Spotify created EQUAL — a global initiative aiming to amplify the work of women artists across the world. Spotify users can access the EQUAL Hub and explore the creations of women from more than 180 markets including Africa, Italy, and Argentina. The EQUAL Hub also features playlists celebrating women songwriters and producers. Uplifting women in all facets of the music industry is crucial to the advancement of gender equity because representation becomes the inspiration for the next wave of women in music. For the third installment of Worldwide Women, Billboard spoke with two iconic artists – Simi and Zoheb Hassan on behalf of the dearly departed Nazia Hassan – about their journeys as artists, gender equity in the industry, and Spotify’s EQUAL Program.
Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Simi is an award-winning singer, songwriter, and sound engineer. She found her voice as a young woman singing in a music group at her church, but it wasn’t long before Simi made her way to a professional studio to start working on solo projects. Her highly anticipated sophomore album, Simisola, was released in 2017 and peaked at number five on the Billboard World Albums Chart. Simi is one of the pioneering forces behind Nigeria’s Afropop wave and recently released an album, TBH (To Be Honest), which included her EQUAL-featured standout single “Naked Wire.” Billboard spoke to Simi about her new album, representation in music, and her involvement with EQUAL.
BILLBOARD: What has your experience been like as an ambassador for the Spotify EQUAL Global Music Program?
SIMI: I feel honored. Speaking out about how the industry treats women is something I’ve always been really passionate about, so this feels symbolic to me. It’s been surreal so far.
BILLBOARD: You recently released a project TBH (To Be Honest), how do you feel now that it is out?
SIMI: I truly feel like a burden has been lifted off my back because I’ve been working on this album for 3 years! I knew what I wanted the album to be about thematically but I took a long time trying to figure out how I wanted it to sound. I had to A&R this project myself so I’m very attached to the project. It was so exciting to get the project out there especially after hearing feedback from my fans. I think the listeners saw what I was trying to do, but I really just wanted to prove a point and show my range as a creative.
BILLBOARD: If you could give one message to the music industry on how to better support gender equity, what would it be?
SIMI: Just do it! It’s hard out here for women and we have to fight for everything. Even when we get our foot in the door, we have to keep fighting to stay in there. I feel a lot of pressure as a woman in the industry to look and move a certain way. We’re just trying to win, so just give us the space and platform to shine.
BILLBOARD: How important is women representation across the industry (executives, managers, producers, etc) for young women trying to start careers in music?
SIMI: Seeing women in the industry when I was still trying to find my way was extremely important to me. It made me feel like I can do it too. As a sound engineer and producer, I hear young women tell me all the time that they didn’t think women could be in this space. I want to continue paying it forward to young women and helping inspire the next generation.
BILLBOARD: What can we expect from Simi in the future?
SIMI: I’m announcing a tour soon and releasing a deluxe version of my album! The deluxe is going to be more relaxed and collaborative, so I’m excited to get that out as well.
Nazia Hassan was a Pakistani singer/songwriter, lawyer, and social activist. Hassan’s singing career spanned over 15 years, where she spent time working with her brother as part of the duo Nazia and Zoheb. The legendary sibling duo sold over 65 million records and toured across the world, breaking barriers for today’s Pakistani pop stars. Before Nazia and Zoheb, there was no pop music presence in Southeast Asia, but the scene was forever changed after the release of Nazia’s iconic album, Disco Dewanee. Although Nazia passed in 2000, she will always be remembered as one of the most influential Pakistani artists. Hassan has over 460,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and her family continues working in her community through the Nazia Hassan Foundation. Spotify is honoring Nazia’s legacy by featuring her as an ambassador on the Spotify EQUAL Global Playlist. Billboard spoke to Nazia’s brother and singing partner Zoheb about Nazia’s career, legacy, and the Spotify EQUAL Program.
BILLBOARD: What does it mean to your family to see Nazia Hassan represented as an ambassador of Spotify EQUAL?
ZOHEB: It’s a great honor to have her named the Global Ambassador of this campaign, especially being from Pakistan. Artists from Pakistan don’t typically receive accolades like this, so it’s a great thing for the country as well. Nazia has always been a role model for a lot of women in Pakistan and I think her fans would be thrilled.
BILLBOARD: Nazia was a social activist and used her platform to fight for positive change in the world. How do you think she would feel about being a part of the Spotify EQUAL program?
ZOHEB: Throughout her entire career, Nazia donated the majority of her royalties to people in need. I had no idea she was doing this until she passed. So many people reached out to me and thanked me for Nazia’s contributions over the years. All she ever wanted to do was help people, so I think being a part of Spotify EQUAL would have meant the world to her. She was incredibly passionate about inspiring the next generation.
BILLBOARD: Tell us about Nazia’s influence on the South Asian pop music scene?
ZOHEB: When Nazia and I started releasing music together, it was the first time that kids in our region were exposed to pop music. When you’re young, you want to hear dance beats. The youth of Southeast Asia (India Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc) finally got a taste of pop music, something they could identify with. I think it really opened the flood gates and after we released Disco Dewanee, everyone in the subcontinent was releasing dance music.
BILLBOARD: How do you and your family continue to keep Nazia’s legacy alive?
ZOHEB: We do a lot of work with Nazia’s foundation which focuses on helping young kids across the world. Every year we sponsor kids for education and provide over 15,000 meals for children in need. Wherever kids need help, we are trying to do whatever we can.
BILLBOARD: Who were some of Nazia’s favorite women in music?
ZOHEB: Nazia loved Barbara Streisand and Whitney Houston.
Spotify continues to be at the forefront of advancing gender equity in music, but the entire industry must do more for women. Check out this month’s EQUAL Global Playlist and stay tuned for more from Billboard and Spotify.