Grammy award-winning artist Kimbra released an original song to launch the Leave No Girl Behind initiative with the international education nonprofit So They Can on Friday.
The upbeat track shines a spotlight on the changes Kenyan girls want to see in their communities to stop harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) and aims to raise $75,000 to support girls' education.
Kimbra, a New Zealand-born, New York-based artist who made waves after featuring on Gotye’s 2011 single “Somebody That I Used to Know,” isn’t new to supporting humanitarian initiatives in East Africa. After taking several trips to Ethiopia with the organization Tirzah, she jumped at the chance to work on a campaign in the region that specifically targeted women and children and has been a So They Can ambassador since 2013.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, as many as 40% of girls married before the age of 18, and the COVID-19 pandemic is putting millions more at risk. Education can make all the difference –– each additional year of secondary school significantly reduces a girl’s risk for child marriage.
Kimbra hopes Leave No Girl Behind helps drive home the power of schooling to transform a girls’ life.
“I would love for the song to create a feeling of community and motivation in people here in America or wherever the song reaches,” Kimbra told Global Citizen.
“Music has this power to create a feeling of a transcendent moment in us. When we feel transcendent, we often go, ‘Oh, I want to do more. I want to give more. I can love more.’ If music can make you feel that, then you're driven to be like, ‘Let me buy the song, engage with this organization, and maybe sponsor a young girl or give directly to the campaign.’ If I could shift people's perception of what they can do, that would be wonderful.”
When approached with the project, Kimbra wanted to ensure the songwriting process would be a collaborative one. She met with a group of Kenyan schoolgirls impacted by So They Can via Zoom and listened to their stories about the discriminatory traditions and beliefs they have been forced to endure. Many of them shared that their mothers and sisters disowned them after they advocated for themselves and fought against the norms.
Still, the musician couldn’t help but notice the level of joy they emitted.
“That's what shines through in these girls. They're bosses, they’re queens,” she said. ”I wanted to portray their strength and their protest. The takeaway was, we're changing the game, and we need help.”
Rather than create a heartfelt ballad about suffering after reflecting on her conversations with the schoolgirls, Kimbra opted to go in a more uplifting direction. Drawing inspiration from pop star Janet Jackson, she wrote the powerful lyrics “I won’t let you cut into my dignity,” and “I want the choice not to be chosen.”
“These girls are chosen to be brides. They are chosen to receive the dowry in exchange. I wanted to speak to that,” she said of the affirming words she imagined young girls saying to the men trying to control their futures.
Kimbra went back and forth on using the loaded word “cut” to discuss FGM, a practice that affects 8% of girls in East Africa, but ultimately decided not to “dance around the bush” and instead embodied the girls who aren’t shy about speaking up on the sensitive issue.
She also featured the schoolgirls singing a song about God’s gifts from a voice memo she took during one of their meetings.
“When they sing their songs, it's just a young kid that comes out. You wouldn't even believe what they've been through. That was what I wanted to capture — their play,” Kimbra said.
While she acknowledges her privilege as a white woman living in the US and that she will never fully be able to personify the challenges a young African girl faces, her goal was to make them feel heard.
“My main concern was just hoping that they would feel themselves in my lyrics and the way I sang, that they would feel the soul of that,” she said.
For Kimbra, it was imperative to empower the girls she spoke to by showing them how their story could get out and propel change.
“When we speak out and model our freedom, it makes other women realize they can do that,” she said. “I flourished because of the power of other women to break the norm. I'm hoping that with these girls, by modeling it for their community, culture will change and the stories we tell girls will change.”