Danyel Smith Tells the History of Black Women in Pop Music

The author discusses Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, racism in magazines, and why she’s so hopeful for the future of music and writing.

By Emily Lordi

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 are 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.

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 ofis 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.”

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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?

It’s not out there; that’s the thing. Sometimes I wish I was still writing the book, and that’s probably why “Black Girl Songbook” came into being after I filed it—because there’s just never enough. There’s never enough about Black-women singers. There just isn’t. I think that people sometimes get surprised by how much reporting I do. And I’m just, like, “What else would I be doing? These people are wildly interesting.”

The thing is, Danyel, that a lot of these things we would not know if you hadn’t asked people about them. A lot of it comes from your personal, original interviews with these people, and the questions you ask. Entertainment reporters tended to ask women artists the dumbest questions. So these women, in response, keep performing the same scripts. But you ask the best questions, so that you can tell the fuller story.

Yes. I’m nosy. I like to know. Also, I think, in fairness, there’s just not enough Black people, let alone Black women, who are in positions to profile Black artists. How many times have I walked into an interview and people are, like, “Oh, shit—you’re Black! Hey, what’s going on, sis? What’s going on?!” How many times have I been requested because people feel that I’ve told their story? Even when they don’t agree with everything that I’ve said. When I was at Vibe, sometimes they would say, “They still are requesting you. So, please don’t write about that thing that you wrote about them last time or whatever you said, but they just really liked the way you talked about their home town or their middle name or their changes in style over the years or their hair or their eyelashes or what it might have felt like for them when they broke up with that person that everybody just mocked them for being in a relationship with.”

These people are actual people to me. I’ve never looked at celebrities or famous artists as anything but actual people. Even when I’ve had to fight to get them on the covers of magazines and things like that. I don’t view them as these aliens, which I think more and more people treat them as—especially Black artists.

Were you trying to balance things out by giving a little less of the music—like, we already know Whitney as the Voice; we already know that she, and all of the other women in the book, are phenomenal singers. Was it a conscious decision to dial back your discussion of the music in order to foreground the details, as we’ve been saying, that people don’t really talk about? In terms of their actual lives?

The Whitney chapter really is the “Behind the Music” episode of the Vibeinterview that I did with her in the mid-nineties. I’m proud of that interview. It was tough to get, tough to stay there, tough to get done. I’m happy that it stands the test of time. Then I wrote the piece about her singing the national anthem, which was very much, to me, about her place in that moment but also just her place in our universe. You know, she’s up there being everybody’s savior, which is a lot of weight to carry. So, for the Whitney chapter [in the book], I just felt like I wanted to really paint a picture and have people see what I saw.

She’s so rarely talked about as a human. When you just do a search of Whitney Houston interviews and you see journalists talking to her—so many of the interviewers are hostile toward her. So many of them are disrespectful of her place in the universe. It’s awful. I wish somebody wouldask me about smoking crack on national television. I don’t know how anyone expected her to react. There’s so little empathy for her. And I’vebeen mad at Whitney Houston. I’m still mad at Whitney Houston, honestly, because of the fact of [her daughter] Bobbi Kristina dying in the same way. That’s something that’s very hard for me to accept. But I don’t think I would, if Whitney was alive, say to her something like “Don’t you feel at fault for that?” I would find a way, but I wouldn’t ask it like that.

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So I just wanted to roll tape in that chapter. I wanted people to see the relationships between the different Black musicians of her era and the era before, and I also just wanted to paint, for whoever reads the book, the Black music industry and where Whitney fit into it. Like I was saying earlier, she’s not an alien. She’s a human being with a husband that nobody believes she should have married. I mean, she’s so much. She deserves ten books, honestly. It’s endless. I want to write about her again even more, talk about her in different ways. Especially in light of what we’re missing right now without her being here. We’ll never have that moment that Aretha [Franklin] gave us with Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors [in 2015]. We’re just not going to have those things. That’s gone.

To return to the “very personal history” concept, the book is a very personal history in that it charts your life in music. In addition, it gives us, as we’ve been saying, a very personal history of these singers. But it also shows how your mind works. In the Whitney chapter, we get Whitney, then Eddie and Gerald Levert, [the Atlantic Records executive] Noreen Woods (whom, I must admit, I didn’t even know), Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Etta James, Billy Dee Williams, Rihanna and Chris Brown. . . . And that’s in the space of, what, forty pages? It’s a very personal history in that it shows how your mind is putting these things together in a way that nobody else would or could do. But, along the way, you are also telling us your story with radical honesty and vulnerability. So I wondered if there were a writer or musical artist you looked to as a model for that kind of self-revelation.

There were the personal albums from women, like Erykah Badu’s “Baduizm,” Mariah Carey’s “Emancipation of Mimi,” [Beyoncé’s] “Lemonade.” And certain books like “I, Tina: What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” by Tina Turner and Kurt Loder. I think about Billie Holiday’s memoir. These places where people take their stories back. But the thing I think about the most is probably Lena Horne’s one-woman show from the early eighties, the Broadway show that she did, “The Lady and Her Music.” She never felt that she had been treated fairly by any press that had ever covered her. She never even felt like she was treated nicely in the makeup rooms on the film sets. They invented a color of makeup for her, and then the white starlets started using it so they could look more brown and exotic, taking parts that she otherwise might have got.

I remember seeing the program for that show around my grandmother’s house—I think it came to L.A.—and she’s standing with her arms above her head. She’s singing with her mouth open really wide, and she had been told throughout her career by directors, “You open your mouth too wide when you sing,” and all of these things. But that show was so successful. It was up on Broadway for a little more than a year. The reviews, from the New York Times on down, were amazing. She toured the world with it. She toured the country. It was basically her saying, “This is who I am and this is my life in music. I am tired of other people telling my stories. I’m tired of other people ascribing meaning to me that may or may not have anything really to do with who I am.”

She was singing songs—she was reinterpreting classics so that they were telling her story. She sings “Stormy Weather” twice in the show. The first time, she sings it as we’re used to hearing it, which is with this kind of mournful tone. But then she sings it again toward the end of the show. And it’s a triumphant song. It’s not sung in the mournful way; it’s sung, like, “And I got through that stormy weather. I am on the other side of that.”

I interviewed her one time and I just could not—even right now, I get emotional because she was getting toward the end of her life. It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but just the idea that her life would come to an end is obscene to me. Because she did not—no matter the accolades and the prizes. None of it is commensurate with her impact on culture. To me, if anything is at the root of “Shine Bright,” it is that. People say, “How can you say that Black women in pop don’t get the credit they’re due?” Oh, they get credit. They don’t get the credit that they’re due. For everything that Beyoncé has, all the Grammys, the albums sold, the world tours, the trendsetting, the influencing, the voice, the putting in work since she was a child, she does not get the credit that she deserves. I’m up for the argument with anybody who wants to try me.

It’s like the celebration of these artists sometimes blinds us from the fact that the deep appreciation isn’t there.

It’s not. When I talked to the artist—she’s not in the book, but the artist H.E.R.—I talked to her on “Black Girl Songbook.” She’s been playing guitar since she was six or seven years old. I asked her on “Songbook,” I said, “Didn’t you want to go outside? Didn’t you want to be at the park on the slide? On the swings?” She looked at me, like, “I guess I did.”

You have to add in the ambition, you have to add in the work ethic, you have to add in the keep-going-ness of things, you have to add in the commitment, you have to add in the investment, monetary and otherwise. You have to add in the sacrifice of not being on the slide or the swings or going to prom.

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Or the Dixie Cups, living through segregation. I remember being on the phone with Barbara Ann Hawkins [of the Dixie Cups], and I was, like, “What was segregation actually like in New Orleans?” She started telling me about sitting in the nosebleeds at the circus. Then she said she would be on the bus and the white people would get on and then you would have to go to the back. I got so specific with her. I was, like, “But how did this go down?” She was, like, “Well, there was a little screen and they would move it back and then you would have to keep moving back.” I was, like, “There was no designated Black area. It was just that the area kept getting smaller and smaller, the more the white people got on the bus.” She was, like, “Yes.” Then I was, like, “Would the bus driver ask you or could anybody ask you?” She said, “Anybody could ask us.” I said, “Were they nice about it?” She said, “It was however they got out of bed that day, whatever their mood was.”

My thing is, out of that comes “Chapel of Love.” All of that over-enunciated commitment to perfection that is “Chapel of Love.” That’s what it comes out of: “I want to, one, get out of New Orleans”—which they never really did because of the way the music business is—“I want to get out of the hood.” But also, “I want to sit in the front row at the circus. I want to go to the museum at any time I want to go. Not just on the ‘Black days.’ ”

And that’s why “Shine Bright.” Because—not to be too corny on it or step too hard on it—but it comes from two things: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” and Rihanna’s “shine bright like a diamond.” Those are the references for that title.

I was really struck by the moment when you said “shine bright” is an imperative as much as anything else. It is a description of what these women do, but it’s also you telling yourself and your reader to do that.

In a world where, as soon as you turn up a little bit, the world is telling you to turn down—on your block, on campus, onstage . . . I remember when I was an editor-at-large for Time Inc. It’s a big job for a young woman. And every time I would walk in—let me not exaggerate. Many times when I would walk the floor—it was an executive floor, of the Time-Life Building—someone would hand me a stack of papers telling me how many copies they needed. And I would take them and go to the receptionist, who was Black, and, after a while, she’d just be, like, “Girl, are they at it again?” And I would say yes.

The thing is, I don’t care. I used to work at Copymat. That’s the quiet truth. If you want me to make you some copies, girl, those copies are going to be crisp. I will change the toner for you. What do you need? It’s not a problem. I’m not looking down on anybody who makes copies; I used to make copies for a living. But, one time, somebody did it to me in front of the receptionist, the Black receptionist. I was talking to her and they just walked up to me and handed me some papers to copy: “I need sixteen copies, stapled, yada yada.” And I was just looking at her, looking at the receptionist, looking back at the lady. And the receptionist said to the woman, “I don’t know if you’ve met Danyel Smith. She’s the editor-at-large here at Time Inc. She writes for and/or consults for all thirty-eight of our magazines. She’s currently working on a piece for Time magazine about Latrell Sprewell. You guys should have lunch and get to know each other.”

You want that kind of stuff to not bother you. Or you want to not even love that receptionist that much for that kindness. But you do. And I’ve seen it so often. No artist is always pristine or lovely or having the best personality at all moments, but I have seen the way Black women in music are treated. Backstage, on the road, by interviewers, by men that they love. And it’s awful. And that needs to be told. That toll needs to be discussed. Because I saw what it did to Whitney. And the survivors? The ones that are still among us? Listen.

But I’m not ending on that sad note. There’s so much more. There’s so much goodness; there’s so much good music; there are so many younger Black artists and younger Black writers who are doing the work and doing the things that need to be done to move us forward. I can’t believe I live in a time of Daphne Brooks writing about Black-feminist sound in “Liner Notes for the Revolution.” Clover Hope and how she writes about women in hip-hop. Dawnie Walton’s experimental fiction about Black women in music. That book [“The Final Revival of Opal & Nev”] is just—the genius of that book is not lifted up high enough. When I think about women like dream hampton and the culture-shifting work she’s doing with documentary. When I think about so many of the Black-women photographers who are really looking at Black women and giving us images in which you can see their true selves shining through. It just brings me joy. It does. It brings me a deep and abiding joy. Because they’re shining bright.

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