In March 2021, Spotify launched EQUAL, a global music program as a part of its commitment to advancing gender equity in music. The initiative aims to celebrate women pushing the envelope and inspiring the next generation of artists, producers, and executives. Each month, Spotify names an EQUAL Ambassador to honor game changers across the industry – as well as curates over 35 EQUAL local, genre-specific and themed playlists, highlighting women artists, globally.
Billboard spoke with three honorees: Manizha, SIMONA and Avril Lavigne, to discuss their musical journeys as women, gender advocacy and equity in the industry, and Spotify’s EQUAL initiative.
The first EQUAL Ambassador of 2022 is a Tajik-Russian artist named Manizha. She is an eclectic indie artist who creates art to confront societal issues like domestic violence, xenophobia, homophobia, and more. Manizha credits music as a guiding light in her life throughout hard times and wants her work to serve others in the same way.
Manizha began her career as a solo artist in 2016 after the release of her debut single, “I Love Too Much.” Her vocal tone is special and her lyrics are powerful, but this journey hasn’t always been easy for Manizha. Women in the music industry are forced into a box and sometimes told they have to act or look a certain way to be successful. Manizha is a true DIY artist and responsible for producing her tracks and creating videos, too.
BILLBOARD: When did you know you wanted to make music for a living?
MANIZHA: I’m not doing music for a living, music is living for me. My family and I experienced terrible circumstances during the war in Tajikistan and had to flee to Russia. It was a horrible time for my family. I was a refugee for more than 15 years and didn’t even have a passport, but music got me through. Using music as therapy helped me find my way.
BILLBOARD: What does being an ambassador of the Spotify EQUAL Program mean to you?
MANIZHA: I’m so excited! It’s such an honor for me to be here, especially now. I had a lot of people who criticized me because I use my art as a platform where I can be honest and speak out about problems in my country, my body, and women in my country. It was a big honor for me to be on Spotify EQUAL Global and it lets me know that I am on the right path. Even when I found out about this interview, I was just so grateful for where I am now.
BILLBOARD: How important is representation across the industry (executives, managers, producers, etc) for young women trying to start careers in music?
MANIZHA: It’s super important because I’m not just a singer. I’m also a songwriter, producer, director, and more. My mom even works with me as a producer. In the earlier days of my career, men in the studio were always surprised to see a woman producing her own tracks, but that feels natural to me. I can execute my vision exactly how I want as a producer. My girlfriends are super-producers and they make incredible music. It’s so important to amplify women in all roles across the industry and that is why Spotify EQUAL is so essential.
BILLBOARD: What is it like working with your mother creatively?
MANIZHA: We are best friends, she’s my everything. She doesn’t treat our relationship like a business and I’m really grateful for that. She reminds me to take breaks, talk to my therapist, and prioritize my mental health. That’s why it’s important to work with people who understand you and love you.
BILLBOARD: Who are three women in music on your personal playlist that you have on repeat?
MANIZHA: Nina Simone, Karen Dalton, and Doja Cat.
Next, Billboard spoke with jack-of-all-trades artist, SIMONA. The Argentinian-born singer, songwriter, and producer, moved to Spain in 2017 to pursue music full-time. Leaning on her relationships with family and friends, SIMONA pulls inspirations for her music from her dearest, as well as life experiences. Earlier this year, she released her debut EP, MIMO, a compilation of the first five songs she ever wrote, accompanied by a self-directed short film. Her single electro-pop single “SHUT UP” was featured on the EQUAL Global playlist.
BILLBOARD: When did you know you wanted to make music?
SIMONA: I started making music for fun when I was 21, but when my friends started to like the songs I was making, I knew I should start to take music seriously. I started recording professionally at 23.
BILLBOARD: You recently released your EP, MIMO. How does it feel to finally have those tracks out in the world?
SIMONA: I feel like I just gave birth to a child. This project is very intimate and personal. These five songs are the first songs that I ever wrote and it’s been a long process producing them. These songs have been written for a while but the sound has changed many times, so I am very happy that MIMO is out now.
BILLBOARD: What does being an ambassador of the Spotify EQUAL Global Program mean to you?
SIMONA: Wow. It’s very important to me. The obstacles women face in this industry impact my career daily, so I am extremely grateful that Spotify has created this space for women in music.
BILLBOARD: If you could give one message to the music industry on how to better support gender equity, what would it be?
SIMONA: More women headliners at festivals! More women in the studio producing, more women at record labels. We need more spaces for women in the industry outside of just being an artist.
BILLBOARD: How important is women representation for young women trying to start careers in the music industry?
SIMONA: I am so thankful to be surrounded by women as my managers, at my label, and involved in my process. The energy and support of other women in various roles across the industry has helped me get to where I am today. Music needs the vision of women.
Last, but certainly not least, is Canadian icon, Avril Lavigne. She became an international star in 2002 with the release of her debut single, “Complicated,” which peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. After a dominant 2000’s run that included six Billboard charting singles and eight GRAMMY nominations, Lavigne took a break from music to focus on her well-being. Newly signed to Travis Barker’s DTA Records, the Ontario native released her seventh studio album, Love Sux, and became an EQUAL Global ambassador earlier this year.
BILLBOARD: What is your experience being a woman in music? What advice can you offer to other women in music?
LAVIGNE: I’ve had a really great experience being a woman in music. I’ve been very fortunate to have been surrounded by a lot of great people from the very beginning and incredibly strong women role models, like songwriter Lauren Christy. One piece of advice I can give other women in music is to believe in yourself, don’t be scared to say no, and trust your gut.
BILLBOARD: What does equity in music mean to you?
LAVIGNE: Equity in music means having your own voice be heard and valued. It means being able to share your vision the way it was meant to be shared without any sort of strings attached.
BILLBOARD: Are you excited to be a part of the EQUAL program and why? What does equal mean to you?
LAVIGNE: I am absolutely THRILLED to be a part of the EQUAL program. I’ve been an artist for 20 years and I love when younger artists come up and tell me how much my music has meant to them because it serves as inspiration for what you can do if you believe in yourself and don’t compromise your vision.
BILLBOARD: One way I’d like to see greater gender equity in the music industry is _____.
LAVIGNE: One way I’d like to see greater gender equity in the music industry is more women on the radio.
Women have played an integral role in the advancement of the music industry, so it is imperative to provide them with spaces and opportunities to be celebrated. Manizha, SIMONA, and Avril Lavigne are all in different phases of the album rollout process and have released some special music this year. Check out their new releases and stay tuned for more from Spotify’s EQUAL Global program.