Nina Simone, Queen Latifah and Janelle Monáe; what do all these three people have in common? They’re all amazingly-talented musicians? Female? Multi-award winning? African-American? Vocal advocates of civil rights? All true. But Music student Lydia Norwood has discovered another factor that unites the three artists through her research for her fascinating dissertation.
Lydia's thesis is entitled ‘Ladies First’, a title borrowed from a Queen Latifah track from the early 1990s. Within it, Latifah raps about female empowerment but also uses the MTV-circulated, popular music video to depict issues with Apartheid in South Africa. During her initial research, Lydia found that, like Queen Latifah, Simone and Monáe address gender and race discrimination and police brutality in their songs, with Monáe additionally highlighting LGBTQ+ rights. She also found that it was more than just protest alone that connected them;
“It’s how they sound their music and how they say it that makes it more powerful than just being another protest," said Lydia, "as I continued my research, I understood that this is what connects them.”
After being recommended Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s ground-breaking academic work, ‘The Signifying Monkey’ by underground-jazz enthusiast and lecturer Dr Marian Jago, Lydia realised the importance of the vernacular used by these female singer-songwriters.
“The book was about how African Americans have different vernacular to white Americans," she said, "For Gates, this was the act he called ‘Signification’, meaning the act of saying something but meaning something else entirely. And this is what I’ve realised connects the dots between the artists.”
To explain, she uses the example of Janelle Monáe’s hit song ‘I’m American’, which is boppy and upbeat with a satirical bite. With tongue-in-the-cheek lyrics such as 'I like my women in the kitchen' and 'she can wash my clothes but she'll never ever wear my pants' Lydia says the song becomes more powerful: “it hints at something and it makes the audience think 'Wow, this is actually happening [to women]'."
Although Lydia found it difficult to condense the number of artists she would study from 15 to just three, the decision to study female musicians is by no means accidental. She noticed that the vast majority of the literature about black musicians and protest within music focused on males, so she decided to explore things from a female perspective.
“There should be more academic writing about black women in music for sure, because, for example, I read a book that had a chapter about Missy Elliot, but the author only wrote three sentences before continuing to talk about the male rapper Tupac," she said, "Where is the women’s point of view? I feel like there’s much more to be said.”
Lydia enjoyed the experience of putting together her powerful dissertation and “sinking her teeth into the topic.” Another bonus was getting to listen to the music daily, and trying to understand these women’s points of view on the world.
Inspiration for this important topic came from an original interest in Black American history, which Lydia then weaved into her music studies at ECA. Not going the traditional route, Lydia feels she really began her formal education aged 25, and she would like to encourage everyone to explore what inspires them.
“I think it’s important to know that if you want to learn something that you are able to do so at any age – it’s never too late!”