Anna Wise is the best Grammy-winning feminist pop singer you’ve never heard of. That’s because she’s inventing a genre that’s never before existed.
The young protege has worked on every one of Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-nominated albums since they met in 2011. When Lamar wanted a gospel sound on “For Free?,” a classically-trained Wise sang it. When he wanted to harmonize on “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” she harmonized.
After a few years singing backup, Lamar invited her to be a featured artist on one of his tracks. Bringing along Bilal and Thundercat for the ride, “These Walls” was born on Lamar’s, To Pimp a Butterfly, crowning Wise with her second Grammy nomination and first win for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2018. Just two years later, Wise graduated from backup vocals to writing Lamar’s verses on “PRIDE.”
In 2017 she confidently tweeted, “Went from singing what Kendrick wrote, to him singing what I wrote,” — completing the proud tweet with a graduation cap.
The track made quite the impact when it dropped on Kendrick’s album DAMN., which won a Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2018.
A Grammy win for any 20-something breakout artist is an impressive feat, but the fact that Wise’s resume includes collaborations with an artist as groundbreaking as Lamar bodes well for the up-and-coming musician. Lamar has been described by both MTV and Forbes as one of the most important artists of the past several years — and for achieving “stratospheric success with a social conscience.”
The Pulitzer Prize committee seems to agree with the partnership between Wise and Lamar. In late May 2018, Lamar became the first rapper to win a Pulitzer for DAMN., which they called a “virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life.”
What Lamar is to African Americans is what Wise is becoming for female audiences. Her music is poignantly powerful and modern; each song masterfully diving into the complicated and contradictory expectations and treatment of women today.
And while her music compilation is striking and effortless to digest, it’s her lyrics that are the true clarion call.
In both her EPs, The Feminine Act I and Act II, Wise starts by dethroning the labels that corner women. “I chose these five characters, these archetypes that I’ve come up with, to describe the feminine experience. They are: the Bride, the Witch, the Business Bitch, the Slut, and the Nun,” she told Vogue.
It’s through these characters that each song explores the problems around the American female experience: from the gender wage gap, the “ideal” body (“Increase My Waist, Decrease My Wage”), contradictory attitudes on female sexuality (“BitchSlut,” “Girl Mother Crone”), and women in the workplace (“Stacking that Paper”).
so they calling you a bitch, calling you a slut,
cause you dressed up, cause you dressed down
cause you said no, cause you slept around…
cause your hairs long, cause you shaved it off
cause you did wrong, can’t erase it
tough — “BitchSlut”
Wise’s “BitchSlut” is by far her most outspoken and biggest hit, commenting on the problem that women are expected to be attractive beings meant to be desired by men… however, they can’t be too easy or enjoy sex too much or they are seen as a slut. Moreover, if a woman rejects a man that desires her, then she must be a bitch.
In this bizarre confluence of expectations and assumptions, women can’t possibly win. Wise seems to ask, are we sluts, or are we bitches?
Though not all Wise’s songs are as confrontational, many raise important questions. Her hit, “Precious Possession” is so lusty and seductive that one is almost unsure if she’s being ironic. Aren’t women supposed to be dainty, pretty, and in need of male protection? Her roundaboutness is an open door to conversation.
The songstress’ work presents an honest portrayal of the most painfully common moments of the feminine experience: slut shaming, catcalling, being bitchy versus ambitious, and the disturbingly common American trauma: sexual assault. However, instead of triggering shame, her complicated subject matter provides relief to listeners by confronting these unpopular subjects in a popularized genre that is often devoid of meaning.
Though much of her subject matter is about women, Wise embodies much larger ideas than herself and explores other avenues of change in her singing. In “Self On Fire” Wise raises the international issue of child marriage, and, in “Balance In All” she calls us to embrace and protect the beauty of our earth.
Despite these contentious topics, Wise is full of hope.
In her most recent single, “Coconuts,” Wise invites listeners of all walks of life to join her, while a dreamy seascape alludes to changing tides.
I can feel the distance growing between what you’re told
and what you’re thinking
All the governors of status quo know that they’re old
that ship is sinking
Go for it
You know when we’re together
there’s nothing that we can’t do — “Coconuts”
“Coconuts” is an invitation to peace — a divided nation to come together and let go of all the thinking that is destructive to each other.
Wise’s message is one of self love and a love for everyone else — a destruction of hate. “I believe in equality of the sexes, but I’m also a huge believer of equality for everyone,” she says. “So I tried to write something that I felt was true to all my desires for intersectional love.”
And she did. And we’re loving it.
Courtney is a writer, blogger, and ocean lover. When she’s not working as a marketing professional you can find her in the surf in Orange County, California. Keep up to date on new writing at www.courtprather.com.