Grammy Winner Anna Wise Is Trailblazing Feminist Pop
Despite it being a dreary, rainy day, singer-songwriter Anna Wise is all smiles. She’s excited to give a tour of her favorite exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “The Dinner Party,” by Judy Chicago. The room features a large triangular table adorned with 39 porcelain plates, each with a butterfly or vulvar form motif representing a famous woman from history—including Sacajawea, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Virginia Woolf. Wise, a New York–based artist who won a Grammy for her work with Kendrick Lamar, points out that history has let the accomplishments of many famous women slip through the cracks. “The Dinner Party” seeks to address this by celebrating significant women from history. It’s generally described as one of the first epic feminist artworks.
Not unlike Chicago, Wise uses music to push the dialogue of gender equality. Her debut EP, The Feminine: Act I, contains tracks about the stigmas around female sexuality (“BitchSlut”) and about issues in the workplace (“Decrease My Waist, Increase My Wage”). But rather than being pedagogic, Wise’s synth-pop anthems feel exploratory, a genuine inquiry into where our culture went wrong with gender. Vogue.com sat down with the artist at a Mexican restaurant in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to discuss working with Lamar, misogyny in music, and why she decided to start her own label.
How did you decide to pursue singing and songwriting professionally? It sounds really corny, but I never considered what job I would have. Granted, we didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents did work very hard. My dad was a pastor and my mom was a teacher, so that’s not a very high combined income. But they did what they could to provide for us. And I can’t even imagine all the extra hours they worked just to send me to [music] camps. It was that I loved singing so much, I would do it and I have done it no matter who is listening or what’s happening. It’s just the biggest thing that I love on the planet. Music is to me . . . it’s just my religion. It’s everything to me, and it always has been. I grew up naive, thinking, Oh, I’ll be discovered and somebody is going to sign me to a record deal. No. I made my own record label and decided to do everything myself. Because as soon as you sign onto something, people start imposing their ideas on you and then it stops being yours.
That’s pretty bold of you, to go rogue and make your own label. I made my own record label because everyone who wanted to sign me was an old man, and I’m not about to . . . let’s just say I know too much. I just decided to do it, and then it gathered all this attention, including that of Kendrick. He found me and asked me to come work with him, and then we became so close, and I’ve done every album of his since we met: Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, I’m on almost every song; To Pimp a Butterfly, I’m on the single that won a Grammy. And then Untitled, you know? He sees the same thing in me that my parents saw.
A lot of your songs are based on feminism. Why did this feel like such an important subject to tackle? I’ve been getting catcalled since I was 11 years old. I’ve had really inappropriate things happen to me at the hands of older men, and it’s not an anomaly. I don’t have to tell you what happened for every woman reading this interview to be like, “I know exactly what she’s talking about.” It’s about my hunger for knowing why. From the time we’re born, we’re being programmed, and we’re just now breaking that mold where it’s okay for a woman to wear whatever the fuck she wants, act how she wants, be as feminine or masculine as she wants . . . and the same for men. The only difference is that across the world, there are women who are being sold into marriage at, like, 5 years old, and even starting to have children by the time they’re 9. There’s no way that there’s love in that relationship unless they have Stockholm syndrome or whatever and begin to love their abuser. They think they deserve it, or they don’t know any better.
The way that women were forced into these archetypes of being the mother or the whore, that’s all we can be. I just got fed up and started writing about it because I write about what I know, and what I’m thinking about. My goal for humanity would be for us to get to a place where there is no war, there is no bigotry, there is no hatred, racism, misogyny . . . we’re kind to others, we’re kind to ourselves, and we’re kind to the Earth. And I think that starts with empowering women. I do. I think that’s the beginning of it. I think if more women had higher positions and were proud to be women, and whatever type of women they are, we’d be better off.
Obviously, inequality between men and women still exists. But do you think the movement or dialogue around the issue has improved? That’s really hard to say because I live in a slight bubble. When I get together with my friends, it’s all love, and I’ll talk about these things just as openly. And when I go to play shows, I’m not going to get an antifeminist in my audience. I don’t think it’s being spoken about enough. I think it’s being swept under the rug. In terms of the election, I’m actually really glad that these comments that Donald Trump made came out, because people need to know that men do act like that. Men look at women as objects and judge them on the way that they appear. It’s just in them to tear women down. And then when a dude stands up for a woman, they call him gay. And that’s another fucked-up insult, because you’re calling him weak and then associating being gay with weakness. It’s like, what are we so afraid of if we lift up women? What do they think will happen?
I find it interesting that you’re pushing so hard for women’s equality when you work in an industry that is so male dominated. You must experience a lot of what you’re preaching even when you’re just recording and releasing these pro-feminist songs. I saw a really interesting chart that looked at the top seven [music] festivals or something, and I believe it was 87 percent of the acts at these festivals are dudes. The rest are like girl-fronted acts, or there’s at least one girl in the band. And that really only accounted for about 13 percent of the acts that were being booked at festivals. Women are being ignored artistically. If you think back to all of the famous, revered composers in history, they’re all fucking dudes. Women have not been given the same opportunity for whatever reason. For me, I remember I was working with a label when I was doing Sonnymoon stuff, and this one guy, referring to another girl on the label, was like, “She’d be more popular if she lost weight.” I looked at him like, Dude, what the fuck are you talking about? She’s skinnier than I am. Why would someone ever say that to me?
What do you find most frustrating about the way women are treated in the music industry? Something really fucking frustrating is that women are not given credit. Solange, Björk, Grimes—there was this article that came out about them, and they were all like, “I write my own shit. I produce my own shit. And people always give dudes the credit. They say they made my shit and it’s not true.” And so, like, for me to be up onstage, and for people to see me actually queuing my songs and being completely in charge . . . after every show, a girl musician will come up to me and be like, “You’ve really inspired me. I thought I needed a band or a DJ, but I don’t.” We need more women, all-women bands, or women onstage doing their thing.
Do you ever feel vulnerable singing about personal or intimate topics? I don’t feel vulnerable sharing things like that, because I know someone has to share it and put it out there so that people don’t feel alone. Because I think we’re all going through very similar things. We’ve all been in a toxic relationship. Everyone’s been hurt. That song [“Go”] is all about getting through something like that. Some people take on characters in their art, and they never are truly themselves. And I guess I am doing that, or now I’m doing that within the context of the EP. I chose these five characters, these archetypes that I’ve come up with, to describe the feminine experience, which are: the Bride, the Witch, the Business Bitch, the Slut, and the Nun. And these five characters all exist within the EP.
So for “Go,” the music video is this nun basically letting go of the patriarchal aspects of religion. When I was writing that song—it is about a toxic relationship, but not really a person-to-person relationship—I was thinking about just letting go of anything that’s not serving you anymore. Anything that’s taking up too much energy . . . you shouldn’t be doing so much hard work to make a relationship work. Relationships do need work, but it should be as easy as our conversation. It shouldn’t be so forced. I think you have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I still attracted to this relationship that’s so much work?” And also, if you’re in a toxic relationship, you need to ask yourself, “What about me is making me attracted to this person and wanting to stay?”
How would you define success for yourself?
Success to me is being free and freeing other people through my actions, words, and images. If I can provoke someone to a new thought and get them out of this haze . . . there’s a film over everyone’s eyes, over all your senses, of everything that we’ve been programmed to think and feel and do and taste and see and hear. It’s all going through your brain, just processing things based on your own experiences. So if I can cause someone some cognitive dissonance, or have someone thank me for saying it the way I said it . . . like “BitchSlut” is a talking point.
I’ll see these couples, with men behind their women, holding them or holding their hands or making out during my show because they love each other so much and they feel so passionate about what I’m saying, and the dude supports the girl in her feminism. Success to me would be changing the culture and changing the world the way Kendrick has. The way that he put out the most pro-black record of our generation. He performed at the Grammys wearing shackles and freeing himself from jail because black men are more likely to be incarcerated, and he had to share that and say that. To be at the Grammys and watching him and rooting for him and loving what he’s doing—he made it. He got to put his message out on cable TV, not censored. So success is me living a happy life and loving myself and loving my friends and meeting new people like you who understand what I’m saying. We’re just working through our lives to get to a certain point.