“Girl, Put Your Records On”: A Virtual Bookshelf on Black Feminist Sound by Daphne A. Brooks, author of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound
Black women’s genius musicianship is an open secret in modern culture, the phenomenon that we so often take for granted in spite of the fact that Black women’s artistry—from the classic blues queens’ 1920s breakthrough to the Queen of Soul’s civil rights revolution in sound to Beyonce’s 21 st century Black feminist manifesto—undergirds some of the profoundest sonic expressive complexities and innovations in popular music culture as we’ve come to know and feel it today. My work sits at the intersections of Black feminist theories of life and freedom, public writing about popular music culture, and studies of Black performance cultures from the time of captivity to our present day, and it has always sought to excavate and listen closely to the thrilling, revolutionary dimensions of this history. And the writing about Black feminist sonic cultures is, itself, as I point out in my latest book, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, a rich and varied subcultural event as well led by Black women thinkers and their passionate white women allies and accomplices who sought to value and define the meaning of Black women’s music when mainstream critics and powerful cultural institutions would not. This is a movement in writing that stretches back to the turn of the twentieth century, and a cluster of pathbreaking titles offer electrifying examples of work that both captures and extends that history forward.
The first scholarly study of Billie Holiday by a Black woman critic, If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery intervenes in decades of caricatured, racist and sexist profiles of one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians by first reading the myths constructed about Holiday and then pivoting to a lyrical examination of her undertheorized genius, the “first modern singer” (as some have referred to Lady Day) in popular music culture. Griffin’s work is a classic that paved the way for two generations of Black feminist sound studies that would follow.
Gayle Wald’s extensive biography of the Black Pentecostal church steel-guitarist- phenom-turned-rock-and-roll-pioneer transforms our understanding of popular music history by placing a virtuosic African American woman instrumentalist at the center of rock-and-roll’s origins. Her detailed, multifaceted examination of Tharpe’s career, the intricacies of her spectacular repertoire, and her influence on future-icons like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Chuck Berry is riveting.
How might we better hear, see and experience the influential contributions of Black women musicians who played a central role in rock’s evolution? Maureen Mahon’s study lingers on the details of a cluster of innovative artists who articulated their power, agency, and perpetual reinvention in the making of modern popular music culture. Her study takes seriously the ways that Big Mama Thornton, LaVern Baker, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, Merry Clayton, Labelle, the Shirelles, and others were essential and yet oft-overlooked figures who created the conditions for a sonic revolution in the mid-to-late twentieth century.
Legendary Black feminist activist Angela Davis has long championed the blues as Black freedom music and here in this classic study she calls attention to the ways that this music, the music of the newly-emancipated was, for Black women, a line of expression that enabled reclamations of the body (from the brutalities of slavery), forms of socio-political critique and protest, articulations of ludic pleasure as well as declarations of existential sorrow, and above all else, affirmations of the rich complexities of Black life.
Toni Morrison’s sixth novel threw off the critics when it arrived in 1992. For anyone looking for juke joints and the trials and travails of the African American musicians who made jazz music, who fearlessly brought it into being in the early twentieth century, they’d have to look elsewhere and prepare to listen to her fiction on other frequencies so as to hear and experience the way the form of the novel itself rises to the level of the music’s daring improvisational ethics. With a doomed young heroine smitten with blues and jazz records sitting at the heart of a tale about Black displacement and grief, aspiration and socio-historical reorientation in the big city, Morrison’s exploration of Great Migration Harlem World is a masterpiece that reminds us that Black music was a fugitive way of life for Black girls and young women both making their way through the modern era and defining for themselves what it meant to be “modern.”