Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Danyel Smith on Her Sparkling Memoir/History of Black Women in Pop, 'Shine Bright'

The former Vibe editor and podcaster tells Jezebel about how she wove the story of her life with the stories of the Black women artists she loves.

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Image: Drew Allyn/One World

Few people in journalism can say they have been the change they wanted to see in the world. Danyel Smith could and with authority, were she inclined to actually say that. Before she’d edit magazines like Vibe and Billboard, write for publications like the New York Times and Spin, and create/record podcasts like Black Girl Songbook, she was a girl growing up in California (Oakland and then Los Angeles), reading music coverage that mostly focused on white acts, as music coverage generally did (and, to some extent, still does). She felt left out.

“I believe that the fans of Black music have never been served to the degree that they should be served,” she told Jezebel in a recent Zoom. The topic of our conversation, Smith’s new book Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop, is just the most recent corrective in a career-long string of them. Shine Bright intertwines memoir with biography, as Smith tells her story and the stories of several legends in Black music—Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Stephanie Mills, Deniece Williams, Dionne Warwick, Mahalia Jackson, and many, many more. The net effect is exponential. “I’m claiming my space as a Black woman in music,” Smith explained in a recent promo for her book. Shine Bright details not just her culture-shaping writing and editing in the ‘90s and beyond, but shares personal anecdotes about interviewing many of the stars profiled (of particular note is her visit to Whitney Houston’s house in New Jersey and running into the legend after).

More subtly, Smith draws thematic parallels from her musician subjects to her own life. She’ll drop in an idea from a song, and then circle it like a shark, finally sinking her teeth in, pages later. Some of the best writing in Smith’s excellent book arrives in these sneak attacks. Smith’s writing has control, range, projection, and soul, which is to say that Smith’s work shares features with the work of the artists she rhapsodizes. There’s another through line for you.

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The ingenuity in Shine Bright cannot be understated—this is an exciting spin on the memoir form, one that seeks to illustrate the way culture affects and resonates within a life, and how life informs culture. Smith makes that feedback loop sing. With Jezebel, she discussed her book, her love of Black music, her disdain for the concept of selling out, and so much more. The transcript of our conversation below has been edited for length.

JEZEBEL: The subject of Black women in pop music is so vast, and you’ve been listening to these artists for so long. How did you begin to whittle the material down to something digestible?

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DANYEL SMITH: I kind of always knew the ladies that I wanted to talk about. I was very committed to writing about the people that we think of first: Aretha, Mariah, Janet. But I was also very committed to a large percentage of the book being devoted to people that we don’t think of first. So I was stuck because I felt just what you are mentioning right now, which is, if this is supposed to be an encyclopedic book about Black women in pop, I don’t see how you ever finish it. Chris Jackson, my editor at One World, said to me, “I think I bought a good book. I do. But I think that we can end up with a great book if you decide to put yourself in the book.” I didn’t have anything in there of myself when he bought it. I didn’t necessarily agree, but what made me agree was that’s how I was going to be able to whittle it down. If you make it a very personal history of Black women in pop, then it’s about my favorites, the things that mattered to me, the things that mattered to my mother, my sister, my grandmother, my great grandmothers. So then I have a way to narrow it down. Then I have a thesis. Then I have a point of view.

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One thing this book does is explicate and detail how and why music by Black women matters so much to a Black woman listener. People know well that Black music attracts Black audiences, but your book explores the intricacies and the specific frequencies of resonance. You’re showing how soul music touches an actual soul.

I mean, I’m not going to sit up and act like that’s not true. I wanted to make sure that I cover the detail of Black women in music because I feel like so often Black women are written about in summary or as firsts, which is, you know, fine. It’s needed. I mean, we know all about R.E.M.’s first days in Athens, Georgia. But if you want to know that about the Dixie Cups, where are you finding that? I wanted to write about the detail, but I also had to just admit and say out loud that these women saved my life and that it was work for them to do so. That’s the thing. They weren’t just doing it because they loved me. They weren’t just doing it because they loved us. They were doing it because they had ambition. They were doing it because they wanted to change their lives. They were doing it because they sound good to themselves and they enjoy hearing themselves. I’m here for the Black girl magic, but there’s also just the Black girls at work. I think that’s often what we respond to: We can feel the work in it as much as the soul. What’s the definition of soul? For me, a lot of it is ambition. You know, as Gladys [Knight] said to me, “I was helping my mother pay the bills.” Marian Anderson: “I was helping my mother pay the bills.” It is a constant refrain. Not that many people, not many Black women, especially before the 1970s, were getting into Black music solely because of the joy. We’re getting into it because it was a way out. And I think we hear that, and I think as a culture, as a global culture, really, we respond to that.

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I think of you as a historian. Do you?

I feel like there’s people who have PhDs in history, and I’m probably old fashioned enough to say those are the historians. But I do think that journalism is the first draft of history, as it is said. So I’m out here trying to write a hell of a first draft, man. I want my first draft to be clean, crisp, rigorous, passionate, providing context of the moment…like, I want all of that in my first draft.

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Journalism is a career of service for me. I just think that there’s millions of people out there that don’t get enough of what they want with regard to their heroes. I believe that the fans of Black music have never been served to the degree that they should be served. And so I feel I’m in service to that community, and I feel lucky because, what a great way to be of service.

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Your enthusiasm is unabashed to the point that I don’t hear you talking much shit. Is it your policy to avoid negativity when discussing music?

Not really. One: I like a lot. Two: I make a lot of room to find things even within things I don’t like. Also, I’ve talked more shit in this lifetime about music than really most anybody. I really feel like I gave myself over to that in the ‘90s. I gave The Chronic a bad review in L.A. Weekly when it came out, and I stand by it. I gave Harry Belafonte such a bad review in the New York Times, they didn’t ask me to write for them for 15 years.

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I’ll go there if it matters enough to me. And I also think there’s enough people hacking away at the accomplishments and the art of Black women that I just don’t feel the need to jump on board with that when there’s so much less attention paid to the details of celebrating them. I’m not going to try to just paint everything glowingly, but it’s my job right now to paint everything deeply and with context.

You talk about a lot of these artists being under-appreciated and unsung, and yet even the most under-appreciated major-label artist is more appreciated than your average civilian. You are not aware of the paradox or the proximity to paradox here—you write, “Stephanie Mills is one of the most beloved and one of the most underrated black female recording artists in history.” I agree! I wonder, though, if you kind of have a vision of what adequate appreciation would look like, in concrete terms.

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There are spaces in our culture are utilized to raise people up to the status of genius. To some degree, it still is magazine covers. It’s also well-done documentaries. It’s also halls of fame. It’s also awards given by your peers, specifically. It’s also the amount of reverence with which one is treated when one makes appearances on shows that have wide and multicultural audiences. Those used to be late night talk shows—there’s many different places now where it occurs. Quality biographies that are created with attention to detail, that are rigorously researched, that are beautifully designed, and promoted with a large budget.

The thing is, I could continue this list. None of this is airy. It’s very clear to me what can be done. It’s not, “Oh, if we could just all just, you know, like, just let Black women know they are better.” Hashtag BlackWomenAreJamming. Like, okay, but we need to let Donna Summer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a first ballot—not after she’s dead. That’s a specific and egregious error that can be pointed to. I can point to the amount of Grammys between Adele and Whitney, which I do in Shine Bright. I worked at Billboard not once, but twice. I’m very clear on the pre-SoundScan era, the post-SoundScan era, the streaming era, the different award shows—all of it. How many times a song gets played, radio stations, all these things are data points, and the thing is, I believe in them. The metrics are flawed, but they’re the metrics that we have.

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In a variety of ways in Shine Bright, you refute the notion that selling out—or tailoring one’s art to a mass audience—is a bad thing. My consciousness kind of formed in the ’90s when selling out was widely considered to be the worst thing that a person could possibly do. Did you always feel the way that you do now about selling out?

I can safely say I always felt the way I did. I thought it was super convenient that the idea of being a huge pop star became ugly once Black people started really becoming huge pop stars. Even as a teenager, I could not understand why everybody hated [Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s] “Endless Love.” I was like, “I’m sick of it because they play it too much, but you guys are mad. Why? Why are you mad?”

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I never believed in the concept of sellout. Once I got to Billboard and SoundScan was firmly in place, I began to think of pop as the people’s choice. It’s like, people like the record. Maybe your people on your block don’t or but people, they liked the record. I’m not dumb, I understand radio promotions, I understand the deals that are cut behind the scenes to make this, that, and the third happen, but it is very difficult to make a No. 1 record happen without the participation of millions and millions of people. It’s the people’s choice. That’s why my book is very specifically called A History of Black Women in Pop and not Black Women in Music. Black Women in Pop. I believe in pop.

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You’ve been at this for decades. You continue to pour your soul into what you do—Shine Bright and Black Girl Songbook are the two most recent examples. You write in this book about not wanting to stop writing this book. Do you ever get tired?

I’m tired now. Yes! I’m currently tired. Yes, I do. I do get tired, but I don’t have work-life balance, I’m not going to lie and act like I do. It’s a blessing and a privilege to listen to a lot of music, go to a lot of shows, have a lot of friends who love music, have a partner who lives and breathes it. And then I also get to write about it or create things with music at the center.

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Do I get tired? I will say, like, not that everything has to go back to a Black woman in pop, but it does so: One time I was interviewing Gladys Knight and I asked her, “Do you ever get tired of singing ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’?” And Gladys Knight said, “I do not get tired of singing ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ I would not be Gladys Knight were it not for ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ I would not have been the places I’ve been, seen the things that I’ve seen, have the life that I’m living were it not for ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ So no, I do not get tired of singing ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’” And I think I kind of feel that way a little bit like. Do I get tired? I mean. Yeah, like I said, I’m tired now, but am I tired tired? Nah. Music is giving me everything.