Gifted artists sound off on both muse and music
n a country where celebrity obsession seems incapable of bottoming out, it’s easy to forget that at least some of the stars we love (and hate on) are actually gifted artists. And in the music industry, where racism and sexism still have their say, even the most talented black female artists are often typecast—and dismissed—as “girl singers” or “divas.”
Take, for example, Beyonce?: When was the last time you read a story about her that didn’t use the term “bootylicious,” or that took her seriously as a songwriter? Interviewers rarely question the R&B idol on her writing process, despite her 2007 Golden Globe nomination for best original song (for “Listen,” from the Dreamgirls soundtrack). Yet the press informs us relentlessly of her dance pratfalls and of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunctions.” Even a serious young musician like Alicia Keys has to push her public to look beyond her dolled-up music video image and remember that she’s a composer.
Beyonce? and Keys are not among the songwriters interviewed in I Got Thunder, an admirable collection of conversations edited by LaShonda Katrice Barnett, a young professor at Sarah Lawrence College. But the book resounds with the voices of women who have influenced them both—and whose music has influenced us all.
Most of the 20 women chronicled in I Got Thunder—which takes its name from an Abbey Lincoln tune— are famous, if not household names, including Lincoln, Dionne Warwick, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Odetta, Shirley Caesar, Joan Armatrading and Nona Hendryx. Barnett approaches them as serious artists, not as celebrities. “None of the singers I spoke with set out to become famous,” she reports in her introduction, “nor does fame creep into these conversations even as a subtopic.”
The author’s goal for these oral histories, she adds, “...was to illuminate for music lovers and wouldbe students of this art form a crucial but understudied and underappreciated component of black women’s music-making: the role of the creative process.”
Barnett achieves this goal, and then some. But her passion for the music prevents her from assuming an overly academic tone. Instead, she invites readers to eavesdrop on her deeply intelligent, intimate and occasionally rollicking conversations with some of the women who have voiced the collective American (and global) soundtrack for the past 50 years. She also shows us that these women have played a large role in writing that soundtrack as well. Just think how impoverished it would be without Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing,” Joan Armatrading’s “Willow” or Brenda Russell’s “If Only For One Night.”
In these compulsively readable interviews, common themes emerge: Despite disparate upbringings, many of these women were called to music at a young age, and several view their talents in spiritual (though rarely religious) terms. Yet their voices are pleasingly distinct, just as they are on their recordings. Check out these samples:
Abbey Lincoln on inspiration: “I am inspired by a holy muse and my ancestors, and I don’t take it for granted. I lead a very quiet life and I work hard to cultivate peace so those spirits feel welcomed.”
Nina Simone on rap music: “I have been robbed by record companies all of my life, so it is upsetting to hear about how these youngsters are being paid to cuss us all! To cuss their mothers, sisters and lovers. It’s damned pathetic.”
Dianne Reeves on the difficulty of songwriting: “The hardest thing for me to do is to silence my inner critic. That really takes a lot out of me.”
Joan Armatrading on writing love songs: “Well, love is a very dominant thing, so it’s important to write about it to me—all forms of it, whether we’re talking about the love of food, our favorite meal, our favorite clothes, our favorite person, as a friend, as a lover, as a partner, whatever. ... People, I think, wrongly decide that we write about love because it’s simple. But it isn’t simple. It’s probably one of the most complicated emotions we have.”
Chaka Khan on faith: “I don’t worry because I believe in a universal order. I believe there is a greater spirit at work and that it has my back—that it’s handling it for me. ...You can’t worry and have faith at the same time.”
The only way this book disappoints is that it inevitably leaves out so many talented women. Where, for example, are Aretha Franklin, Cassandra Wilson and Tracy Chapman? And what about all the neo-soul, R&B and hip-hop singer/songwriters who currently dominate the charts? The voices of Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, India. Arie, Alicia Keys—and maybe even Beyonce?—need to be a part of this conversation, too.
Barnett is ready for such requests: She promises to deliver more interviews in a 2008 companion volume, Let It Resound: Black Women Sounding Off on Their Music. In response to that good news, lyrics from Brenda Russell’s “Get Here” seem apropos: I don’t care how you get here / Just get here if you can.