Where are the black women songwriters, and what makes them tick? We asked LaShonda Katrice Barnett, who has taught history, literature and African studies at Sarah Lawrence College, Hunter College, and the University of Richmond, to find out. She is the author of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft.
Of over 380 members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, just two are black women (Sylvia Moy and Valerie Simpson). Why are there so few prominent black women songwriters?
The work of singing has somehow been divorced of the work of writing and composing in many peoples' mind. As an audience, we are trained, which has worked to the detriment of women in the music industry. No one would argue the significance of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, or even Bessie Smith and Gertrude Ma' Rainey (whose blues recordings were the first to go platinum in the history of U.S. music and as such they should be posthumous inductees). However, if someone is perceived as "just a singer," as has often been the case, it's easy to undermine their legacy.
From your interview with Nina Simone, it's clear that she would have been shocked to see a black president elected in 2008. What are the implications of Barack Obama's election on black women songwriters and performers?
The beauty of Barack Obama is not only that he is intelligent but that he is also creative. He is a writer himself and also has a tremendous respect and reverence for creative artists. He has said on more than one occasion that he plans to return the White House to the people, he plans to invite artists regularly-writers, poets, musicians, etc. How could this not increase the morale of the nation's artists? For our nation to have a leader interested in highlighting the creative works of our citizens is just the bit of fate we are in desperate need of especially at this historical juncture.
Black men like John Legend, Ne-Yo and R. Kelly write lots of hit songs with universal themes. The women you spoke with don't seem interested in doing this. Why?
I wouldn't say that the women I spoke with don't write on universal themes; they certainly do - those themes being romance, sexuality, loss, grief, spirituality. It doesn't get more humanistic than that. However, the women I interviewed did make clear that they are never "hit-minded" - that is to say that what guides them, what inspires them is not the idea of money or a platinum record but rather telling the truth in a song and moving people with that truth.
Tina Turner wrote the outstanding "Nutbush City Limits," then pretty much stopped writing songs. Why do artists like Turner, Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston focus on performing instead of writing?
All singers are not songwriters nor should they be. The aim of my book was not to undermine the significance of those women who sing the compositions of others but rather to highlight the women who sing and write. No one asks the classically-trained Kathleen Battle or Denyce Graves why they don't compose their own music, so I don't think it should necessarily be applied to singers of popular music. I remember approaching Nancy Wilson for an interview for my book (as a favor to my mother who is a Wilson fan - I had not thought to include her because she is not a songwriter) and she politely declined and said, "Interpreting a song is not the same as writing one. I don't write." I think singers who do not compose their own music understand themselves as interpreters primarily.
Who are three most significant black women songwriters?
These are three black women songwriters who are very significant to me.
A. Abbey Lincoln, because in the musical genre for which she is known, jazz, vocalists record standards, (the great music that grew out of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood movie musicals) and this is what jazz audiences have come to expect over the years: My funny Valentine. Lincoln, however, crafted her own songbook. She is the only jazz singer, across generations, to record numerous self-composed albums. By herself, Lincoln has managed to expand jazz audiences' expectations.
B. Cassandra Wilson, because of all the songbirds out there now, she is the mockingbird - that looks both forward and backward during flight. Her oeuvre is so carefully crafted chosen from old standards (jazz and pop) and her own contemporary original contributions. Her last album, Loverly (Blue Note 2008), contains jazz standards and no original compositions. However, previous recordings showcase Wilson's own songs and the works of Bob Dylan, The Monkees, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Sting. Her eclectic taste is inspiring to audiences and musicians alike because she is continually erasing the boundaries the music police (critics) like to impose on artists.
C. The unknown singer-songwriter that is not signed to a label but playing at your neighborhood coffeehouse. The economy is in the shitter, the music business wrestles with pressing CDs and including liner notes altogether since everybody downloads these days and who, after all, collects CDs? (I, for one, do and vinyl as well) And, despite this she has her shoulder to the wheel writing a song that you may or may not care to listen to.
As the population starts to blend, we're seeing more artists like Mariah Carey and Fergie who are hard to classify by race. Will there be a time when labels like "R&B" and "Soul" change meaning or become irrelevant?
These labels won't ever become irrelevant because of their historical significance. Black America music is social music and as such it is black history - it charts a time and the experience of blacks in America.
What do you think of Beyonce?
I think Beyonce is a great entertainer - replete with fabulous costumes, choreography, and glamour. I do not think of her as a performing songwriter.
You told Oleta Adams, "Some of the songwriters I've interviewed have lamented the difficulty of the songwriting process." Can you expand on this?
Sometimes there is the notion that because working artists are lucky enough to make their bread and butter doing the creative acts that they love it is not very difficult work. However, many of the stories I heard talked about the sometimes years-long process of writing and editing a song, and finally performing it to the standard that exists in the artist's head. As I shared some of these stories with friends, I witnessed the real shock and almost disbelief that someone might labor over a three-minute song for a decade, but it happens all of the time. (Needless to say, more often than not these are the songs that have staying power.)
Why do all the women I know think Mary J. Blige is singing their life story?
I don't know the women you know, but I have heard from numerous people that Mary J. Blige is "our generation's (I am 34) Aretha Franklin." That is quite a moniker and I believe that assertion speaks to the authenticity, the emotional honesty and the vulnerability Blige reveals in her music. Women who relate to her music strongly do so, more than likely, because the aforementioned elements are personally significant.
What does the future hold for black women songwriters?
As always, the future demands that artists chronicle the times in which they live, and that they do so in a manner that is accessible to audiences. There is no indication that black women songwriters will turn their backs on what they've always written about - their own lives and the lives of others. Given the state of the world (wars - yes! But also the persistent demand for human rights and new challenges for defining those rights), it is safe to believe that expression in general will increase and deepen and expand all of our notions on the human experience.
January 14, 2009
I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft is available now.