By Jocelle Koh, Sinead

This International Women’s Week 2020, take a listen and delve into the soundscape of female empowerment in Mandarin music today. As we well and truly enter a new decade, the Mandopop ballads and sad love songs from the ‘90s and early noughties seem worlds away. As attitudes change and influences diversify, we’ve too noticed that the strains of feminist thought have also evolved greatly in this genre of popular music. From the ‘sisterhood’ vibes of the early 2000s (老婆 Wife (S.H.E),如果的事 If Only (Christine Fan 范瑋琪, Angela Chang 張韶涵))to the ‘self love’ themes of 2010s (我愛我 Love Yourself (Elva Hsiao 蕭亞軒),The Great Artist 大藝術家 (Jolin Tsai 蔡依林)), female artists nowadays continue to embody different versions of femininity that are less homogenous; and rather than allowing themselves to be defined by singular themes, are now characterised by their out-of-the-box nature.

Fluid and empowering, up-and-coming female artists have in recent years introduced a more carefree strain of feminist thought to the scene. Rather than exploring femininity within the constraints of love and relationships, these artists draw inspiration from their ambition; their role models; their experiences and their essence in ways that embrace the imperfections of humanity and paint pictures of individualistic, intelligent, unique women trying to make the world a better place. While there is much progress to be made before Eastern society truly achieves gender equality, I’m heartened by the ladies we currently have on the musical frontline. Below we explore songs that merely make up the beginning of our musical feminist manifesto below. Ladies – enjoy!

9m88 – Aim High

In Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist manifesto ‘Lean In’, she spoke about something called ‘The Leadership Ambition Gap’ and how society discourages and internalises a lack of ambition in women. While ambition is often seen as a desirable trait in men, in women it is often read as threatening, aggressive and undesirable. Jazz/R&B singer 9m88 throws these conceptions out the window in this laidback track that just keeps on giving. A couple of simple beats with jazzy, reflective keys, Baba lays down a dynamic melody that starts slow, but continues to reach unexpected peaks even till the song ends. In equal parts optimistic with tones of steely determination, she sings openly and confidently about her drive, her doubts, most importantly, her ambition. It’s more than okay to be ambitious; it’s a prerequisite for a better future, and Baba is leading the way to it.

Ann Bai 白安Frida

Inspired deeply by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s story, Taiwanese singer Ann Bai 白安 took a leap of faith, releasing her first English song dedicated to the feminist icon’s impact and unconventional philosophy. Against pensive, dissonant tinkling undercurrents with a constant tick-tocking that could represent the fragility of life, Bai sings: “Find a way/Find a place/You deserve the wings of life’s embrace/Find a way/Leave a trace/Find a way’ Using clever subtle phrases that simultaneously pay homage to Kahlo’s style of magic realism whilst telling her story, Bai’s airy vocals do this song justice; bringing with her a quiet, steady confidence. Music is a perfect medium for telling stories, and this is one story that marks an important milestone in the current scene. As one of few singers who has consistently embodied her message of self-discovery and freedom from societal conventions, Ann has certainly left a trace; at least for me. 

Karencici 楊凱倫 – Apple Of My Eye 蕾絲邊和髮夾

Young up-and-coming R&B/Reggae/Dancehall artist Karencici asserts her individualism and right to wear makeup and feel confident in her own skin on a track from her debut album ‘Apple of my eye’. In a classic show of lipstick feminism, she sings in sultry tones over a sensual spanish-inspired track about her love for (and right to) doll herself up for herself rather than for others. On the song, she sings: “I can wear cool sneakers today/And change into heels tomorrow/Girls don’t be down on yourself for being imperfect/As long as you know, know how to indulge in becoming beautiful’. Karen’s perspective is especially refreshing. Previously citing her single parent upbringing as something which influenced her significantly, the artist’s songs are unconsciously a succinct and vibrant snapshot of what it means to be a confident, outspoken young women navigating society in this era. 

Enno Cheng 鄭宜農 feat. Hsien Ching Chen 陳嫻靜 – 街仔路雨落袂停 At a rainy night (Would you walk me home?)

What happens when you put indie queer icon Enno Cheng 陳宜農 together with cult rap darling Chen Hsien Ching 陳嫻靜? All is revealed in their duet on Cheng’s Taiwanese dialect track from her latest album. Both performers are in their own ways unconventional representations of femininity in the Asian entertainment scene. Cheng has been open about her queer identity since 2016 and continues to break stereotypical norms with her inherently feminine appearance, whilst Chen, as one of a handful of female rappers on the scene has been making waves with her gentle, feminine flows and penchant for baggy gender neutral outfits. A track characterised by eerie, alien-like theremin sounds and a groovy, grungy bass, the two sing refreshingly of walking alone on a rainy night and taking in the sights and sounds. Through back-and-forth riffs in an atmosphere heady with Taiwanese humidity, these diverse ladies show that being alone does not always equate to loneliness in a stunning show of solidarity and stereotype ass-kicking.

Bibi Zhou 周筆暢 – Flow 女流

Bibi Zhou 周筆暢 is no newcomer on the C-pop scene, having first made her debut on the singing survival programme Super Girl back in 2005. Apart from being known for her distinctive husky vocals, she has constantly reinvented her music style, unsurprisingly breaking new ground yet again with her new album. The album and single title, ‘LUNAR’, references the experience of the menstrual cycle and its tracks pick apart the historical stereotypes associated with this time. So the track, whose Mandarin name ‘nu liu’ directly translates to ‘female flow’, features a heavily stylised MV and lyrics which reimagine this phenomenon in positive terms, celebrating it as both a natural phenomenon and a moment of female rebirth. Zhou’s ethereal vocals and shimmering electronic sheen lifts this song from a retro R’n’B mix to a boundary breaking anthem of female empowerment.

Jasmine Sokko – SHH 噓

In an EDM scene frequently dominated by male artists, Singaporean-born artist Jasmine Sokko cuts a striking figure alongside a new wave of female DJs such as Yaeji, Peggy Gou and Mizu96. Although she’s been making music since she was just 13, Sokko has previously acknowledged the existing prejudice against females working in the industry, noting that “people aren’t used to women being in charge”. However this has clearly not dented her passion for making the music she loves; ‘SHH’ boasts a futuristic soundscape created through an intricate layering of samples and beats. Over this she sings about the importance of women believing in themselves and going after their dreams; silencing the critical voices of outsiders. Taken from her debut album, this track offers a tantalising glimpse of Sokko’s future potential.

Listen to our ‘Ladies First’ IWD Playlist below:

Have some more songs to recommend for our playlist? Comment them down below!