We should all listen to Noname

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The first time I heard Noname was on Chance the Rapper’s song “Lost” off his mixtape, Acip Rap. Ever since, I’ve been enthralled by the way her soothing voice spins together intimate stories of growing up on the west side of Chicago with thoughtful reflections on gender, race, violence and politics evident on  her 2016 album Telefone and 2018 album Room 25.

Last week, Spotify released their “Wrapped” end of year summaries, offering us all the chance to see the way that the thousands of minutes we’ve devoted to music have been spent. Since it revealed that Noname was the only female artist in my top 5 most listened to artists, I’ve been thinking about other reasons why I feel such a connection to Noname’s music.

In addition to being a talented rapper, heavily influenced by her background as a slam poet, I think it also boils down to the fact that she’s a talented female rapper.

In the same way that being from the same area as Chance the Rapper and Louis the Child causes us to flock to their concerts, having the ability to connect with an artist through an aspect of their identity is powerful.

In an industry that’s dominated by men where women are objectified, exploited, sexualized, and underrepresented, Noname is someone I can connect to.

Don’t get me wrong. Every morning, you can catch my brother and me listening to Travis Scott’s “Houstonfornication” on full, bass-boosted blast at 6:30 am on the way to school.

But I’d be lying if I denied ever feeling frustrated with a genre that’s known for being a platform for disenfranchised voices and an outlet for cultural activism but whose industry and audiences consistently reject female rappers.

Sure, there’s Cardi B. or Nicki Minaj. But even they’re caught in petty feuds, chucking shoes at each others’ heads as if there’s only one single spot for a woman to dominate in hip hop.

There’s a pervasive illusion that the success of one must come at the expense of the other, which would explain why women have remained in marginalized roles in the music industry.

After releasing her album Room 25 this October, Noname has received ubiquitous critical acclaim but moderate at best and lackluster at worst support, a phenomenon noted by many other talented female artists including Princess Nokia and Rhapsody. And it’s made me think about the factors that influence what artists we listen to.

If you think about what actually determines music taste and consumption, there’s a questionable amount of “free will” involved and that it’s mostly determined by our environment and repetition.

This encompasses our families and friends, but it also includes pre-existing cultural biases swaying the industry and the music streaming companies who are incentivized to maximize their profits by promoting certain artists guaranteed to make them money.

The sexism sewn deeply into the fabric of the music industry rears its head in so many complicated, multifaceted ways that can often feel distant and outside the boundaries of our control. While our tastes may be affected by other influences, we are ultimately the ones with the power to stream or not to stream.

A principle called the “mere exposure effect,” describes the way people develop preferences for stimuli that they are repeatedly exposed to. This means that we can change our music tastes by stepping outside of our comfort zones and exposing ourselves to new music.

In the largely homogenous music landscape that doesn’t just exclude talented female rap artists like Noname, but anyone whose identity deviates from the status quo, it’s up to us to extricate ourselves from the sexism pervading the music industry and seek out new artists beyond those that the invisible hand of Spotify algorithms guides us towards.

In today’s iteration of the music industry, our attention and streams are what enables these artists to keep making good music that will diversify the hip hop landscape. Not only will listening to them do that, but it will also enable us to discover new music that will enrich our lives.

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