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News > Culture

Being a Black Woman in the Americas: Feminist Artists Speak Up

  • The talented members of Pretty Big Movement, the dancing crew changing stereotypes in the dance industry in New York.

    The talented members of Pretty Big Movement, the dancing crew changing stereotypes in the dance industry in New York. | Photo: Courtesy of Pretty Big Movement

Published 23 February 2017

Feminist artists across the Americas talked to teleSUR about their struggle to earn a space to create their art and empower women. 

For Black History Month, teleSUR spoke to four Black female artists about their work and some of the struggles they have faced in order to gain recognition for their art. 

1. Pretty Big Movement (United States)

Pretty Big Movement is a professional dance troupe for plus-size women, which works to push back against unrealistic body expectations and prove that the size of a woman's body does not define her ability to dance or perform. teleSUR spoke to founder Akira Armstrong about why she started the troupe and why it is important, particularly for Black women. 

Could you tell us more about yourself and how the idea of Pretty Back Movement came to you?

I came up with the idea of Pretty Big Movement in 2008 after I came back from Los Angeles, to New York, where I was just doing two music videos with Beyoncé, and when I was out there I actually came across a lot of rejection when it came to auditions, and trying to get representation from dance agencies, which kinda frustrated me and infused me to start my own thing.

So I came back to New York City, I just had this idea of creating a plus-size dance company because there was no platform for us in mainstream media. So I started holding auditions, finding more girls, and that’s how it started, originally with just two other girls who are still with me, and right now we are eight members.

Do you also accept men? Or non-Black women?

I went through a transition of members, with people leaving, new members coming, and now PBM is very diverse, I have Black, Hispanic, Irish, white, it’s a multicultural movement —which I wanted eventually because I wanted to be relatable to women from other ethnicities. If I can find me an Asian plus size girl, an Indian thick girl, I want all of that.

Not men yet! We need something for us! Eventually, I’m still kinda toiling with the decision of whether or not I wanna put up some plus-size men but for me, it’s all about women empowerment, and I feel that as women we don’t really have a voice to express ourselves, especially plus-size women.

However, our workshops are opened to all, men, lesbians, gays, Black, white, Spanish, Indian, it is opened to everybody. Because at the end of the day, even if you’re not a professional dancer, sometimes people just wanna move and feel good, and even if they are heavy, they just want a place where they can just express themselves.

Despite being one of the very rare artists hiring plus-size dancers like you in a couple of videos, Beyoncé has actually been quite criticized for representing only a (slim) type of Black beauty. And despite starring in two Beyoncé’s video clips, the dancing and music industry was still not taking you seriously.

Exactly. Doing a gig with Beyonce still did not matter because people would just not understand how to market me and they did not believe that plus-size women like me would be able to either fulfill the job and judged me on the fact that I was heavy and not able to have the stamina to continue the gig and do it. There was a lot of judgement, you know, you go to these auditions and you get typecasted, and a lot of people just judge you on how you look and for me I had to deal with that a lot in my dance career, number one because I am short, I am only 5 feet, and also heavy. So you know, I could have slimmed down just to fit the mold that people wanted me to be, but I just chose not to because I wanted to stay true to who I was.

Even Beyoncé herself, like you said, she gains five more pounds and everyone's like “Oh my god Beyoncé is fat now.” I think people in society have been brainwashed over many, many years. It’s just very unfortunate that people look at you and judge you and automatically think that “you can’t do,” which I think is very unfair. There’s a lot of plus size dancers that I know who are professional dancers. I am classically trained, ballet, I know how to tap, West African, modern jazz, grime, hip hop. The only thing I can’t do is poppin' and lockin' —and still I can mimic that!

Since the movement was created nine years ago, what have you accomplished to change people’s mentalities? How did people perceive the initiative?

We did America’s got Talent, in front of 6 billion viewers. What’s amazing is that still being on that platform, we were still being criticized, like “you’re not big enough” in terms of size, while in our everyday life we hear “you’re too big!” So we were like, where do we fit? Are we too big, not big enough? You’re never gonna please this world just breaking this barrier in the mainstream media. And it’s really not about size to me, it’s really about the talent and what the person has to offer, and we have a lot to offer.

We do empowerment circles and workshops. We invite other women to be part of what Pretty Big does, so it’s so many components. It’s beyond dance. I just happen to be a plus-size girl from the Bronx, NYC, who has a story, and I just want to fulfill my dreams and involve other women because I know that there are other women with the same struggles, the same plight, but they just did not have that platform.

Now I am working on a new project, "Pretty Big Monologues," my first theater production. It’s about the core members of my company. We’re touching on social issues in a very transparent way such as bulimia and physical abuse, verbal abuse, depression suicide, plus-size women relations with men, or their experience, in the dancing industry, and a whole lot. It will involve some dancing. It’s an uplifter and it will definitely empower and inspire other women who are going through the same experience.

What would you like to say to other plus-size dancers and artists facing prejudices around the world?

I am just at a point where I just want to continue to inspire young girls and women and men and children to live out their dreams. It may sound like a cliché, but as long as you stay true to who you are and love yourself, be kind to yourself, don’t put too much pressure on yourself – because we deal with enough pressure as it is in the world – so for me it’s just about finding that balance.

2. Feminine Hi Fi (Brazil)

Photo: Jean Pisichio

Feminine Hi Fi is a collective of female reggae artists in Brazil, who have banded together to demand respect for their work in a white, male-dominated industry. 

How did this feminist sound system emerge in Brazil, and why did you feel it was necessary to open a space for female fans of reggae?

"Feminine Hi Fi was born in March 2016 around International Women's Day. We wanted to create a space of empowerment for Selectors (or DJs, in the reggae culture), Singjays and Toasters (Singers). The four founders —Layla Arruda (Singjay), Dani I-Pisces, Andrea Lovesteady and Renata Rude Mama (Selectors)— have all been into soundsystems for about 10 years. So we created a unique event in 2016, and the response was huge, it made us realize that there was a real demand here. That's also when we really realized the lack of space for women like us.

We don’t consider Feminine Hi Fi as a closed collective. This project is a space for all, but the four producers supervise the work and put it together. For each edition, we look for about 15 women, and give them a space to show their art.

What do you feel you have achieved so far?

Our work paid off. We’ve received many more invitations to produce in other parties. One of us is currently working on a project for Reggae Sound System with people under 24-years-old. She was on of the two people selected in the whole country. We also have a label aimed only for women (music producers or singers), called Feminine Hi Fi Tunes, whose first release was dropped in December 2016, with my song "Loba Leoa (Rugido Ecoa)." Our objective is to keep on promoting educational activities in music and composition, as well as building a Sound System of its own, since today we have partnerships (usually with male members).

Could you tell us more about your experience as a Black woman in Brazil and in the sound system culture?

Brazil is still an extremely racist country. In my opinion, the worst expression of racism is disguised, omitted, but lived and felt daily by the Black communities. The majority of the Black population is underemployed, so it can't access education.

Unfortunately, the Reggae scene of Sound Systems has not been different. Brazil is a specific case: reggae here, unlike Jamaica, is very white, at least the selectors and singjays. But we live the Reggae culture of Sound System without stage, our feet in the ground, mostly in the streets in the ghetto.

The state of Maranhão may be an exception, as it was the gateway to reggae in Brazil in the 1970s with a stronger reggae scene. The whole —mostly Black— population of all generations listens to reggae, unlike other parts of Brazil. There, Sound Systems are called "Radiolas."

We understand some of our white friends in this culture have the best intentions. Still, Black representation for a Black root culture is not equated either. That’s why, with Feminine Hi Fi, we are also focusing on a fairer representation of Black women. Today we are a space for affirmative action, multiethnic opportunities, learning and empowerment.  

What is your position on the recent controversy of white women in Brazil accused of cultural appropriation for wearing African headwraps?

I think that here in Brazil white people like to enjoy Black music and culture, but when it comes to running a job, when it comes to dealing with the repressive police, nobody wants to be Black. When it comes to relating sentimentally, men and especially white men don't want to relate to Black women. They don't want to introduce her to their family. They just want her for sex. Black women are viewed as a sexual object, like the remnants of the colonial period, when Black women had to give not just domestic, but also sexual services.

3. Nikki Giovanni (United States)

Poet Nikki Giovanni, born in Tennessee in 1943, is one of the most famous Black poets who reached prominence during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was also a prominent civil rights activist and have been teaching at the faculty at Virginia Tech since 1987.

How do you conceive your role in society as a Black poet? How did poetry impose itself as a privileged mean to convey your message?

Poems have been the storytellers since the beginning of time. “In the beginning was the word,” which we must remember. I am a storyteller who tells my stories in poetry. Others do the same with food and drink, with painting, with clothing. All artists express themselves, I believe, through the mediums of their art. We all try to say something about the world in which we live as well as the world we hope to help become.

Could you tell me more about your poem "Ego Tripping": the pride of being a Black woman, the importance of celebrating it in the 1970s? Did the poem become a rap under your initiative?

"Ego Tripping" follows the evolution of the Black woman. I truly enjoyed finding the beginning of Earth itself through the journey of the Black woman. It's an ego-trip and well worth the journey.

I did not collaborate with the song or the television for any other form. I’m happy and proud that others have used this as a base, but all I did was write a poem. I’m so glad others found it useful.

As a Black activist from the civil rights movement, how do you perceive the evolutions and achievements of the Black movement in the United States, especially Black Lives Matter?

Black Lives Matter is a great organization simply because it is not an organization. Were it more “organized,” by now most of the leadership would have been murdered. We’ve seen that before. These are great, brave people who are helping to change how America looks at itself. They must be very proud of themselves. Unlike white people’s KKK, they do not hide under hoods in the middle of the night to kidnap and kill young boys or to put bombs in churches to blow up young women or lie about their part in standing up for what is right. We all should be very proud of Black Lives Matter not only because Black lives do matter, but because of the courage these young folks have in taking a stand.

4. Arianna Puello (Dominican Republic / Spain)


Dominican rapper Arianna Puello made a career in hip-hop in Spain, where she moved when she was 8. She was nominated twice at the Latin Grammy Awards with her last album “Despierta,” and has just released a new record “RAP KOMUNION” with her independent label Entucuello Record.

The 11 tracks count with the collaborations with young artists from México, Chile, Spain, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic y Colombia.

“In my last album, the song “Cambiemos el Mundo,” or “Let’s Change the World” has a Colombian version with the foundation Familia Ayara, and a Mexican version called “La Victoria Emergente,” as part of a project meant to fight juvenile delinquency called “Raperos por la Paz.”

What has been your experience with racism?

In 1986, I was part of the first generation of Latinos or Afro-Latinos that was arriving in Catalonia, Spain. I experienced the ignorance of the people. They viewed me as a weird animal, while there was also clearly racist people, trying to take you down. It was tough, but it made me very tough too. I fought racism for a long time in Spain. Rap helped me to go through this experience, to raise awareness around this issue in society.

What has been your experience with sexism?

Of course I faced twice as much discrimination as a Black woman. How many men have refused to listen to me, just for being a woman? How many media outlets have criticized me for saying all the things I was saying? So many examples illustrating that racism is still strong in Spain.

For instance in the hip hop scene, the female hip hop has not evolved as I was expecting, but eventually a bunch of young rappers just came out talking sheer nonsense, in my opinion, and this completely put an end to feminine hip-hop in Spain. No major MC has emerged since my generation – like Mala Rodriguez in the 1990s – and unfortunately what I see in festivals, in the media, is only male-dominated. Either because men have fought to keep power 100 percent, or because of women, for their social condition as oppressed victims. To be honest, I would like to know why feminine hip-hop in Spain has not evolved because I feel concerned. Since I left Spain, I am not following much what is going on there anymore. Still, I know that women are not given the importance they should be given in hip hop.

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