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Recovering and reclaiming Black women's place in music history

Maureen Mahon's <em>Black Diamond Queens</em>, Danyel Smith's <em>Shine Bright</em> and Daphne Brooks' <em>Liner Notes for the Revolution</em> celebrate Black women's role in popular music.
NPR
Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, Danyel Smith's Shine Bright and Daphne Brooks' Liner Notes for the Revolution celebrate Black women's role in popular music.

In her forthcoming book, Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop, Danyel Smith writes, "Who else but a Black woman would lead me, or at least take me on trial runs?"

That question is an acknowledgement of the countless Black women who have shifted and shaped American popular music, and whose influence on Smith makes up the subject of Shine Bright. This path she describes is one that positions the music not just as entertainment, but as an integral part of Smith's life and kinship with other Black women. "I feel a commonality with women who try to make things, women who are loud, women who say things, women who write things, [who] talk about themselves, sing about themselves," Smith says in an interview with NPR. "I feel in league with them."

Smith has, in her own way, been leading others down that path for over 30 years, in her work as a writer and editor for several publications, including Vibe and Billboard, and currently as the host of the podcast Black Girl Songbook, a show that Smith says, "exists to give Black women the credit that we deserve." Shine Bright, which releases on April 19, is part memoir, part history of musical icons like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, but it also shines light on some of music's more unheralded figures like The Dixie Cups and Deniece Williams. "One of the best parts about writing Shine Bright was to merge the memoir with the biography," Smith says. "I feel very much [that I don't want] to explain things to anyone, I want to share with them — my joy, and facts and details about these women."

Smith's book comes amid the recent release of several other books written by Black women celebrating Black women in music, including Daphne Brooks' 2021 book Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound and Maureen Mahon's 2020 book Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll. The path Smith mentions has never been a smooth one, and it's one where names and histories are often obscured. But the work of uncovering, recovering and remembering that these books provide is vital. Not just for music lovers (though who couldn't be persuaded by the promise of new sounds?) but for those who see the faded lines where someone once stood, their shape quietly erased over the years.

It's hard to know when the erasure starts, but it could be like this: Mamie Smith recording "Crazy Blues" in 1920. Through the soft, shuffling scratches of needle to delicate 78, you can hear the start of big business. This wasn't just a song; this was the beginning of an industry. This wasn't just the first recorded blues hit; this was how it all began: the recordings, the marketing, the images. The genre's first star was a Black woman. In her landmark 1971 book, The Music of Black Americans: A History, musicologist Eileen Southern writes that sales of the record "soon began to break all records, selling at more than 7500 discs a week."

Mamie was a star. And more than that, her record proved, without a doubt, that there was real hunger for Black music. Scores of singers followed — Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter — each turning the blues into a genre that, for a short time, was dominated by Black women. But by the end of the 1920s, the stars of the industry were shifting. Men would soon become the big names, while the women became a part of history, that forgotten part, that overlooked part — pioneers turned footnotes. "There's this process where forgetting happens, or [these artists are] not remembered as fully as they might be," says Mahon, whose 2020 book is a scholarly remembrance focusing on the Black women who have been both celebrated and overlooked in rock music. Through her detailed history, women like Betty Davis, Big Mama Thornton and Labelle are given belated but well-earned praise, and Mahon calls attention to the tendency of mainstream media to ignore the Black roots of the genre, leaving the music these women created to be regarded as something other, something outside, something not quite rock.

But as Mahon notes, being present and being fully acknowledged are radically different things. Even Mamie Smith couldn't escape the process Mahon describes. After a string of releases throughout the 1920s — some more successful than others — she was quickly overshadowed by other blueswomen of the era as the genre took off. She mounted a mostly unsuccessful comeback in the 1940, lost most of her money and, according to a 1964 issue of Record Research magazine, "was buried in a mass grave with no stone and no identification." Even a 1980 article in Ebony on the women of the blues omits her, naming another Smith — Bessie — as the first woman to record the blues. As Brooks notes in her book, "Mamie Smith was at the very forefront of this craze, though she is often overlooked as a pioneer of the form."

But it's not just the pioneers and stars being brought into the spotlight; these books also focus on artists whose work changed music, but whose names are less familiar. Both Smith's and Mahon's books, for example, hone in on the background singer, an often unheralded but integral part of pop music. "Audible blackness was a property that white artists wanted to possess," Mahon writes. Background singers added an element of Blackness, particularly in rock, that wasn't always found in the music. Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Gloria Jones, Venetta Fields and other women like them, Mahon explains, are positioned in two worlds: "audibility on record and invisibility in historical accounts of rock and roll."

Listen to "Brown Eyed Girl," Van Morrison's 1967 hit. Even if you don't know the words, you know the feeling. You know the joyful sha-la-la-las punctuating the music, their sound signaling it's time to sing along. And while a song is more than just its feel, it would be hard to argue that those background vocals aren't part of what pushes the song forward, part of what makes it a classic. And as both Smith and Mahon point out in their books, those vocals were sung by Black women, namely The Sweet Inspirations, a vocal group led by Cissy Houston. Their absence would diminish the work, but their names, and the names of so many backing singers, are often lost in the story of what makes a song great. "They were usually (but not always) mentioned in liner notes," Mahon writes of background vocalists. "Sometimes listed with misspelled names or by first names only. ... Most rock fans do not know the names of these women, but have been hearing their voices for years." And this type of omission has real consequences, Smith says. "It's criminal, and I mean that literally and figuratively," she explains. "Metaphorically, it's wrong. But it's criminal [that] people's legacies are trimmed. Their money is not in any way related to their input."

In her book, Brooks writes about that erasure, too, citing "the ones whose names we don't even know yet, whose names we may never know." These are the ghostly sounds echoing from old records; the background singers with voices that hold the music up — an invisible, but audible, spine; the women who tried and failed and tried again, hoping to find a place they belonged. It is these unknown names that propels Brooks' book. She celebrates the often-invisible community of Black girls and women — fans and creators, writers and visual artists, record collectors and archivists — who ask us "to fathom the unthinkable, to listen out for history's silences and curate new scenarios that grapple with the repressed labor of Black women artists in the cultural imaginary." Brooks' book curates an infinite number of scenarios to create what she calls "a 'secret history' of Black women's sounds."

"Black women have always been present and involved in popular music," Mahon explains, "and have been some of the biggest stars." But mainstream stardom isn't the only way for an artist to be rightfully remembered or appreciated, Smith points out. There can be a pleasure in the unknown: "Fans like to have a secret," she says. "There's almost a joy in the fan base being small and intense." But being a tightly-held secret isn't enough. "Not everybody has to be a global superstar," Smith continues. "But to me, what everybody has to be is treated fairly." And that's what these books are searching for: a measure of fairness. A fairness that includes names like LaVern Baker and Rosetta Tharpe and Madeline Bell as pioneers. A history that remembers little Black girls, hands holding unseen microphones, singing Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston and Jody Watley. Instead of a musical canon that includes the same names, repeated like mantras, on the "best-of" and "greatest ever" lists, these books imagine one where Pauline Black and Nona Hendryx and Joyce Kennedy are always part of the conversation.

These authors aren't trying to rewrite history, but to refocus it, to fill in those spaces with the names, images and sounds of the women who have been left out for far too long. Who tells the story matters, and different points of view can reframe and reposition how music history is told. That the history of Black women in music is told in these books by three Black women means that there is a sense of recognition in the texts, a deeply held connection with their subjects, something that comes through in each authors' unique approaches and styles. Smith, the older sister, hands us worn vinyl and dog-eared Right On! magazines, and asks us to find ourselves in them; Mahon charts the history of rock, but in a way that tells the story through the silences, the gaps — letting Black girls who rock know that they are part of a historic community; Brooks weaves in the history of Black creation, of Black art, of Black literature, of fans, of critics and connects it to the music in ways that are both academic and philosophical.

There's a sense that each of these writers approached the archives and found a different way to illuminate them — historically, personally and academically. If there is one common thread connecting them, though, it's the importance of memory, the "long, complex, and heretofore unheralded history of Black women figuring themselves as records and recorders, archivists and archives, sound and source," as Brooks writes. Above all, there is a sense of respect, of being honored to uncover, to elevate and to praise their subjects. Each of these books gives music historical reverence, and celebrates its subjects as worthy of deeper exploration.

These women, stratospherically famous or waiting for rediscovery, all left us something important: the music. And there's no better way to honor these women than to listen to them. "Listen with intention and passion," Smith says. "Talk to your friends about them. Dance to their music — loud — so people on your block say, 'Turn that down!' " Mahon agrees: "The best thing is to listen to their music. That's probably what they would have wanted. Keep the focus on the music, on the work that they created and follow it. Listen. Listen to the people who listened to them, and took things from them and built on what they were doing, or [were] inspired by them."

These artists made music that still resonates today, and honoring them is as easy as listening to them. Listening and respecting. Listening and remembering. But these women, these stories have a chance to shine again, and whether that's in stories of personal connections to the music, academic appreciation or the blending of the two, these books offer an opportunity to hear these women again. "Is it a reclamation?" Smith says. "I don't know, I just want the story to be on the record."

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Ashawnta Jackson