Revolutionary Women of Music: Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program.

This morning on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019, I woke up to Lizzo’s “Juice” stuck in my head. Off to a good start, I continued my morning routine while Carly Rae Jepsen, Cherry Glazerr, Rico Nasty, and Dream Wife – amongst others – shuffled and played on my Spotify playlist. As Tacocat’s “Hey Girl” came on, it hit me, why aren’t we talking more about the women that have pioneered not just music as a whole, but have used their platform as artists and musicians to promote social, political, and cultural change? Of course, there are the greats we all know, but what about Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew? For this week’s post, I will share a portion of the activist efforts of these women.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, was a notable African American jazz, R&B, and gospel singer and songwriter, as well as a civil rights activist. While Simone initially aspired to become a concert pianist, her desire for social and political justice led her down a different path. Gaining mainstream success from her debut album Little Girl Blue, her song “Mississippi Goddam,” inspired by the racism that plagued (and continues to plague) the United States, propelled her to the forefront of the civil rights movement. For the rest of her career, Nina Simone spoke and performed at civil rights meetings and protests. Her political activism never disappeared from her music, and her desire for justice continued up until her death in 2003. For more on Simone’s life please see autobiography I Put a Spell on You (1991).

Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said on July 3, 1957, was a British woman of color and the frontwoman of the punk band X-Ray Spex. Styrene started the band after running a local news ad that stated she was looking for “Young punx who want to stick it together.”[i] As a result, X-Ray Spex was born and so was the beginning of their critique on capitalism which would last for their entire career. Styrene questioned bondage in every aspect of the word. Whether it was sexual, social, political, capitalist, or other, she would deconstruct the entire system with her singing. As Maria Raha states in Cinderella’s Big Score (2005) “amid all the jubilant chaos, they were able to provide a solid, relevant social commentary.”[ii] Styrene continued to promote listeners to fight back until her untimely death from metastasized breast cancer on April 25, 2011. Please see Cinderella’s Big Score for more information about Poly.

Valerie Agnew, born January 13, 1969, was the drummer of the Seattle based Riot Grrrl feminist-punk band 7 Year Bitch. Agnew was a longtime friend of The Gits singer Mia Zapata. While 7 Year Bitch’s lyrics are so incredibly politically charged, it wasn’t until the rape and murder of Zapata that Agnew’s platform as a musician and as an activist came to a head. Agnew, alongside fellow feminist punks, formed the Home Alive collective in the mid-90s. The collective – still around to this day – strives to provide affordable self-defense courses for women and members of the LGBTQ community. Punk-feminists were sick of seeing the people that they cared for become victims to such violent crimes, and Agnew stood up and said that enough was enough. Since the formation of the collective, people have continued to utilize the educational tools that they have learned and that their website now provides. While Agnew is only one of the founders, she and 7 Year Bitch stick out for their unapologetically anti-patriarchy songs such as “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and “M.I.A.”

Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are only three of the hundreds of women that have used their platform to question injustices, capitalism, and the patriarchy. For the sake of time and length, I have chosen these three because of their impact on me personally. While they all reside in different genres of music, the three of these women have their determination towards social, cultural, and political activism in common. On this International Women’s Day (as well as the entirety of Women’s History Month), I encourage you all to look at women who have started a revolution through music, and how big of an impact music can have when women such as Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are at the frontlines.


[i] Maria Raha, Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground, (California; Seal Press: 2005), 86.
[ii] Raha, 89.

Brooklyn Screening of Afro-Punk

SUNDAY, MAY 30 at BOOKTHUG NATION

100 N. 3rd St., Brooklyn // 7pm // FREE

For the Birds Collective & POC Zine Project present a screening of AFRO-PUNK

Several of us at RE/VISIONIST will head over to Williamsburg, Brooklyn this Sunday to check out a free screening of the film, Afro-Punk.  POC Zine Project will be providing snacks and zines for all!  We hope to see you there!

From the film’s website: Afro-Punk, a 66-minute documentary, explores race identity within the punk scene. More than your everyday, Behind the Music or typical “black history month” documentary this film tackles the hard questions, such as issues of loneliness, exile, inter-racial dating and black power. We follow the lives of four people who have dedicated themselves to the punk rock lifestyle. They find themselves in conflicting situations, living the dual life of a person of color in a mostly white community. Continue reading

International Girl Gang Underground

As you may have guessed from this post, the intersections of grassroots feminisms and music are really important to me. As a woman musician, I find do-it-yourself modes of production in music, writing, art, and media in general crucial not only to my own creative control, but also to the circulation of marginalized and/or dissenting voices.

As a participant in feminist cultural production, I have been worried by the lack of documentation about what creative women are doing now. Continue reading