Words: Dylan Murphy
Image: Megan Thee Stallion via @theestallion
Words: Dylan Murphy
Image: Megan Thee Stallion via @theestallion
March is dedicating to triumph over adversity at District. We’re celebrating the people continuing to exceed expectations despite enduring the most difficult year of our lives. Today, we’re highlighting the acts breaking down barriers and changing how music is made, shared and experienced during a pandemic.
While live streams and 16:9 screens don’t make up for the sweat and stench of live gigs, the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa have consistently found innovative ways to push the envelope. Whether that is through technology, using their platform to put important issues on the agenda or challenging the established order, a host of musicians have adapted quickly in difficult circumstances.
An observation we made was, for the most part, since the beginning of the pandemic those blazing trails in the music industry have largely been women. We can all safely say we’re opposed to patriarchy in whatever way it manifests and subsequently, International Women’s day has become an important day on the calendar to uplift and celebrate the women in our lives. With our list being made up entirely of women we thought it’d be a fitting day to celebrate their impact in the last year without othering or tokenising them as ‘female artists’.
In no particular order, read below about the eights acts challenging established order, making groundbreaking records on their own terms and making moves that transcend music.
Last year, Rina Sawayama was told she wasn’t British enough to be eligible for The Mercury Prize. This news came in spite of the fact she has lived in England for 26 years and pays taxes like any other resident.
The shapeshifting pop star was born in Japan and lived there until she was five before moving to London where she has resided since. Rina still holds a Japanese passport so she can easily access her family, much of whom still live in her birth country. Due to the outdated specifications, Rina’s hugely celebrated album was not up for consideration for the prestigious Mercury Prize.
After speaking out, She told the BBC in an interview she feared getting “Blacklisted” by the music industry. However, after chatting about her ineligibility in an interview with Vice, ‘#SawayamaIsBritish’ trended on Twitter and subsequently, the discourse led to a revision of the rules.
Now, acts who have lived in the UK for more than five years are eligible for the top prizes. You love to see it.
Whilst the music world scrambled to maintain relevancy in lieu of live shows, Dua Lipa came through with one of the few genuinely immersive live streams.
Look, we get it at $1.5 million you’d expect something good, but we saw a lot of expensive flops during lockdown and Dua managed to reclaim a lot of the excitement we’ve missed so much.
Following the release of her disco-pop masterpiece, Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa’s ‘Studio 2054’ live stream concert drew over five million viewers, setting a new record for a paid live stream.
The ambitious choreography and star-studded features set up what felt like a watershed moment for virtual performances.
It’s worth noting Dua provided a host of compelling remixes to the album after the livestream that bucked the trend of seemingly endless and at times lazy reworkings championed by the likes of Lil Nas X in the past. As if we needed more reasons to pine for the return of clubs, Dua’s invitation to producers as varied as Kaytranada and Paul Woolford to reimagine her record had us salivating for sticky floors and queues at the bar.
Megan The Stallion dominated popular music in the past year. In a time where Tik Tok is changing the music industry landscape, dance trends to a number of her songs stamped her authority on the game.
In part, her command of social media resulted in Beyoncé hopping on the remix of ‘Savage‘ bagging her first number. It’d later be followed by another chart topper in the shape of ‘WAP’ that brought the timeline to a standstill and pushed conversations about female sexuality and body positivity.
Moreover, Megan’s reworking of NWA’s ‘Boys in the Hood’, in her 2020 release of ‘Girls In The Hood‘ reclaimed sexuality and flipped established misogynistic tropes that pervade in hip hop on their head.
Meanwhile, Megan earned four GRAMMY nominations, featured on a multitude of magazine covers and provided stunning live performances like it was nothing.
What’s important to note amongst the success is it all arrived adjacent to a hugely traumatic and news-dominating gun wound. After alleging online it was caused by Tory Lanez he was later charged. Following emergency surgery, Megan penned a New York Times Op-Ed ‘Why I Speak Up For Black Women’ which resulted in the rapper pushing the slogan of ‘Protect Black Women’ to the forefront of the cultural conversation.
If there were an example of an artist that transcends music in the past year, it’s Megan Thee Stallion.
West coast songwriter Phoebe Bridgers captured the melancholy and baron wasteland of peak lockdown in her 2020 album Punisher.
Coupled with four nominations for the 2020 GRAMMYs, Phoebe’s nod for ‘best rock performance’ was part of a shortlist, that for the first time, was made up entirely of women.
It shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea for women to smash a guitar on stage, but, redpill dwelling dweebs and annoying fellas who play devil’s advocate when no one asked took offence. It goes without saying she brushed it off and cemented her place as one of the past year’s most compelling songwriters.
Denise Chaila is one of the great success stories of lockdown, period. She bided her time before she took centre stage, working closely with MuRli and God Knows of Rusangano and keeping her own music close to her chest. However, when the moment arose Denise took it with both hands and ran and what’s even more impressive is, she did it on her own terms.
‘Chaila’ was a radio staple whilst we were locked in the gaff and as the repetitive live streams grew stale, Denise ripped up the script and introduced herself as a world-beater. Her legendary performance at the National Gallery of Ireland solidified the south-west spitter as a force to be reckoned with as she picked up the torch that Rusangano lit on their debut album. Rapping about the ever-evolving idea of what it means to be Irish whilst doing what she wants with her pronouns, Denise is the modern and fearless artist Ireland has been crying out for.
Kojaque‘s nomination for the RTÉ Choice Prize for Deli Daydreams was a first. It rewrote the rules for EPs and mixtapes being granted consideration, but Denise went one step further last week, with her mixtape Go Bravely taking top honours. If Ireland’s most charismatic performer can do this all in the absence of packed out crowds, we can’t wait to see how much more Denise will ascend when we get back to some semblance of normality.
The loss of pioneering musician and producer SOPHIE at the start of 2021 was felt across the board, with acts and fans alike paying tribute to the late trailblazer.
SOPHIE’s music helped carve out a space for LGBTQ+ misfits whilst simultaneously bridging the gap between avantgarde hyperpop sounds and the mainstream.
Moreover, her movement from an enigmatic figure that rarely gave interviews to an artist publicly celebrating her identity as a trans-woman undoubtedly gave others the encouragement and space to do so themselves.
Her boundary-breaking work in the past decade right through to the beginning of 2021 irrevocably changed the course of music and her legacy remains a fearless reminder of the power of expression.
For casual listeners, music in Ireland has become synonymous with homogenous, male-dominated guitar bands spewing the same chart fodder.
However, whilst there’s still plenty of music that’d make your eyes roll, Pillow Queens are leading the charge for making inventive, accessible and forward-facing rock music.
You don’t have to look far for proof, with the four-piece being handpicked for James Corden’s Late Night Show.
Meanwhile, they were also part of the first female heavy Choice Music Prize shortlist alongside the likes of Ailbhe Reddy and Denise Chaila. As a queer four-piece, they’re changing the face of popular music in Ireland and we are here for it.
Charli XCX took like a duck to water when it came to creating in quarantine. The hugely prolific songwriter set the tone for projects with a homemade edge and in a time where connection is few and far between went the extra mile to connect with fans.
Her album ‘How I’m Feeling Now‘ was the first album from a major artist to be wholly crafted in quarantine and she invited fans into her world to be an intrinsic part of the process.
For many, it was the definitive project of lockdown and her DIY visuals for ‘forever’ struck a chord as we were all asked to stay apart. In a time when there was little to excite anyone, her decision to announce the album on April 4 2020 accompanied by a hard release of May 15 2020 brought a sense of suspense.
Few albums have stuck in the clouded mess of the last year, but How I’m Feeling Now cut through the mist to be early lockdown’s definitive album.