Establishing an identity for yourself as an artist can be tricky. There’s thousands of musicians out there vying for attention, and it’s even more difficult for those who fall outside the “traditional” boxes of marketability. But a new generation of artists is looking to make their mark while staying true to themselves and using their unique cultural differences to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
As part of our educational Song Start series, Spotify sat down with artists Hayley Kiyoko, Ingrid Andress, Abir, and Faouzia to learn more about how each woman approaches weaving her own identity and unique perspective into her music.
“Brand identity is such an important thing to have,” said Moroccan-American singer Abir. “Once you have it, you unlock everything because you do everything with that in mind.”
Faouzia, who was also born in Morocco and grew up in Canada, recalled struggling to define herself as an artist early on and having to embrace being labeled by her audience.
“Whether you realize it or not, when you think of an artist, you're gonna associate certain words and certain themes and a certain look to them,” she said. “I think that's important because they create their own little world as they grow as an artist. And as you grow as a songwriter, your world grows.”
Both women said that at one point they made a decision to weave their heritage into their music, despite not having a roadmap for success for women like them.
“It’s such a big part of what I do now, and it's something that I made a conscious decision [about]. I always want to stand for something and I wanna be me, unapologetically,” said Abir. “When you are so loud and unapologetic about who you are, it rubs people the wrong way regardless, so you can't be disruptive and expect everyone to just be all smiling and giggly.”
Faouzia has embraced the challenge, hoping to be the blueprint she didn’t have growing up.
“I didn't have any Moroccan pop girls to look up to or anything,” she said. “It's so cool that we can be that and pave that road. I feel like it's a little more difficult because it hasn't been paved and because there's still so much work to be done. But it's so fun.”
Hayley Kiyoko had her own struggles with incorporating her identity into her music. As a queer woman, she started off her career shying away from using pronouns that would give away her true feelings.
“I spent so much time masking who I was and protecting who I was,” she said. “So I’d get into a room and I’d say, ‘This is how I feel, but I’ma switch this and switch this and turn this key so that nobody knows how I actually feel.’”
She recalled having a breakthrough moment when another songwriter asked her what she was most afraid to sing about.
“I was like, ‘Oh is that what I’m supposed to do, is actually tell you the truth?’” she explained. “I had spent so much time doing ‘you’ and ‘he.’ I’ve been loving women since I was five, so that really helped me find my purpose as an artist. I don’t understand why it takes us so long [to realize] that our biggest strengths as human beings are our challenges, our goals, our dreams, the things we want to change. That’s what makes us so unique.”
All three women have found their places in the worlds of pop and indie music, but some genres are more dominated by tradition than others. Country singer Ingrid Andress has faced many barriers as a woman in the Nashville scene.
“There is a lot of tradition, and it was really tough trying to fit in at first because I was met with so much resistance,” she said. “Like, ‘You need to wear a bra. You need to present yourself as more feminine.’ I realized that the genre was only speaking to a very small portion of what most Americans feel like. I believe country music should be talking about what’s happening in the country.” Andress has found success by making her own niche, eschewing the gender presentation foisted upon her by the music industry on songs like “Lady Like.”
Speaking with Andress, Kiyoko noted how their experiences embracing their different identities pointed to an overarching theme in the music industry. “I think we both are very different, but we both have similar experiences of [being told], ‘Here’s the box, here are the rules, and you only can do this if you want to succeed,’” Kiyoko said. “That’s how I feel about the world and just being who I am and loving who I love is being [able] to expand that box. And if you can’t change it, creating a new box.”
With the push to create something unique and present authenticity, however, artists can sometimes get caught up in telling a story that’s not theirs. Cultural appropriation has become a thorny topic in the music industry, but Abir and Faouzia said the best way to stay on the right side of criticism was creating with genuine intentions and involving the right people at the right steps of the process.
“If someone is really, truly appreciating another culture’s music, then it really shows,” Faouzia said. “You can tell when somebody has been just like immersed in it or dived into that whole world, and they've really just wanted to share something that they found so special. And I think that's great.”
Abir suggested collaboration as a way to explore new perspectives and expand your horizons.
“Collaborating with artists or musicians from that culture and from that region is a good way to show their appreciation,” she suggested. “Especially because they're going to give you the most authentic things, so it's not done in a way that seems appropriated. I think make sure to keep people from that specific culture or region in mind when you're collaborating.”
Ultimately, all four women said staying true to yourself and your roots is the best way to create moving art that speaks across cultures and helps you carve your own unique lane in the industry. “The times you’re most vulnerable, that’s where the magic is,” Kiyoko said. “When you’re pushing yourself to be most vulnerable as an artist.”
To hear more from these four artists, listen and watch their Song Start episodes below: