How Black Women Musicians Defined What We Call Culture

How Black Women Musicians Defined What We Call Culture

How Black Women Musicians Defined What We Call Culture

A conversation with Daphne Brooks about her new book Liner Notes for the Revolution, a “counterhistory of popular music criticism.”


Inspired by the liner notes that accompany vinyl records, which started as places for advertising and became “potent places for experimentation and critique,” Daphne Brooks places her own book between genres. Liner Notes for the Revolution is at once a “counterhistory of popular music criticism,” archival scholarship on the lost and under-remembered figures of Black women’s music-making, and a manual for how to listen to music in a way that understands singing itself as culture work and intellectual labor. Frankfurt School thinkers make frequent appearances in the bibliography, as do Black feminist scholars from Zora Neale Hurston on, but they’re almost outnumbered by critics, poets, and fiction writers, and they’re all placed on equal intellectual ground with the musicians themselves.

Brooks writes with buoyant passion about the musicians and performances that mean so much to her, intellectually as well as personally. Her chattiness with her reader reflects the importance she places on the openness and intimacy that singers create with their audience, as well as the sensibility that she prizes in criticism and scholarship, of discarding useless hierarchies and barriers to understanding. We spoke on Zoom earlier this month; the following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Nawal Arjini

Nawal Arjini: Would you talk about the revolution in the title?

Daphne Brooks: It’s deeply embedded in my core presumption that any art made by Black folks is revolutionary in that it defies the odds of how African Americans are historically expected to be able to articulate their humanity. I was trying to chart this overlooked, undertheorized history of Black women thinkers, whether they be musicians, writers, or everyday, round-the-way sisters on their way to the record store, who expressed their ideas about culture and taste and desire. Black women musicians were central to defining “modern culture.” It was these twinned axes of revolutionary cultural expressiveness and cultural thought that I wanted to explore in the book.

NA: You quote Robert Christgau’s argument that “rock criticism embraced a dream or metaphor of perpetual revolution.” What’s the relationship between that revolution and the ones you write about?

DB: The golden age of rock music criticism has informed my thinking, and I also battle with it. That epoch of writing was centered on a belief among predominantly white male critics that rock-and-roll music culture was the most revolutionary and insurgent cultural expression of the post–World War II era. The way those writers identified revolution was this radical, sui generis individualism that rock artists, they argued, gave birth to. My contention is that, if we trace the history of popular music culture back to the catastrophe of 1619, there’s a long, vibrant artistic tradition that comes out of that catastrophe. That’s a longer duree of revolution than the boys in the club were trying to chart in the ’60s.

NA: You’re engaging with what you call the “Pitchfork war room” school of criticism—

DB: I write for Pitchfork! But yes, I’m trying to be conscious of that kind of language. I always point the finger at Jann Wenner and the behemoth that was Rolling Stone, a style of magazine writing that was exceptionally combative and tendentious, but also sly and improvisatory. The late, iconic Lester Bangs embodies that style. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Greg Tate, who really subverted those forms of writing by infusing them with the Black radical vernacular. That called attention to how that age of music criticism was structured by in-group intimacies—what kinds of artists we should care for, what trivia we needed to have at our disposal in order to be able to engage with the music. I wanted to hold that together with Black feminist critical thought. If we started from the standpoint of a Black feminist thinker who has all kinds of desires, attachments, and critiques of taste attached to popular-music culture, how does that look and sound in the writing, and what gets cared for? Are there different values at stake in culture writing if we write from the standpoint of Black feminist thought?

NA: Are the values of Black feminist criticism compatible with qualitative assessment? You write that Rosetta Reitz, the historian and record label owner, was so desperate to make public the music of the Black women she worked with that she didn’t ever critique it.

DB: Black feminist cultural criticism is capacious enough to revalue certain cultural forms, and is also meticulous and candid and brave enough to open ourselves up to the vulnerabilities and complexities of the works that we are exploring. The Combahee River Statement forged this ground: The most radical Black feminist thought has always been about championing differences and contradictions. If you think about being able to hold together all these heterogeneous ways of being as a Black feminist radical act, you ought to be able to write in a way that can immerse oneself in the pleasure and painfulness of all the conditions that inform the music we consume. The people who made the music were whole people with all kinds of foibles and faults, but were also doing something heroic.

NA: How much do you believe artists when they describe their politics or the politics of their own work?

DB: We all come with our own tastes, our own contextual baggage. That’s what makes art so vibrant, that it can be so expansive and infinite in how it’s interpreted. That said, it’s relevant to be able to take seriously and document as much as possible the ways that the artists themselves, and especially Black women artists, imagine their art circulating in the world, to give it the historical context in which it was produced, why it was produced. That’s not to say that the work itself can’t continue to grow and expand and elasticize as it’s handled and engaged with by fans and critics alike. If we could push ourselves to think more expansively about what popular culture is—that it’s not rooted in any singular figure, but an entire array of cultural actors, be it record-store denizens, or critics, or intimate partners—they all become a part of the production of the music itself and how it lives on in this world. Black women who have had the short end of the stick are having that story told about their work.

NA: Could you talk about the collectors you mention in the book, and those older methods of engagement with the music?

DB: Amanda Petrusich wrote a book [2014’s Do Not Sell At Any Price] about a very eccentric cabal of white men who were drawn to Black music—not just listening to it, but handling it as a physical possession. That’s a powerful story to tell, if we keep in mind systemic racism, structural inequities, anti-Blackness, and the afterlives of slavery in forming popular-music culture. History undergirds the way we understand white men’s relationship to blues music collecting. It shapes the conditions in which certain publics have access to the music or don’t. The privilege for these collectors to enter into Black communities in mid-20th-century rural areas, West Virginia and other parts of the South, and acquire these cultural objects that had lived within African American homes. Because of necessity, or because of distance from a world that would tell them that what they own is of value, these Black folks [sold them their records].

I wanted to move away from hagiographic investment in the object of the record itself, but rather think of that object as having sociocultural resonances. For me the questions began with not the record but the scratches in the record, which demand we think about who owned the record, who cared for it, who wore the scratches into its grooves. I wanted to invert who we think about as a collector. If we think about everyday Black women, women of my mother’s age—94-year-old Juanita Brooks—as having the capacity to collect and care for cultural forms, how does that reshape our understanding of collecting as a practice within the popular arts, but especially within popular music culture?

What’s really exciting is that we’re beginning to see moments in pop culture that are trying to honor that, like the film Sylvie’s Love, the first time I’ve ever seen Black women from the time period in the book—mid-’50s, mid-’60s—enjoying pop culture together, populating record stores. High Fidelity, which was very polarizing, the reboot with Zoë Kravitz. I have questions about that show, but there’s a depiction by Da’Vine Joy Randolph of a passionate record geek who happens to be a Black woman. Tracee Ellis Ross’s The High Note is another example. Or back to sturdy old Empire and Cookie Lyon. If you take the cluster of all of those works together, you get an electric panoramic shot of what we’ve been missing.

NA: Do you think we’ll see more of those archetypes of Black female fandom in the future?

DB: I don’t know why it’s happening right now. It could have something to do with this enormous thing we take for granted, which is that the two most iconic pop stars of the 21st century happen to be Black women. The fact that Beyoncé and Rihanna have a global reach in cultural affection for them, their cultural impact on a variety of different moments across the 21st century, means that they have reattuned popular-music publics to be more mindful of the fact that Black women exist in a variety of different positions in our universe.

NA: I wonder if it has to do with—except for Empire—those being set in the past, a nostalgia for physical music culture.

DB: Well, The High Note is set in the present too. It could be a post-Aretha reckoning: That was the first time we saw a widespread recognition of the transformative impact of a Black woman musician, though it happened in her passing. I do think that primed people to think more seriously about Black women musicians’ artistry and importance.

NA: One thing that you don’t spend much time on in the book is how much international reach Black women’s music has had, how well the themes and concepts translated.

DB: I was trying to tell a story about the birth of the recording industry in the States, and the role that innovators like Mamie Smith played in the recording industry. But the second book in the trilogy is about mid-century Black women musicians and questions of democracy and citizenship. It’s thinking globally about, for example, the politics and poetics of Afro-cosmopolitanism in the repertoires of Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt.

NA: What’s the third book in your trilogy?

DB: All That You Can’t Leave Behind, focusing on ’68 to the present—Black feminist sonic cultures, the sexual revolution, and the Third Reconstruction. It’s principally the Knowles sisters, with Rihanna and other folks hanging out. I’m thinking about how we understand Black women’s sexuality in the run of the Black feminist literary renaissance.

Another book I’ve been writing is about Black women across generations who performed in Porgy and Bess, a deeply complicated and anti-Black musical that everybody seems to love, and many people seem to hate, and gave to us the most-covered song of all time,Summertime,” which is at its heart a very charged and troubling song about Black womanhood. Numerous iconic Black women have performed in that show for the past 85 years and worked that material over in deeply subversive ways. It’s relevant to the global because Porgy and Bess travelled around the world.

One of the questions I’m asking is, How has Black womanhood been sonically translated to these other contexts outside the United States? In troubling ways, but also through the avant-garde artistry of everyone from Leontyne Price to Audra McDonald, Maya Angelou performed in it, Dorothy Dandridge. What does it mean for those women to be able to carry that form outside of the United States and push back on assumptions about what Black womanhood is and how it’s defined?

NA: You discuss the idea that sound has a particular ability to detach us from given forms of consciousness or imperial subjectivity. Could you talk more about the unique nature of sound, as opposed to the other art forms you write about in this book and elsewhere?

DB: Sound has the capacity to affirm the existence of community. I wanted to talk about Black women musicians as doing historical memory work. How could a marginalized people, denied institutional power and representation, use sound as a way to document felt experiences? To catalog the vibrant heterogeneous dimensions of Black life?

[On the other hand, there’s] blackface minstrelsy, an occupation of Blackness by white folks defining Blackness by mimicry of movement, the visual, and sonically. What does it mean for Black musicians to use the beautiful nuances of phonic expression—through something like the melisma, which I talk about in relation to Aretha’s breakthroughs—how can sound transgress the constrictions of visual definitions and representations of Blackness? Fred Moten talks about where words don’t go. Sonically, you have that malleability, that elasticity, to challenge the boundaries of expressive subjectivity.

I’ve always been drawn to music among the aesthetic realms that Black folk have excelled in. For Black women in particular I became interested in how sound could be the conduit through which you can exceed the limitations on the body, the body being the site of subjugation that is endemic to Black captivity and oppression in the Americas. Sound can exceed the corporeal limitations that we place on people who are subjugated. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man invites you to think about an alterity in time and space through jazz revolution, through the protagonist listening to Louis Armstrong slip into a different time signature. For a people constricted to the measurement of dominant time, in which their labor is owned by others, sound and musicality become the ways to play with the constrictions of a cohesive temporality.

NA: Modernity is a big category in the book. You write that you’re more interested in how Black singers redefine modernity than in how they exemplify it, which is often what gets written about. What’s the difference, in your mind, and how would you define the bounds of modernity?

DB: I’m trying to recognize these musicians as manifesting the dimensions of modernity as we’ve come to understand them through radical thinkers like Stuart Hall, but that these actors have the ability to reshape all those categories as well. Aretha, using the melisma to explode some of the formalities of pop music, that hailed listeners to have a different relationship with what public emotion could sound like.

Can we focus on Black women as musicians, rather than only as conduits of emotion? Could they also be bringing about sociocultural change through risks they took in their music, that called attention to shifts in historical moments, that defamiliarized our relationship to different political epochs? Could we take that seriously, and see them as leaders in shaping change, as opposed to being the repositories of everyone else’s feelings?

NA: Does that apply to the lesser-known artists you discuss? What about the people who disappear, like Geeshie and L.V.?

DB: Their recording is a historical event, whether or not it was documented. Fred Moten would call it the undercommons of history—existing on different frequencies, also a Ralph Ellison theory. Whether or not we identify them in the moment in which they’re unfolding, or whether we retrace how the event ends up enveloping us, it’s relevant to our contemporary selfhood.

I wanted to memorialize the Black women and girls who adored blues culture and bring attention to the fact that they found some potentially ludic joy, or a salve for their sorrows, in listening to music. Their affective lifeworlds have not been accounted for.

NA: You quote Margo Jefferson’s explanation of “the role of the critic of color”: “to unveil and unearth the structures that lie behind and underneath and propel these narratives which always star the same figures.” But that seems like a different approach than your own; as you say, you prefer to “look after” your characters than to “look into” them.

DB: I’m a digger, but I want to be able to have at our disposal as many tools as possible to be able to engage with Black women’s artistry when nothing comes up on the dig. That involves thinking really ethically about what to honor in terms of the work itself, of the musicians we may never know or know much about. Margo is one of my heroes, but I did feel like I wanted to walk that fine line. I was pushed on this—Jack Halberstam asked me, “What if these women don’t want to be found?” Part of the project of the second half is recognizing that I’m a part of this story. That’s part of the violence of male-dominated rock music criticism in its early days; it never had to account for itself because whiteness and patriarchy don’t have to do that. And to lay bare the intellectual intimacies that I have with a range of other thinkers in trying to do this work, something we talk about in jazz studies quite a lot—talk about the work of the ensemble, what it means to participate in the production of knowledge, which can be music, but for us is also scholarship. Someone comes out and solos, but you’re never alone. As Fred would say, the soloist is not the same as the self.

NA: Could you talk about your idea of criticism as worldmaking?

DB: I always teach [that you should be] writing as close as you can to the object or performative event that you feel attached to. In this case, for me sonic performances encapsulate a universe. Sonic performance has a density and capaciousness to it; a universe is constituted through the audience, the performer, the sound itself, and through the multiplicity of desires that are swirling through the room, through the musician’s relationship to their instrument, to the audience. If you draw a model through all the different vectors of affect and affection, how long would it be able to take you to document that? The richness of the amount of time it would take to document that experience reminds us that there are infinite stories we can tell in sonic performances, and that is how I would define worldmaking.

For the marginalized sisters who are doing this work, it’s counter to the way they’re defined in the hegemonic world. You’re able to come together in order to lay claim to every aspect of your being. Toni Morrison, in the Clearing scene in Beloved, writes about being able to feel your arms and your legs and the tongue in your mouth. All the aspects of your humanity and your selfhood that have been denied you, have been negated, can come back to life and be richly redefined. It’s one of the wonders of sonic performance, and of the Black radical music tradition, that one can do that. All of the artists in this book are not only capable of doing that, but mindful of the necessity of doing that—as Alice Walker would say, in order to save the life that is your own.

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