“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Lukewarm activism by white women, what's new?
This summer she was met with severe backlash to an Instagram rant in which she claimed she, a white woman, had been unfairly criticized in the music industry for how she claimed her femininity. In one of the most cognitively dissonant statements of the year, Lana claimed that "there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like me."
Because almost all the women she was comparing herself to in the rant — whose record breaking places on the charts served as the impetus for her misguided manifesto — were Black women, it seemed like "women who look like" Lana meant white women. Yikes.
However, Lana was quick to come to her own defense. Instead of issuing any semblance of apology or recognizing the nuance in the criticism her letter received, she took to the comment section to dismiss any criticism that came her way.
After that, she made another post (that kind of made it worse) announcing her upcoming album and then kind of disappeared. Until now.
When announcing the release of her first single from her new album, Chemtrails over the Country Club, Lana did not take the opportunity to clear the air — but we didn't expect that. She didn't even take the opportunity to shut up, pivot, and never speak of her typewriter series again (they're still up on Instagram, albeit buried under months worth of pictures by now, though if I were her publicist I would have wrestled the phone from her hands to delete it by now).
Instead, she took the time to parade her "diverse" and "inclusive" friend group on her cover and write another nonsensical caption that pretty much amounts to: see? I'm not racist, I have Black friends.
"Yes there are people of color on this records picture and that's all I'll say about that," Lana says near the beginning of the comment, but, unfortunately, continues to say more. "I have always been extremely inclusive without even trying to. My best friends are rappers, my boyfriends have been rappers."
Lana's tokenization of the people of color in her life is … uncomfortable, at best. Beyond tastelessly parading her friend's life histories in front of the internet for the sake of her reputation, by mentioning "rappers," she equates Blackness with a genre of music and also engages in the fetishistic notion that romantic desire is proximal to inclusion.
And if you think it couldn't get worse, the caption continued. In reference to the comments she had received on her initial post, Lana thought to respond preemptively, saying, "Before you make comments again about a WOC/POC issue, I'm not the one storming the capital [sic]."
The invocation of the attempted coup in comparison to her own racism is a blatant attempt to decenter the conversation and dismiss the voices of those she claims to be so inclusive of.
Lana's convoluted caption is an example of the flimsy arguments white women dredge up to affirm their own innocence when criticized. Unfortunately, we've already seen so much of this in 2021, especially in response to the display of domestic terrorism at the Capitol (which was partly sponsored by a group named Women For America First).
Unsurprisingly, much of the peak white feminism that occurred in the aftermath of the Capitol riots came from self-proclaimed allies. It seems that a key proponent of white feminism is the desire to help … but only if it doesn't require any actual evaluation of the self or the systems that perpetuate oppression.
Karlie Kloss recently (read: finally) came under criticism for her hypocritical comments about the riots and the current administration over all.
Though often we conveniently forget, Karlie Kloss is married to Josh Kushner. Yes, of that Kushner family. Her in-laws are Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who sit at the proverbial right hand of the President.
Yet, despite these very close ties to the current administration, Karlie has managed to remain largely unscathed in the public eye. But this is not a romantic comedy where a likable blonde woman has to navigate her husband's crazy family — this is not The Family Stone. This is real life. And the actions of her in-laws have consequences that she, due to her wealth, race, and proximity, is mostly exempt from actually feeling.
Yet, Karlie Kloss has built her whole brand around activism. So how does this work?
From founding an organization to teach girls STEM, being a vocal #girlboss and #feminist, and yes, posting that black tile on Instagram, Karlie makes sure to remind us that she quit being a Victoria's Secret angel to go to NYU because she's just so, like, passionate about women's empowerment.
But despite all this, the furthest she has gone to speak out against the current administration have been bland social media posts and hashtags. When she made a more direct statement after the Capitol riots, many were quick to point out her hypocrisy.
After being called out for tweeting, "Accepting the results of a legitimate democratic election is patriotic. Refusing to do so and inciting violence is anti-American," and promptly being told, "Tell your sister in law and brother law," Karlie responded with a self satisfied: "I've tried."
But her response did not satisfy anyone else.
karlie kloss has TRIED talking to her in-laws and she will NEVER GIVE UP. that’s why she & josh bought a $23.5 mill… https://t.co/4VRayLgTi6— #3 sisterwife but #1 in his heart (@#3 sisterwife but #1 in his heart) 1609991219
@karliekloss @overdressjen Guess ya didn’t try hard enough bb https://t.co/PNplCPKW7y— ✨ (@✨) 1610143645
Page Six reported that Ivanka Trump was "surprised" by Karlie's claims, going so far as to say that Karlie is political in public, but not so much in private, and one tweet said that Kloss was choosing to "enjoy the privilege that comes from being close to them and feign moral superiority while not even acknowledging the privilege."
People were also quick to point out that Kloss is not just willing to tolerate her in-laws, but has purchased a multi-million dollar home in Florida to live just blocks away from where they, and the current President, will be relocating after the inauguration (and impeachment?).
One of the more prominent people to call out Karlie for her purported attempts was Tavi Gevinson, founder of Rookie Magazine and actress soon to be starring in the Gossip Girl reboot (which I will now be watching).
In an Instagram story, Tavi called out Karlie for having "no real interest in using [her] political power so much as maintaining [her] watery 'feminist' liberal brand while protecting [her] liberal brand." She identified Kloss's actions as more than just the bad decisions of an individual, inconsequential celebrity but part of a culture that minimizes the harm of the current administration and the latent oppressive structures that it reveals.
By her relative silence against the Trump family and administration, Gevinson said Kloss has "help[ed] legitimize their bigotry by branding [them] as simply having different 'political views," dubbing Kloss a "Resistance Barbie" archetype.
In her takedown, Gevinson went deeper than Kloss's shallow white feminism into a critique of not just Kloss herself, but the systems which she helps perpetuate. "Thank you for showing that you can vote blue and still be a white supremacist sympathizer," Gevinson finished.
Tavi, who at the beginning of her career had her own share of criticism about earlier iterations of Rookie's white feminism, used those valid criticisms to transform her platform into a diverse resource for learning, growing, and accountability.
Kloss, despite the direct confrontations about her hypocrisy, has remained silent — both on the internet, and probably to her in-laws, except maybe to plan the interiors of their Mar-a-Lago homes.
The self aggrandizing brand of white feminism has only increased in cultural capital this year as white women applaud themselves for being allies, while doing very little except calling themselves allies. While BIPOC Americans risk being alienated or gaslighted by declaring their politics, white women get to benefit by using them as a virtue signal, a personality trait, or a brand.
Twitter had enough of this when Demi Lovato tweeted that her response to the Capitol riots was … to write a song.
THIS IS WHY I POST AS MUCH AS I DO. THIS IS WHY I CARE. THIS CANNOT HAPPEN ANY FUCKING MORE. I’m angry, embarrassed… https://t.co/WWAtVwVo83— Demi Lovato (@Demi Lovato) 1609989247
While well-intentioned, there are more nuanced ways for musicians to go about political music and Demi's last effort, "Commander in Chief," proved maybe that's not her genre.
With lyrics like "If I did the things you do I couldn't sleep," the song wasn't just bad — filled with easy rhymes and surface level lyricism — but it felt more like an indulgence of the ego rather than an attempt to make a change. Demi was reassuring us, herself, and other lukewarm allies that feeling bad about injustice is enough.
Unfortunately, it's not.
In her recent tweet, she magnanimously inflated the effects of her social media activism, saying, "THIS IS WHY I POST AS MUCH AS I DO..." While Demi has famously used her platform to advocate for social causes, the immediate pivot to saying: "I'm in the studio working on something special after today's assault on democracy," centers her own status as an artist and activist over the larger issues of violence.
White feminism is most guilty of this: diluting down political movements to their personal impacts rather than societal effects. By centering not just white women, but the individual white woman, white feminism ignores the nuances of oppression and the context in which it happens.
Even while claiming to be "woke" or socially conscious, the need to center themselves often derails well-meaning white women into perpetuating the acts of oppression they claim to be against. This compulsion in itself is a symptom of a system which values and protects the innocence and feelings of white women, while using that protective mantle as a form of oppression.
Yet, white women benefit from that innocence in their daily lives — from Lana's misguided conception of herself as a victim of bad feminism while enacting it, or even the "daddy-hat girl/SoHo Karen" calling herself an "innocent child" after assaulting … an innocent Black child.
It's only been two weeks of 2021, and I'm already tired of it. But I'm sure there will be more to come. But until white women address the ways they benefit from the systems they purport to be allies against, I see no end in sight.
From Cardi B to Hamilton to Queen Bey herself, here are ten songs that have inspired and soundtracked the ascensions of female politicians and powerful women of the modern world.
If it wasn't clear from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent Twitter battle with Cardi B and Tomi Lahren, we're living in an era where politicians and musicians have the ability to influence each other on huge scales.
But music has long been a source of inspiration and power, especially for women or other people whose voices have been subjugated or silenced.
In honor of the newest class of women in Congress, and in celebration of women in politics in general, here's a list of ten songs that we think would make the perfect soundtrack to their ascensions, and might even inspire you to follow suit.
1. Cardi B – Best Life
Cardi B - Best Life feat. Chance The Rapper [Official Audio]www.youtube.com
I never had a problem showin' y'all the real me/ Hair when it's messed up, crib when it's filthy/ Way-before-the-de… https://t.co/SdojcZ9olh— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) 1542740838.0
The song's lyrics seem to align with Ocasio-Cortez's approach to communicating with her supporters, which has been radically honest and personal, as she frequently shares developments at work and at home via her Instagram stories. Though she was met with backlash from users who told her to "write intelligibly," Ocasio-Cortez's supporters cheered the reference.
Unabashedly outspoken and proud of their stratospheric rise to the top of their respective fields, Ocasio-Cortez and Cardi B are two women who seem to be on unstoppable paths—while determined to keep it real all the while.
2. Anaïs Mitchell – Why We Build the Wall
Anaïs Mitchell ft. Greg Brown - Why We Build the Wallwww.youtube.com
When folk singer Anaïs Mitchell penned "Why We Build the Wall" in 2006 for her concept album Hadestown, she never imagined that its lyrics—which retell the story of the Greek god of death Hades and his quasi-American capitalist hellscape—would become so relevant.
The song is a call-and-response narrative between Hades and his citizens, who work ceaselessly on a wall in exchange for the economic security that living in Hadestown provides. It contains lyrics like, "The wall keeps out the enemy / and the enemy is poverty / and we build the wall to keep us free / that's why we build the wall." Hadestown, which also tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, is coming to Broadway in the spring of 2019.
This song seems like it would make the perfect satirical rallying cry for Nancy Pelosi, who denounced Donald Trump's request for $5.7 billion to build his wall between the U.S. and Mexico after his speech on January 8th, two weeks in to what would become the longest government shutdown ever.
3. Aretha Franklin – Respect
Aretha Franklin - Respect  (Original Version)www.youtube.com
Aretha Franklin passed away in August of 2018, but her legacy lives on within every woman who ever wanted to be treated with honor and—as perhaps her most iconic song repeats—R - E - S - P - E - C - T. (Hint: that's all of us).
Aretha's unforgettable voice soars above the song's infectious musical backdrop, coalescing to form a track that is alternatingly prideful and enraged, hopeful and world-weary. This song's message seems too vast to be contained to one politician or time period. It's a timeless sentiment that could change the world, if we'd only listen.
4. Ms. Lauryn Hill – Everything is Everything
Lauryn Hill - Everything Is Everythingwww.youtube.com
In June, recently-announced 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris posted a Spotify playlist as a homage to important black musicians of the 20th century. The third song on the playlist, "Everything is Everything" from the iconic The Miseducation of Ms. Lauryn Hill, echoes sentiments that Harris has proclaimed in her own speeches.
Its powerful lyrics, "Sometimes it seems / We'll touch that dream. But things come slow or not at all / And the ones on top, won't make it stop / So convinced that they might fall," seem like they could be a rallying cry for Harris, a politician campaigning on promises of "American values" and "not putting people in boxes."
Hill's message of everything is everything is a beautiful sentiment about the way that all people and all issues are interconnected and cannot be addressed independently, and she has long been a powerful voice for women of color.
Kamala Harris's work as a prosecutor is under scrutiny from leftists everywhere, but judging by her playlist, at least her music taste is up to par.
5. Lin-Manuel Miranda – Satisfied
Female characters take the backseat to the titular protagonist of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, but Angelica Schuyler's Satisfied is a show-stopper in a class of its own. Sung by the sister of Eliza, Alexander Hamilton's wife, it is a flashback to the night that they all met, when Angelica developed feelings for Alexander but decided she needed to set her sights on marrying someone richer.
Angelica, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry in the musical, spits some of the show's fastest bars and hits some of its highest notes in this virtuosic performance, which reveals the extent of her brilliance as well as the extent of her regret at not taking a chance on love.
It might be easy to dedicate this song to Hillary Clinton, whose tenacious determination to win the presidency and refusal to be satisfied with a mere first-ladyship (or Secretary of State position) does belie a similar ambition to Angelica's.
But Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit and social sensibilities, seems similar to some of Congress's outspoken freshmen members, such Ayanna Pressley, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump and many of his policies from her first moments on the House floor, running on the message "Change can't wait" with an urgency evocative of Angelica's intense drive.
6. Taylor Swift – Bad Blood
Taylor Swift - Bad Blood ft. Kendrick Lamarwww.youtube.com
Taylor Swift has had her fair share of beef with other artists, but until 2018 remained staunchly apolitical. But after Swift announced in an Instagram post that she "could not support Marsha Blackburn," the politician lashed out—provoking serious flashbacks to the time that Taylor Swift allegedly attacked Katy Perry over a feud involving backup dancers through her video, Bad Blood.
The stakes were slightly higher in this situation, and Blackburn still snagged the Senate seat in spite of the star's opposition.
"Of course I support women and I want violence to end against women," said Blackburn in response to Swift, who had also written that the politician's "voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies" her. Blackburn has been a supporter of Trump's border wall as well as his efforts to end Obamacare.
7. Questlove's Entire Michelle Obama Playlist
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 1 1964-1979 by Questlove
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 2. 1980-1997 by Questlove
Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 3. 1997-2018 by Questlove
The musician Questlove of the band The Roots has created three 100-song playlists for Michelle Obama's Becoming book tour, and every song is worth putting on repeat. Entitled The Michelle Obama Musiaquology, it is a journey through time (and occasionally, space) filled with mournful, fierce, and empowering tracks—much like the biography it was designed to soundtrack.
Obama's Becoming is more about hope and unity than it is about politics and division, and so are most of the songs in this playlist. An exuberant melding of jazz, pop, and the occasional stylistic outlier, Questlove's compilation elevates voices of joy, pride, black power, and solidarity in an era in desperate need of them. Featuring icons ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Kendrick Lamar, it's a survey of music throughout history that has given hope to those who need it most.
8. MILCK – I Can't Keep Quiet
MILCK - Quietwww.youtube.com
Newcomer MILCK's powerful composition became the anthem of the first Women's March, and since then, the artist has continued to release waves of meaningful music while maintaining a confessional and motivational social media presence.
The vulnerable and passionate song that made her famous could be an anthem for kids like Emma Gonzalez, speaking out against gun violence, and for all the other women who have spoken and will continue to reach out and fight for their beliefs.
9. Against Me! — True Trans Soul Rebel
Against Me! - True Trans Soul Rebel [ALBUM VERSION]www.youtube.com
In the shadows of the Trump administration's ban against transgender people in the military, this song is a reminder that trans people not only exist but will continue to fight.
Transgender politician Christine Hallquist did not win in the general Vermont elections for governor, but she did secure a spot in the 2018 Democratic primaries, the first time a transgender person has been nominated by a major party. And more transgender and LGBTQ people ran and won races in November 2018 than ever before, signaling an upswing of pride in spite of the Trump administration's anti-trans policies.
Against Me!'s True Trans Soul Rebel has long been an anthem for the transgender community, an outcry of pain against a world that constantly threatens them with erasure.
10. Beyoncé – Who Run the World (Girls)
Beyoncé - Run the World (Girls) (Video - Main Version)www.youtube.com
No list of songs for female politicians would be complete without Queen Bey's presence. This song is one of the crown jewels of feminist anthems, with its infectious beat pounding underneath Beyonce's velvety vocals and its iconic refrain. This one goes out to all the future female politicians, including the hopefully soon-to-be first female commander-in-chief.
With that, we welcome the 42 new female congresswomen, celebrate the women who came before them, and encourage all the women and trans people coming after to rise up and sing out. Listen to these songs enough and internalize their messages, and it could be you in those seats someday.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.