my emotions. The following are a few female artists of color, some of them also members of the queer community, who inspire me to be my most authentic self:

Cardi B

I am slow to get into new artists–if I listen to a new artist and love their work, I will inevitably purchase their albums on iTunes, which is not conducive to saving money–but once I finally hopped on the Cardi B train, I was instantly hooked.  In Cardi’s lyrics, she owns her lived experiences–the good and the bad. She’s refreshingly honest about how hard she has had to work. I love how her style is blunt and eloquent, she does not have to be gentle in her delivery, the emotion and toughness in her songs gives them a power that engulfs the listener.  

I am a pretty innocuous little person.  I have had friends tell me they could not imagine me getting angry.  I do maintain a cheerful aura around people, both because I am a pretty happy person and also because I do feel some societal pressure to be pleasant 99.9% of the time whether I feel like it or not.  I do not want to be stereotyped as an “angry black woman,” so sometimes when I am angry, it takes me longer to realize that I am feeling angry.

Somewhat recently, I received a text message from a coworker that was clearly not meant for me.  In the message, this coworker complained about me, claiming that I contribute “nothing” as an employee and lack a satisfactory work ethic.  That work week had been particularly challenging for me, and I had needed to take time to care for my mental and emotional health–which distracted me from working as effectively as I normally do.  When I first read the message, I was stunned and saddened because I already felt terrible about my unusually unproductive work week. When I confronted this coworker about her text, she did not apologize. She instead tried to minimize the incident, and after 2 minutes of hearing her make light of her insult, I felt anger rise in my chest and basically told her to buzz off.  Ideally, I would love to just get along with everyone. I avoid conflict and drama like the plague and in my youth I was incredibly forgiving of interpersonal slights. As I have grown, I have become more empowered to stand up for myself, yet there is always a voice in the back of my head saying, “Don’t be angry anymore. You’re hurting the other person’s feelings. Can’t you two just go back to being friends?”  In spite of that, I decided that my anger was justified. I felt insulted by someone I originally viewed as a work friend. During the weekend before I would have to face her in the office again, I purchased Cardi B’s album and began playing Bodak Yellow on repeat. The lyrics, “If when I see you, I don’t speak, that means I don’t F#$% with you,” resonated with me. I decided I would not give my forgiveness, friendship, or energy to someone who thought it acceptable to badmouth me to one of her other friends.  I continue to be cordial with this coworker when we have to collaborate on projects or attend meetings together, but when we are alone I do not speak to her, I don’t F#$% with her. Choosing to keep toxic people out of my life and away from my heart is okay. It does not mean that I’m holding only anger and letting someone who does not have my best interests in mind have power over my emotions. I just don’t want that person in my life because I would rather live, love, and work without fretting over someone I cannot trust to be respectful.  Spending no energy on someone toxic means I can devote more energy to living my best life and surrounding myself with people I most love to spend my time with.

Janelle Monae

When I came out as a lesbian during my junior year of college, it became a defining aspect of my identity, which was liberating but also limiting.  It felt wonderful to accept that I felt romantic attraction to other women, and to want my friends and family to accept it as well. I wore flannel shirts and beanies religiously and took enormous pride in being a “gold star lesbian.”

At the same time, rigidly holding myself to a specific standard (that I now realize was partly informed by my own ignorance and belief in stereotypes about lesbians and my lack of understanding that sexuality is fluid) meant that I held myself back from embracing all parts of myself.  I pressured myself to act more tomboyish when I am a girly-girl at heart. Whenever I did feel warm and fuzzy feelings for any person who did not identify as female, I went into denial and pushed the feelings aside.

This past summer, however, I was swept off my feet by a cis-man.  He was charming, and intelligent, and easy to talk to. I could sense that I wanted to date him, but I felt conflicted.  I eventually did date him for the rest of that summer–and greatly enjoyed the experience–but I still felt a bit conflicted.  I thought I was being a “bad” lesbian, or somehow betraying who I was or lying to my friends about who I was.

However, that changed when I listened to Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer and really listened to the lyrics and studied the music videos that went with some of the songs.  “Make Me Feel” resonated with me. In the song, Janelle is basically saying that she feels attraction to men and women (in interviews, she identifies as pansexual, meaning she can feel attraction to people who identify anywhere on the gender spectrum) and that she does not want to choose.  “I can’t help it, ugh!” I heard no sense of guilt or inner conflict, Janelle was feeling lovey dovey feelings for more than one gender, and that was okay. More than okay, it was romantic and fun. Like crushes and romance are supposed to be. Listening to Janelle Monae show acceptance and pride in her sexuality helped me to accept that I too identify as pansexual and that’s also okay.  Love between consenting individuals does not have to be restricted to rigid rules about whom we can be attracted to or how we express our identities. I can feel love for anyone I feel love for. I am not betraying my identity, I am being more myself.

Hayley Kiyoko

Hayley Kiyoko was the first openly queer music artist I actively sought out during my coming out process in college, and her work continues to influence me to this day.  I still recall being a junior and searching on YouTube for female artists who were singing what I was feeling, or rather, finally allowing myself to feel. I typed something like “lesbian song” into the search box and soon stumbled upon the music video for “Girls Like Girls.”  The video portrays a love triangle between a girl who likes another girl who has a boyfriend. I spentspend most of my teenage years pinning for female friends who had boyfriends.  This was the first song that reflected this experience back at me. Only in the lyrics and the accompanying video, there was no sense of shame or secrecy that I felt during my youth.  “Girls like girls, like boys do. Nothing new.” I tried to take these lyrics to heart to remind myself, in a sense, that my attraction to people who shared my gender identity was, in a sense, not a big deal.  It was such a “not big deal” that I could just tell people. It did not have to be some huge reveal or secret, I could just be open about who I am. Hayley Kiyoko was being unabashedly honest about her feelings. Here is this young woman of color who can sing about how she likes girls.  As a junior in college just beginning my coming out journey I thought, if she could just admit that to the world, maybe I could too.

I used to, and still sometimes do, feel a bit perturbed when strangers and distant relatives assume I am heterosexual.  My grandma asks if I have a boyfriend, and I often work with children who assume I–like their parents and every couple they have seen in a Disney movie–either have a boyfriend, would like to have a boyfriend, or should be married to a man by now.

I have come to accept that if I want people to have at least a hint about how I identify, I need to make it obvious.  Wearing rainbow buttons and jewelry helps, but what works best is just plainly telling people: My ex-girlfriend loves that show. I like guys and girls with short hair.  I am a member of the queer community.

I am fortunate that every important person in my life has shown tolerance, at least in part because they already assumed I was not straight.  I now feel less nervous being open about who I am with others. I even feel comfortable admitting to men during dates that I am also attracted to women.  Being honest and authentic in my love life is not always easy. I once ended up in an argument with a Tinder date (cis-male) who upon learning that I identify as pansexual, went on an hour long rant about how trans identities lack legitimacy.  In spite of occasional rejection, I strive to maintain the pride that Hayley Kiyoko inspired me to have when I was 20-years-old.

Hayley Kiyoko can be honest that she likes girls, and it does not have to be a big secret or something she has to feel self conscious about.  She can be open, and her openness inspires me to be open every day and every time I meet someone new.

Solange Knowles

I relate to “Cranes in the Sky” on a deeply emotional and personal level.  The lyrics tell of Solange’s experience of ignoring her negative moods. Instead of addressing her problems and sadness, she tries to push them to the back of her mind by shopping, drinking, changing her hairstyle, or having sex. The song is incredibly gentle.  With a slow tempo and soft chorus, it sounds like a lullaby that gently acknowledges the act of pushing one’s problems to the back of their mind. “It’s like cranes in the sky, sometimes I don’t want to feel those metal clouds.”

I never want to feel my own metal clouds.  I want to stay happy. I want to attend meetings, volunteer, mentor young children, write everything from commuter safety info sheets to contemporary poetry.  I want to walk my dog at 6:30am every morning and fold my laundry after it is clean. However, from time to time I fall into deeply melancholic moods. My happiness and productivity become depressed and I find myself slowing down and becoming forgetful with my responsibilities and pessimistic in my outlook on life.

My natural impulse is to push these feelings away by throwing myself into various worldly distractions.  I take on additional projects at work, schedule too many social outings, push myself to workout rigorously, and sometimes I get a haircut or a piercing under the belief, on some unconscious level, that altering my external world will improve my internal one.  

But in trying to ignore my state of mind and throw myself into work, friends, spending money (more on chocolate bars and edgy haircuts since I am quite the broke 20-something), I only make myself sadder.  When I am feeling sad, frustrated, or overextended, my first reaction is to ignore it and continue my adult responsibility of being a productive member of society. And yet, the problems persist. The sadness returns.  The cycle continues.

I am trying to reinterpret my experiences with emotional lows not as a failure to be happy and productive, but rather as an opportunity to reflect and examine what I am feeling.  If something is bothering me, I now practice checking in with myself and asking myself, “What’s wrong?” I’m taking time for myself to journal about my thoughts and feelings. I have taken steps to care for my mental wellbeing.  I make myself take one day each week in which I do not even try to do anything productive. These days are dedicated exclusively to sleeping in, watching Netflix, cleaning my room, indulging in cherry garcia ice cream, or riding my bike just for fun.

As a woman of color and a millennial, I have internalized the idea that I have to keep grinding in order to make my way in the world.  I have to work twice as hard, build my resume, wake up early and stay up late. And as a queer woman of color I also have to project strength and resilience in a world that feels painfully hostile toward me, and people like me, for simply existing.  But constantly working, denying myself rest, projecting strength when I feel vulnerable, and blowing myself off when I am feeling down looks good on the outside but feels terrible on the inside. “Cranes in the Sky” reflects this experience and makes me feel validated.

In acknowledging the full spectrum of my feelings, I have also been taking the time to write creatively.  I can turn my metal clouds into art. If I can acknowledge my own sadness, perhaps I could help others in my situation remind themselves that sometimes we need to take a break from the grind and listen to our own hearts.  Maybe I can help others realize that their emotional state is important and how they feel is valid, just as valid as what they give to the world–just as valid as what I give to the world.

Who are some of your favorite woman of color artists? Share with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!