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If I tell you Danyel Smith is a writer and editor who grew up in Oakland, California, in the nineteen-seventies, and went on to become one of the nation’s most astute chroniclers of pop and hip-hop culture—especially through her leadership of Vibe magazine, in the nineties—how much am I actually telling you? How much am I leaving out? “To say I ‘became’ editor-in-chief of Vibe in 1994—and the first woman and the first Black person to have the job, and the first woman to run a national music magazine—is a criminal abbreviation,” Smith writes in her new book, “Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop.” Although the book gives us her backstory, it is not primarily a memoir. It is an experiment in intertwining her own stories of self-doubt, love, and ambition with those of the Black-women artists she profiles—from the nineteen-sixties hitmakers the Dixie Cups to icons such as Jody Watley and Mariah Carey. These are artists who collectively created the sounds and styles of American pop.
Although I had not met Smith prior to our conversation, I had admired her writing and anticipated the publication of “Shine Bright” for many years. (Her 2016 oral history of Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl performance of the national anthem is still, to my mind, the best thing ever written about the singer.) Upon seeing her book’s working title change over time, from “She’s Every Woman: The Power of Black Women in Pop Music” to “Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,” I wondered how Smith was navigating the trend in music writing toward autobiographical accounts of listeners’ relationships with Black artists and away from historical (or, indeed, musical) appraisals of their work.
I found that, in “Shine Bright,” Smith creates an innovative form of music writing in which long passages of memoir, reportage, and history are deftly interlinked and shown to be co-constitutive. Her own experiences with a racist, sexist media industry attune her to the trauma as well as the training that is often elided by Black women’s success stories—so she asks artists about these subjects, and opens up new dimensions of pop history. That technique is among the most remarkable aspects of another Smith project: “Black Girl Songbook,” the Spotify-sponsored podcast that she launched in 2021 to “give Black women in music the credit we are due.” To discover from her interview with Brandy that the singer maintains her voice by drinking a certain kind of tea and avoiding talking on the phone is to be granted a small miracle of information; a revelation similar to the one Smith produces as she names a litany of Black-women publicists who helped launch singers’ careers. In “Shine Bright,” her insightful curiosity reveals the genuinely interesting women who are obscured by their own celebrity: Gladys Knight, the genius striver; Janet Jackson, the competitive younger sister; Mariah Carey, the woman beset by the question of whether she is doing enough.
These women are both prodigies and products of networks. There is the opera singer Leontyne Price, a figure of “casual splendor and serene strength,” who “wore Afros and tiaras and shimmering press ’n’ curls” at the Metropolitan Opera, and began to make that “beloved and plodding institution her kingdom,” in 1961. A year later, Price’s second cousin Dionne Warwick made her solo-recording début with “Don’t Make Me Over”—a song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David that, Smith writes, “lingers in the valley between what you wanted and what you got.” Nearly forty years later, Warwick’s cousin Whitney Houston and Houston’s husband, Bobby Brown, arrived at the Rihga Royal hotel (ten blocks south of the Met), where “the air [was] horseradish and butter,” and made a bizarre scene, while Smith watched from a nearby table, pen in hand.
Throughout the book, Smith parcels out memories of her mother’s boyfriend Alvin, a source of terror in her home during her adolescent years. At one point, Alvin challenges her powers of description: “You want to write something? . . . Describe the fucking sunlight.” (He tells her, “You can’t.”) The moment recasts the descriptive skill that Smith showcases as a technique developed in part to prove Alvin wrong. It’s not that he made her a writer but that she took his doubt and made it a gift. This, too, is the story of Black women in music; often, they are driven to navigate violent disrespect and opposition by becoming their own advocates and friends. “It can still seem like I’m doing too much when I talk about myself,” Smith writes, in the book’s introduction. Her title phrase “shine bright” was thus meant to double as a self-reflexive “mission statement, and a command.” Her mixture of humility and confidence, shyness and West Coast cool, comes through in our conversation, which focusses on the art and politics of writing about Black women in music. Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
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In “Black Girl Songbook,” you create a new genre of podcast storytelling. Not only do you foreground Black women in music but you bring your own story in, as well as your research, which in many cases includes your own interviews with these women. In the book, you tell more of your story. But a personal history could have been, “Here’s how listening to these women helped me through different parts of my life.” And it kind of is that. But the stories of the women—you’re telling them like a profile writer. It’s like you want their very personal histories to stand alongside yours. I’m thinking of the metaphor of braiding here, because neither is subordinated to the other. You’re not saying we should care about Gladys Knight primarily because of how she helped you, or that we should care about you because of what you can show us about Gladys Knight. Your stories and theirs are rigorously told and intertwined.
That was the part I really worked on. I didn’t want it to be pure memoir where, as you say, it’s, like, “When I was in the seventh grade, this book got me through it.” Because, to me, that shortchanges the woman, the artist. And I just did not want to do that. I just didn’t.
It was my editor, Chris Jackson, at One World, who encouraged me to bring my own story in. Chris was just, like, “You’re a part of the story of Black women in music.” And once I agreed—because it wasn’t like I just agreed—but, once I agreed, I finished the book very quickly after years of not being able to finish it. For a long time, the book’s title out in the world was “Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop”; it was only at the end of the process that we added the “very,” which was my idea because I was, like, “Oh, it’s very personal. It’s very personal.”
I feel that Black women, including myself, are often written about in summary. We’re written about as firsts. We’re written about with the point being how we’re changing somebody else’s life. But so often I read profiles of men and you’re going to know everything you need to know about the conditioner Bob Dylan used on his hair. You’re going to know the place-history of the street that he lived on growing up. Oh, my God, what do you want to know about Miles Davis? What do you want to know about the pomade that Elvis Presley used? We’re going to know all of that about the men. Whereas, with the women, writers focus on the men in their lives. Or it’s about their families. It’s about, “Oh, my God, and they can cook, too! They make pies.” I didn’t want that to be what I was doing.
One of my favorite chapters, and hardest to write in the book, was the chapter on Gladys Knight. She’s my favorite. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite song of all time. As much as I love rap and everything else, as much as I love Whitney, sorry, it’s Gladys. And that was the chapter that really gave me the model for the braiding that you talk about, the model for me trying to be kind of even with my story and her story. I just really wanted people to see Gladys differently from how the world tends to see her, and I wanted people to see me for who I was and how I came to be who I was, at the base of it. Like, what’s at the base of Gladys Knight’s life is that she was born in a segregated hospital. And when is that even talked about? It’s not talked about. It’s not talked about that Mariah Carey inducted her into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s not talked about what Mariah said about her. It’s just not talked about. So I just wanted to braid. I wanted to not say, “If it hadn’t been for ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ I wouldn’t have gotten out of the eighth grade.” When in fact that’s true. But there are layers of worlds behind that statement.
One of many things I learned in the book was that Gladys and the Pips had a rule that anyone in the group would get fined if they sat down in their pressed clothes [and got them wrinkled]. Who talks about that Gladys Knight? Who talks about the Gladys that had a little bit of James Brown in her?
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