Women Musicians & Their Causes
Music has played such a significant role in activism over the past 50 years that it's hard to imagine a march, rally or cause without it. From Joan Baez singing "We Shall Overcome" at the civil rights march on Washington to Melissa Etheridge belting out "Maggie May" at the Inaugural Triangle Ball, women have helped provide the soundtrack for the nation's social changes.
In the new millennium, women are at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness about issues ranging from breast cancer research to organic farming. But in a twist that would have astounded their '60s counterparts, many of today's musicians aren't fighting the system, but are working with a variety of corporate sponsors, universities and others to raise money for causes.
Here are just some of the women and some of the causes, catching our attention in the 21st century:
Sarah McLachlan, When Sarah launched Lilith Fair in 1997, the industry wasn't sure that a celebration of women in music would be a hit. Lilith Fair went on to be the most successful concert tour of the decade, showcasing the talents of many different female artists, improving awareness of women in music, and raising money for charity. Throughout its three-year run, Lilith Fair partnered with a number of corporate sponsors and donated one dollar from every ticket sold to local and national charity organizations devoted to helping women.
Mary J. Blige, "The queen of hip-hop soul" has raised more than $1,000,000 for AIDS organizations across the country on behalf of the M·A·C (Make-up Art Cosmetics) AIDS fund. The fund gives money to organizations that provide day-to-day services such as food, clothes, medicine, childcare and education to people living with HIV and AIDS. On her 33-city Mary Tour, Mary has visited many local AIDS organizations and presented the check herself. Mary is also involved in Rap the Vote, an effort to involve urban youths in the political process.
Lil' Kim, Lil' Kim works on her own and with Mary J. Blige to raise awareness for the M·A·C AIDS fund. Her flamboyant and controversial image appeals to many urban, African-American and Hispanic youths who might not be reached through mainstream media. "If I can help one person by lending my image, I am going to do it," Lil' Kim said of her decision to be involved with the fund. Drag diva RuPaul and singer k.d. lang have also worked as spokespersons for the project.
Natalie Merchant, Natalie's concert in New York's Central Park raised money to fund breast cancer research. A portion of the proceeds from the Mind Body SELF Festival went to the Big Bam! Foundation, a charity organization dedicated to educating and supporting young women in the fight against breast cancer.
Tori Amos, A leading spokesperson for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, Tori has been frank about being raped, and some of her songs reflect her experience. She helped form RAINN in 1994 in response to the many fans who had contacted her with their own experiences of rape and sexual assault. RAINN was one of the first national beneficiaries of Lilith Fair.
Tracy Chapman, Tracy considers herself primarily a musician, not an activist, but has been involved in a number of causes, including raising money for literacy programs, breast cancer research and organic farming. Her New Beginning CD featured photos of her in the organic fields at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she donated a block of tickets to her San Jose concert to benefit UCSC's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems and the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
Sheryl Crow, Sheryl played Stevie Nicks' benefit in Arizona for the Arizona Heart Institute Foundation. She's also involved in the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines with Emmylou Harris and wrote the song "Redemption Day" after visiting Bosnia and seeing the destruction there.
Rock for Choice, Started in 1991 by the female grunge band L7, music journalist Sue Cummings and the Feminist Majority Foundation, Rock for Choice has given up to 12 shows a year on college campuses to raise money for the National Clinic Access Project effort to keep women's health clinics open nationwide.
Many musicians express the sense that, by raising money for causes, they are "giving back" to the community and to the fans who have helped them become successful. But they're also very aware of the power celebrity support plays in bringing an issue to public attention.
Young kids are influenced by seeing their favorite bands playing at concerts. Melissa Etheridge recalls listening to '60s protest songs sung by Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, and how they influenced her. Many kids, then and now, listen to the music first and appreciate the activism later.
Rock and roll is here to stay. Social activism is, too. Together, artists and fans willing to stand and be counted are making a difference in the lives of us all.