Today we’re joined by Danyel Smith, author of this month’s book club pick, Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop. Danyel is an award-winning journalist, the creator and host of the Black Girl Song Book podcast, and former editor and chief of Vibe, and editor at Billboard. This episode gets into the erasure of black women in pop music, holding music institutions accountable, and the cost of crossing over to the “mainstream”.
The Stacks Book Club selection for May is Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith. We will discuss the book on May 25th with Novena Carmel.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today I am beyond honored to be speaking with Danyel Smith. She is the author of our May book club pick, Shine Bright: A very personal history of black women and pop. Danyel is a longtime music fan, essayist. She’s the former editor at vibe and at billboard. She’s the host of the black girls songbook podcast. And that’s just some of her wildly impressive resume. She is intimately connected with the genre and artists she examines in her book, including Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Gladys Knight, and so many of these other incredible women. And together we talk about the toll of crossing over the erasure of black women and pop and the reason we need to celebrate the women who are at the center of American pop music. This month’s book club selection is Danielle’s shine bright and we will be discussing the book on May 25. With Novena Carmel. Quick reminder, every single thing we talked about on today’s episode and every episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. If you love the show, and you want more of it, join the Stacks pack. That’s our exclusive community for all you book lovers out there. We have a discord community where we talk about books and other things. We have a monthly virtual book club conversation and bonus episodes. Plus you get discounts on merch shout outs on the show and more and not to bury the lede. Here, the stacks is an entirely independent podcast. And in order for me to make the show every week, I need the help of listeners like you. So if you want to hear more of the show every single week, head to patreon.com/the stocks to join. And thank you to our newest members, Jeff M. Jamie clay, Beth and Ray Tricia no CT, demaree Michaels and Jill Manzar. Thank you all so much, and thank you to the stacks pack. You know, I love y’all. Okay, now it’s time for my conversation with Danyel Smith.
Alright, everybody, I’m so excited this month, Book Club author, Danyel Smith is here to talk about Shine Bright with us, just so that everyone knows it is nonfiction. There aren’t really spoilers, but we are going to try our hardest not to give away any of the really juicy details of the book so that you must read it. So Danyel, welcome to The Stacks.
Danyel Smith 2:25
I am so happy to be on The Stacks.
Traci Thomas 2:28
I’m so happy you’re here. I cannot tell you. I just I loved this book so much. I think that you’re just like such an incredible human and your story and your writing. And the way that you brought all of these women to life and just everything I was so taken by this. But for people who haven’t read it yet, or aren’t familiar, can you give them in about 30 seconds or so can you just tell them about the book?
Danyel Smith 2:54
Shine Bright is a merge of memoir and biography. It tells the story of some of the most important Black women in the history of pop music. And interwoven through all of that is my own story. I’m finally claiming my own story as a black woman and pop as the former editor of Billboard former editor in chief of vibe, and just a person that has been writing about music for the last now almost three decades.
Traci Thomas 3:19
So one of the main, I think, through lines throughout the book is this erasure of black women and popular music. So I guess my question for you is, when did you actually realize that this was happening? When did it click in your mind that black women’s stories weren’t being told? Or they were being erased? And then when did you decide that it was something you wanted to devote a huge portion of your career to correcting?
Danyel Smith 3:45
Wow, I don’t know that there was such a moment. And I know also that I didn’t plan any of this in advance. So it would be really wonderful for me if if I had known when I was in my early 20s that I really deeply understood the erasure of black women in music and in culture. And I was going to take that on as my, like my career goal or you know what I was going to be doing for the rest of my career when in actuality No, I got into music to cover rap music, I got into music to cover hip hop, and I was covering the scene. And in California back when hip hop wasn’t even claimed as a real music by the by the mainstream. So I’ve always been an advocate of music that is under loved and under celebrated by mainstream audiences. And I think I began to realize when I probably was just riding around as a freelancer in my late 20s That when you pitched stories about men, those were accepted. When you pitch stories about women, there was so much conversation that had to be had about whys and wherefores, and did they do this and did they also do that but have they charted? Are they platinum? Have they gone on a global tour? Well, what’s going on with them? And why aren’t we talking about her husband? And why aren’t we talking about the drugs? And it was just kind of like, okay, but these black women are human beings, right? And I just started, and someone’s going very protective, in some ways, feeling very much like I wanted to interrogate also, their stories and their whys and wherefores, but they were worth the space regardless. And that’s what I was really into.
Traci Thomas 5:28
Yeah, there’s this one moment in the book, where you talk about going to a club on Tuesday nights in Oakland, with your grandma, not going with your grandma, but you’re talking to your grandma about going Yes. And your grandmother is like, oh, you know, who’s organizing this and you’re like, Grandma stop being so like, dumb. It’s just a party Granny, like, and then she fills you in on this backstory of like, why it was Tuesday nights, because that was the night that black folks could go. And so this party is actually been going on for way longer. And there’s like all this missing history. And to me, that story is sort of like the thesis of the entire book, right? Like, to me, it’s like you’re doing for all of us, what your grandmother did for you in that moment, and saying, like, this isn’t an accident, like these women were actual musicians, these women were producers. This is part of the history. They come from a lineage that starts with Phyllis Wheatley. And like, you can take Mariah Carey at face value, or you can take Mariah Carey as like so much more. And I don’t know if you thought about that story as being like, really integral to the text. But for me it like as soon as I read it, I was like, oh my gosh.
Danyel Smith 6:41
I’m so glad that you notice that story. And I’m sending a prayer up to my grandmother right now. Because I know she’s so happy that I remember it the way that I do. I think of that story almost weekly. Like I think of that story all the time and isn’t just central to the book. To me, it’s central to my life and the way that I view culture and the way that I try to look beyond what is on the surface, especially because with my grandmother, her name is Lottie sharp in a field. When I was talking with her, I was just so sure of myself. Yeah, yeah. I just I’m putting mascara on in the bathroom mirror, and my grandmother’s just nudging me and I’m just like, Oh, my grandma, I know what I’m talking about. It’s just like a really cool party. It’s like, I remember I was like, It’s organic. I remember I said that word. It’s just organic. We all gather there on Tuesdays. And she was like, No, ma’am. We had to gather at that place on Tuesdays, because it was the only night that black people were allowed when we all had to go to work on Wednesdays. And so it was kind of wonderful. And it was kind of awful. Yeah. You know, and that’s kind of, to me the story of black women in music. It’s kind of wonderful. But it’s kind of awful. When you look at it, the way Black women in music have been treated.
Traci Thomas 7:55
Yeah, I mean, so I also grew up in Oakland. I also live in LA now, as I was reading your book, I was feeling like, this is a little too, it feels like a little too close to home for me. Like I was like, get it, you know, very emotional. We can talk about this later. But actually, my father passed away the exact same day as Whitney Houston. So I feel like an extra special closeness to Whitney in her pet. Like, there’s just so many things in your book that I was just like, oh, like, in the heart. And my family is also from Louisiana originally. So there’s just a lot of things. But one of the things that struck me as someone who, you know, I like pop music a lot. I love black women, like I’m very into it. And there were so many people that you talked about that I knew the music and I didn’t know their name. And that is that speaking to that same like, kind of wonderful and kind of awful. Like, I could not have told you, Marilyn McCoo. But of course I know the fifth dimension. Of course, I know. You know, Aquarius, who does? Right? Yes. And I do want to talk about her a little bit, because I have so many questions. But like, and I didn’t know that Stephanie Mills was the same Stephanie Mills. You know, like, I like I knew I was yeah, I just didn’t put it together.
Danyel Smith 9:07
Wow. And so making me so you’re making me so happy right now? Because because sometimes in my own head, I’m writing and I’m like, do I really need to write this? Because I feel like everyone knows this. Oh, everyone, do I really need to go into that. And it’s like, I feel like everyone knows that. It’s like, everyone doesn’t know that. I’m so happy that you’re confirming for me.
Traci Thomas 9:27
Totally. I mean, I’m I’m I’m a little younger. I’m a millennial. And so like a lot of it was music that I heard, but it wasn’t music that came out in my lifetime. So it was like I of course I know. Let’s hear it for the boy. But I didn’t know anything about Denise Williams. Like I didn’t know her story. I but I love the song. Like I used to teach it when I was a dance teacher like I love it. But I didn’t you know what I mean? So like, there were so many moments for me in the book, where I was like, Are you would just mentioned a person or you’d mentioned a song and I’d be like, oh, like I don’t think that I knew who her Been peach or urban peach. I’ve never heard their names before, but I knew their music
Danyel Smith 10:07
I am taking with me forever after this moment, urban peach that is really, that is gonna stay with me for so long. And I’m not mocking at all. I’m not because there are people of my grandmother’s generation that I could say the same things about my mom’s generation that I could say the same things about, and it’s just wild to me that also you know, those records, right, you know, reunited you know.
Traci Thomas 10:38
I was literally like, Wait, who wrote this? Like, if you would ask me, I would have said, I have no idea. But I know the songs and I can sing every word. Yeah.
Danyel Smith 10:46
And that’s, and that’s the power of black women in music. Also, that’s the erasure. And the thing that’s even triple erasure in peaches and herb is that there’s only one herb fame, as his stage name is there’s only one herb, but there’s been six or more peaches.
Traci Thomas 11:04
That’s it. That was blew my mind also, that’s sort of like temptations like, right, like, there’s like all these temptations?
Danyel Smith 11:10
Yes, it’s crazy. But it’s like these, they’re these number one pop singles. Right? These are big records. It’s so much work. Especially in that era, the 70s and 80s, for a black act to become number one pop. These are huge accomplishments for Marilyn McCoo. And the fifth dimension for Linda peaches, Green from peaches in our band, her fame. These are huge, major accomplishments. And I just feel like there’s people from that era, who are white or white and male and we know their name. Yeah. Everyone knows Karen Carpenter’s name, right? Yeah. But reunited as the number one pop up, shake your groove thing, Top of the Pops. And we’re like, Who is that? Again? Because these people were not written about in their time, a lot. They were not featured, like so many white acts of the same stature on the covers of magazines like Rolling Stones, spin time life, they were not there. And these are the spaces where people get lifted up to the status of genius in our culture. Right. And so it’s criminal. To me, it’s criminal.
Traci Thomas 12:17
Was it difficult for you to write about the history of these people now after time had passed, because so many of the stories of artists, they’re happening, like concurrently in their lives, like these white artists are talking about, they’re being written about in real time. So for you to go back and sort of write these features, essentially, on these on these artists. 3040 years later, was that did you find that challenging as far as research and all of that?
Danyel Smith 12:41
I found it fun. I will say that I found I did a lot of work, actually through the DSPS through the digital service providers, the streaming companies. There’s so much information to be found there. I was very intent on trying to talk to the people that I felt it was important to talk to newly but I also wanted to do the research, and find the ways in which these women were spoken about and were speaking about themselves in their heyday. I think nostalgia and reminiscence is amazing and important. But I also think it’s super important to know like, what Gladys Knight was saying about herself when she was 27 years old. Same for Ella Fitzgerald. Same for Marilyn McCoo. Same for a lot of people. Because this is when as women, you know, as humans we’re in we’re coming of age, many of us are at the height of the things that we most dreamt about when we were kids, maybe not the plateau or the zenith of our career. But some of our wishes are beginning to come true. And there’s a certain Highness to that. There’s a certain if we’re lucky, a certain like surge of confidence that and and fearlessness that’s in that moment. So I wanted to find what people were saying about themselves. In that moment. I went to old magazines, I took it to the microfiche, I took it to YouTube for old videos with like 412 views. And I took it there and I transcribed I had great help from research assistants and, and my husband yelling at me, Did you listen to this one? Have you heard that? All that kind of stuff going on? But I actually was just what do you call I was like, I was suffocated by all immersed in all of it. Like underwater flying over it. Like everything I just loved being surrounded at all times by black women and the stuff that they’ve made.
Traci Thomas 14:42
Yeah. I mean, as I was reading it, I kept thinking, I have to ask Danielle, is there a Spotify playlist for the entire book?
Danyel Smith 14:50
Yes it’s coming. Yeah. The way there is the way that I think I’m gonna put it out next week. It’s not for the whole book. There’s actually a play this for every individual chapter. Okay? So I’m gonna release those, because so many people have said, I’m listening to the music as I’m reading the book, I’m listening to the music as I’m reading the book. And one, I mean, beyond to me, like, it’s, I want to just pound my fist on the table like happiness, because that’s what I want more than anything. I want for people to be listening to Marilyn Miku. I want for people to listen to Mariah Carey before Mariah Carey was Mariah Carey. I want people to experience that I want people to listen to Janet Jackson’s first two albums, right, not just when she got to control, but she had two albums before that, that they’re up and down. Sure you know what I mean, in quality. But there’s some cute stuff on those albums. Dream Street, like there’s cute stuff. So it matters so much to me that people are listening to the music as well as reading the book.
Traci Thomas 15:59
Yeah, I have a group of people who are like my insights supporters. They’re on Patreon. And they’re called the statspack. And we have a discord. And as I was reading, I found like one but only had 16 songs. And I was like someone, I’m too far into the books to go back now. But one of you needs to make this playlist for us because we meet.
Danyel Smith 16:16
It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming.
Traci Thomas 16:18
I am so glad to hear that. Okay, I you are a person who is in the music world, you know, so I want to hear you tell me, how much stock do you Daniel Smith put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the pop charts, the r&b charts, the Grammys? How important is that to you? When you think about the music?
Danyel Smith 16:40
That’s a tough one. Because I say it and shine bright. These are flawed metrics. They aren’t right, these these metrics, like the history of music in this country are reflective of the history of segregation in this country. So it’s very difficult to be like oh my god, rah, rah rah rah about some of those words. They’re flawed metrics. But to me, especially it used to be a billboard. They’re flawed metrics, but they’re the metrics that we have. Right? So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have more. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t lift like the Soul Train Awards and the Beatty awards, and the Latin Music Awards and things of that nature, up to even bigger spaces in culture, because we should. But they mattered to me. Because this is where the genius gets distributed. This is where the the trophies are handed out. This is where it’s not a gold star for everyone, but it’s a gold star for you. Because your excellent, what you made what you created, what you saying what you wrote, what you played, it was the best, and it was judged by your peers. I want those institutions to be more fair, to black and other marginalized communities. And I think the way to do that one of the ways to do that, I should say is to hold them accountable for the way things have gone down in the past. And I consider that to be my business, and really, always have. Personally, I’m fascinated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are many places I’m fascinated by when people win things is when black people win things in mainstream spaces. I’m fascinated by what they say. I’m fascinated by acceptance speeches, credibly, there’s many places in China, right? Where I go to the acceptance speech, I’m always like, let me let me go see, when this this girl won something because I know she came out of her face, either aggressively or passively or passive aggressively. Right, or I know there was like, an emotional moment that we did not pay attention to, or a detail that wasn’t seen, even if it was a gown that was chosen, even if it was just how a person walked out who they think any of it because those moments for black people in these mainstream award spaces when they receive their platinum mountains. I remember when Cardi B first went platinum, I was still living in New York, and I called up to Atlantic and I was like, are you guys doing a ceremony at the office? And they were like, Yes, I was like I’m coming up there. I’m coming up because I want to these moments mean things like to black women. For everyone to gather in your honor and say you lady are fucking fantastic. Right? Like it’s, it’s, it’s criminally rare. And so I do love like the history of the spaces, the history of the Grammys, the history of the Rock Hall, the history of the American Music Awards, the history of Oscars, all these places where the US, gold, these gold stars are handed out. Because this is where American culture lifts up. Its geniuses. And black people, black women are not there nearly enough. I always remember Spike Lee when he said it, he said we was robbed. And I think he said it for everyone. He could have said it for any number of his movies. So many times he was nominated, he said we was robbed. And it just reverberates in my in my head in my heart.
Traci Thomas 20:30
For me, I just think about like how, as a lay person, I think about awards and like how I, especially with music awards, how I just like feel like the Grammys are so racist. Like that’s just how I feel and like reading in the book, that Mariah Carey didn’t win any Grammys with Daydream.
Danyel Smith 20:51
Whoa, fantasy. You say Daydream I say fantasy.
Traci Thomas 20:56
She didn’t we? We sent the album daydream. Yes.
Danyel Smith 20:59
While she was nominated the album category and song Oh, I so I’m just like that.
Traci Thomas 21:04
I mean, I met that year of all those songs from that.
Danyel Smith 21:07
Like, oh, my God.
Traci Thomas 21:10
If you had asked me before I read the book I would have been like, yeah, of course, I’m sure she won for something like, I mean, hello, like, how could she not. And I guess I just always have known that these things are racist and hate us and like, don’t want us to win. And obviously, like, fast forward to Beyonce, you know, like, so for me. And like, I think about the Oscars too, and like, the Golden Globes and all of these awards. But the difference for me between the awards and the charts is that I not being an insider, I just always believe the charts were, you know, standard, you know, the same. It’s like, if you play if your albums played the most your songs played the most. It’s on the charts, because I had no idea obviously, now I know this. And also being in the book world, I also understand this about the New York Times bestseller list, I thought that was the same thing. I thought all of these metrics were legit. And I didn’t realize that they were all manipulated in the same way that the awards are. And so now it’s hard for me. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s hard, because I’m told that you know, the Beatles are XY and Z because they charted this many times, or they won this many things. But I’ve always known in my heart that I don’t think the Beatles are that great. And they don’t feel that great to me. And now I realizing that maybe they weren’t as great in their time, as I was told, you know, until like, it’s really hard. It’s hard to grapple with that.
Danyel Smith 22:32
I wish I just focusing me dancing in the background. Right?
Traci Thomas 22:35
Yeah, I feel vindicated in a lot of ways. You know,
Danyel Smith 22:38
I mean, you should because the thing is, you know, this by instinct, ya know, that the Supremes by, you know, by instinct that the Supremes are battling the Beatles pound for pound with number one hits and radio play, and number one hits and radio play. And the Supremes are not lifted up to the same status of genius that The Beatles are, they just are not.
Traci Thomas 22:59
We have a joke in our family that every version of a Beatles song that’s covered is better than the original. And I have a whole playlist called Black Beatles on Spotify, which just covers I need to please, please. And it’s just a bunch of covers of blacks of black people doing Beatles songs and like, your it’s Wilson Pickett, it’s just it’s better. You know, like, he’s just doing the Beatles better. Nina Simone, she’s just doing the Beatles better, like, Stevie Wonder. He’s just doing the Beatles better.
Danyel Smith 23:28
You could go to Earth, Wind and Fire.
Traci Thomas 23:30
The whole thing. It’s just, and like, I get it. People love the Beatles. Apparently that documentary on them was lovely. And maybe people like them more. But like, I just always believed that my taste was wrong or something like that. I was watching something. But I wasn’t. I was like gas lit by the billboards.
Danyel Smith 23:49
I quote, there’s a professor. His name is Eric was born. And he’s actually married to and policies that lead music critic at NPR. Music and Eric and Anna and I have known each other since forever. And and Eric has a great book. And one of the lines in the book is American stop. 40 is not America’s top 40 If it ever was it’s always manipulated has been manipulated. Yeah, that’s in the book. I think that that is yes, yes. I quote Eric in the book, and it’s he’s a professor of American Studies. And the charts have always been manipulated to reflect more whiteness, and more maleness. And you said also older.
Traci Thomas 24:31
Right? He said older times lighter and like softer.
Danyel Smith 24:36
Yes, absolutely. Yes. And it’s, you don’t understand, like the way the charts used to work. There used to be the, like the real charts, the mainstream charts, the pop charts. And then there were the race charts, right? Where the black music competed against only each other really. And the white music can compete it only against each other just the way baseball was in the Country, right? The Negro Leagues, and you had the real major league baseball, so to speak. Even though of course, Major League Baseball had to go to the Negro Leagues and, and recruit people into major league baseball, as we know. But it’s like they used to call it the race charts. But you know, of course, this was in the era of segregation. And so they were also called the Negro charts. And they were called the other N word charts, also, yeah. And they were not looked upon in any way as good or as special or as dynamic or as genius as the people on the white slash pop charts. And it’s just, that’s where all that idea of like music crossing crossing over. Right. And my thing with that has always been like, did Jackie Robinson cross over to MLB? Or did he go for equality? Right? Did he go to play before the biggest audiences and make the kind of money that is worthy of his skill, right.
Traci Thomas 25:52
But I feel like if you think of crossover, as you know, meaning not just like, taking your talents to the white side, but also some sort of like, it sort of feels like some sort of assimilation or like, white washing happens to that person, like, especially in Jackie Robinson case, it’s like he did sort of cross over he was forced to dull his light, and it ultimately killed him at a younger age, you know, like all the stress and the racism like he was, I feel like sometimes crossing over means like, changing who you are. And I feel like that’s really sad. To me. Also, that like, in order to cross like for Selena to cross over, she had to sing in English, right? Like, she couldn’t just take her bops over there. She had to like change fundamentally part of who she was or like to re acclimate herself to be worthy of white audiences worthy, of course, an air air quotes. But I feel like crossing over is like a little more cynical than just being being accepted by the mainstream charts.
Danyel Smith 27:00
I don’t I don’t view it as being accepted by the mainstream charts. And I do think that the stress of a will kill you. I think it pretty much killed Whitney Houston. Yeah, I do. But I do not think that there is this wrongness or assimilation. I feel like it’s ambition. I feel like and Whitney Houston, as had said it, I wasn’t crossing over. I was going for I wanted to be equal. Right. I wanted to play the biggest arenas. I wanted to be on all of the radio stations, right? I wanted to have access to all of the things that could make me who I wanted to be. And I wanted to be a global superstar. The thing about the r&b charts is that wonderful things happen will continue to happen there. But it’s as is the r&b charts, can so often be asked what’s the Chitlin Circuit, or as I mentioned, the Negro Leagues. It’s like, separate and not equal, right. And so it bothers me that just in the decade, the 80s, when black people began taking over the pop charts with Michael Jackson with Whitney Houston with Lionel Richie, with Diana Ross, that all of a sudden, the idea of being a pop star became a negative thing. Because when being a pop star meant you were white, or you are rock and roll star, then it was wonderful. It was everything to which all musicians aspired. But as soon as some blackness walked up into the pop room, then it was like what isn’t cool anymore? Your music is sappy. It’s not real. Let me tell you something. They tried to do that to the Dixie cups as far back as going to the chapel and go into the job bowl. And they are enunciating every word in the way that the white artists were enunciate in every single word in the pop songs of their era. I don’t see I’m maybe I’m different. But I don’t hear assimilation. I hear. I can do that too. And that if that’s what it takes for me to get where I’m going to get them, believe me, I’ll walk through that door. And believe me, once I’m there, I’m going to act exactly as I want to.
Traci Thomas 29:23
I agree with you. I’m not saying that the artists thought that they were assimilating I’m saying the people that accepted them like the crop like the people, the white people who welcomed them into the mainstream forced them to like be smaller or like be little them once they got there. I think I’m saying something.
Danyel Smith 29:39
Weird. I think we’re saying the same thing.
Traci Thomas 29:41
I think we’re saying the same thing. I didn’t mean that simulation was coming from Whitney or Jackie, I meant that they want it to be equal, and they want it to be great. And so they took their talent and they had the ambition and they went there and then they were they were assimilated you know Whitney, you know, Janet talks about like wanting to get skinnier or like they asked her all that stuff. I’m not what I mean. I I don’t mean that the black folks were assimilating. I mean that the white folks forced them to, you know, do things or or asked of them to do things that they are they you know what I mean? Like they
Danyel Smith 30:11
I think there were so many rules and regulations with regard to how black people can act in white spaces. Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. But it definitely takes a toll.
Traci Thomas 30:22
Oh, I know.
Danyel Smith 30:25
You know, there’s unfortunately loads of dead black stars, to back that up for us as as evidence. But I really do believe that there is a spirit of reparations that runs through all the pop music. Yeah. I think sometimes when we hear and then we wonder what is that? What is that magic that we hear? What is that thing that just goes in or, or makes us feel so special, there’s a spirit of black stars and pop music. Getting back unfortunately, not for the people that originally lost it. But at least for themselves, and them and their families, getting back what was stolen from the pioneers of blues and rock and roll and jazz. In this country. And also even just in the, in the 1960s. In the in the salt era. It’s like, people were literally just, it’s not just them that was so important like them and their kids and their kids, kids were so and just the money was stolen. Artistic credit was stolen status with regard to genius and culture was stolen. These things are heartbreaking, man, these things are heartbreaking. And I know so many people that I have the hip hop generation, Gen X, I guess we could call it that generation and music, who were very meticulous about their money, and where they charted, and how many Grammys and things that they received or didn’t receive, because they’re working off of history. They’re winning Grammys, also for people that didn’t receive them when they should have received them in the 1940s 50s 60s 70s and 80s. Like, it can seem a little grabby. Sometimes you’re I mean, it can seem a little bit like oh, he or she is just all about the money. You’re all about the pop star. And I’m always like, is that the only thing now? Or Are there levels to it? Are people looking back and saying I don’t want to happen to me? You know what happened to Chuck Berry? Ella, Ella Fitzgerald got out of this game alive and well and sitting on all her money. But that’s rare, man. That’s rare. So it’s like no, I, I refuse to really judge. And that’s why my book is very specifically a personal history of black women in pop. It’s because of I am very interested in the ambition and the creativity and the work of black women. And to me, that’s what pop is.
Traci Thomas 32:59
Yeah, this sort of brings me right to Marilyn McCoo and the fifth dimension, because her story is different than a lot of the other women in the book. She comes from a more affluent background or more middle class background. She has sort of an interesting relationship to blackness and the way that black people received her and the way that white people received her I have to be honest, was not until I saw some of Seoul this year that I knew that the fifth dimension was a black group. I always thought they were white. I just assumed I also only knew them from Aquarius Let the sunshine and I didn’t realize there are other songs that I also knew I just didn’t realize it was the same band. What do you think her story says about success and ambition and the white gaze? Because I think it does say a lot about that.
Danyel Smith 33:47
There’s a such a complicated story, the fifth dimension, and I tried to outline it as best I could and shine bright. And to me though, in some ways, they’re still a mystery to me. Yeah. You know, Marilyn McCoo came from an upper middle class family, the kinds of families that was, you know, their social moves and their evening activities were documented on the pages of jet magazine. You know, everybody went to college, everyone was, you know, having the really good jobs of the era. She was a beauty contest winner, obviously a tall and striking and beautiful girl. She did not want to and her cohort in the fifth dimension, they did not want to be put into a particular category of blackness. Their elbows were bumping up against what they felt was a very narrow definition of black music. And they did not want to be a party to that. I think the nuance in their argument was not heard in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. I think frankly, nobody had time for that. A lot of times on the black side, right? There was a big Killer ebony cover that I referenced, I think in shine bright, where there’s this picture of the fifth dimension, you know, standing in the middle of a suburban street in their little space age outfits, and some kind of little choreography move. And they look fantastic. They do look like the future. They look like invoke or something would look if you know what I mean, invoke had some male members, but they just looked amazing. But like the cover lines on the cover of m&e or something like why the riots are happening throughout the cities, like black America is burning. It’s like, so it was very difficult, I think, for people to take the time to say, well, you know, there’s as a nuanced argument, yeah. Not when songs like what’s going on were coming out, right, like, there was not a lot of space for it. And, you know, I think their politics are different than maybe a lot of black people’s politics at the time. They were the kind of people that showed up at the Nixon White House, and entertained there. So it was a, this is a complex situation. And I always try not to be judgmental, especially when I think just about the work that they put in, when I think about the way that I think that the fifth dimension wasn’t everywhere. They couldn’t be because it was in the interest of the record labels for the fifth dimension, not to be seen that much. Because people they sold more records with people wondering, I heard they were black, or they No, they couldn’t be really, oh my God, I didn’t know. I mean, there’s a whole history of not in particular to the, to the fifth dimension, but to you know, black artists not putting their photos on the covers of albums, at the record companies requests because they know in the record stores of back then you know why people wouldn’t buy the albums just because a black face was on the cover. But then I also know as I outlined in shine bright, that at Woodstock, where they did not appear. There’s all different, you know, different counts. For the however many hundreds and 1000s of maybe a million people that were Woodstock. And after Joe Cocker said, it started raining. So there was a little break before the next you know, group would be ushered to the state. So people are wet and they’re in the mud. And they’re bored and they’re wanting their heroes to come out. And they just started singing Aquarius, spontaneously, right? At this event that is volunteered throughout musical history. As like one of the greatest events. One of the definitely one of the maybe the greatest live event in the history of American lives. And how often do you hear in the talk about Woodstock? That there was spontaneously hundreds of 1000s of people burst into song singing? Let the sunshine and because it was raining outside? Yeah. And it’s just like so I get it. Girl. Why did y’all have to go to the mix and lineups? Why? Why did we yell at the Bush White House like girl why I get that right? Yeah. But you can’t just cut them out of history like that.
Traci Thomas 38:23
Right. Yeah. Okay, this is the question I’ve been really wanting to ask you since I started the book, which is I am I was a dancer. I also was in a production of The Music Man as a child. Thank you very much. I do remember Woodman store theater in the Oakland Hills. There was like an outdoor amphitheater it was anyways I was in it up there anyways. So I share a love of the theater I was a theater major I was a dancer. I love disco music more than anything I like Donna Summer I sang Donna Summer and my dance recital like the whole thing. And I know the history of like the sexism and the racism and you know, the white male rage, despising disco because it was black, brown and queer and women and all these things. Do you think that the reason that disco stopped getting so much hate and has sort of transitioned into being like something that’s somewhat acceptable popularly is because Hip Hop came in and took that white male rage and took on a lot of the people who hated disco.
Danyel Smith 39:39
Oh, that’s an interesting thought. I think that could be a part of it. You mean like hip hop’s stepped up and became like the whipping boy so just Yeah, exactly.
Traci Thomas 39:50
You actually had Black people saying the shit to the white people that they could really be like, he just said Fuck the actual police like fuck that guy. Instead of being like, Oh, this these out. feds are too showy and people are like dumb and they can actually be like, Oh, black people are dangerous and they’re doing drugs and they’re saying Fuck the police and like now we can just go all in like it was an easier target.
Danyel Smith 40:14
I think there could be some validity to that. I think also that like so many black art forms, disco lost the battle but won the war of everlasting influence. And I think also that it was the clear precursor to rap as you say. So I don’t know if if it is true that hip hop stood up and was like, stand back late. I don’t know if I throw my my cape onto the over the muddy ground for you. Even though it’d be lovely to think about it that way. But I do think that disco is the clear and distinct precursor to rap. I mean, obviously good times in Rappers Delight. So it was a clear and distinct handoff right there. But just go. I think we love it now because I guess more people feel comfortable saying out loud that they love disco. Because it’s irresistible. And because we always have what I think disco actually was. To me. It was a case of it having a really, like, I always thought the name existed for absolutely no reason. I don’t know why it had to be called that. I don’t know. I don’t know why it had to be considered so different from other black music wasn’t to me, it was just an evolution of the sound that had been being built upon since we got off the plantations. So I never bought into this I disclose this whole new different outside thing that is outside the realm of black I’m like what are you guys talking about? Are you just mad because black girls are at the front right now? Because we are because we are you can ring my bell go to the last dance like do you know what I mean? Like, Hot Stuff, Bad Girls.
Traci Thomas 42:24
Donna Summer, my queen. my personal queen.
Danyel Smith 42:28
I mean, let’s talk about it. Donna Summer had to leave the whole country to get her life. Because she to her elbows were bumping up against the narrow definitions of what Black music was supposed to be. Donna Summer says and I quote her and shine bright. I grew up in the Gospel Church. I sang all the songs but I’m a big belter. I can think way to the back of the room. I have a Broadway voice. Let me live.
Traci Thomas 42:57
Yeah, yeah. Okay. You talked about this in the outro of the book. So don’t get mad at me. You invited this question? Oh, no. Who? Or what is not in the book that you wish could have been?
Danyel Smith 43:12
I literally can’t stand this question. Because there’s too many that you wouldn’t know not even that, because I enjoyed talking to you so much. And it was so lovely to meet you recently in the Bay Area. I know you’re asking me in the best of spirits. And so I’m gonna say yeah, I wish I had more Gloria Gaynor speaking of, of just go. I don’t believe in one hit wonders as a derogatory term. I think it says I got my shit off in one song and I might. And you shall remember me forever. Yeah. I look at it as like a huge trophy in the culture. I wish I had more Mary J. Blige and Mary’s worthy of chapters and books and bio pics and documentaries. And there’s there’s songs that Mary J. Blige has created that are couldn’t be worthy of a series of documentaries just about the one song Wow. Yeah. So yes. And I’ve interviewed Mary enough times that I do miss her sometimes and shine bright. You know, there’s just other people that as other these one hit wonders, like I like a Marine, like, yes, Patrice Rushen. The great thing about writing is if you’re lucky life as long as you could do with some more. Yeah. So I hope I get to, to all of that and even more to the point. I hope that more people get to what I mean, I think I’m blessed to be living in a time where so many people are paying attention. deep attention, rigorous and passionate attention. Um, you know, there’s there’s Clover hope, of course Tapani bricks. Johnny Walton, there’s just so much going on right now with people, I think refocusing the lens of history. I mean, you mentioned the Beatles. And I say, yeah, no one says that The Beatles weren’t there and didn’t do the things right. But just can we move off of the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and the Beach Boys, and the who? And Simon and Garfunkel and Dylan. If you see, I think you go, yeah, yeah, just for a little bit. You’re like, can we just stop, please? For a second? Yeah. And these women are, they’re not hiding there in plain sight. They are in the foreground, they are in the background. And and if you read the chapter on the sections about Cissy Houston, Mr. Sweet inspirations, and we talk about how much soul singing is in the music of those people that we just mentioned. How much and it’s not just okay, hey, I’m here. Singing in the background, is I’m kicking it with y’all like we’re in the studio together. We’re talking we’re vibing we’re inspiring each other. Why is that never mentioned? It’s, it’s, it’s, I use the word off and I’ll say it again. It’s criminal. Yeah. Yeah, it’s not.
Traci Thomas 46:31
Okay. I’m going to ask you a question. I hope no one has asked you yet. Oh, my gosh, cross. Here we go. How do you write? Where are you? Are you listening to music? Do you have snacks and beverages? Do you write at a certain time of day? How often do you write you’re you’re a professional writer, so I’m sure it’s changed for you over your career. But how did you write I guess this book?
Danyel Smith 46:50
Okay, first of all, I had snacks. I would never get anything done.
Traci Thomas 46:54
Danyel, no, this is a snack friendly podcast!
Danyel Smith 46:58
I have to think of the food in the future. Oh, that’s what I have to think.
Traci Thomas 47:02
I have a word, the food and the few toward the food. Got it.
Danyel Smith 47:04
I’m like, I’m gonna write for five hours today. And if I write for five hours today, there’s tacos for me.
Traci Thomas 47:10
Okay, we love this.
Danyel Smith 47:11
This is like, it’s like a little do you know what I mean? Like, okay, root beer flow. That’s what I’m gonna get. So right. So, But in seriousness, I was blessed for the last year and a half of shine bright, because it took me five years to write it. And it should have been, that was a little bit of a long time. But I was working. I was at ESPN. And when I was teaching also at the Newhouse School, and I was blessed to be able to resign from my job at ESPN and take on shine bright as a full time project. Obviously, my publisher pays me but I also am blessed and privileged to be in a situation with a partner that allows me to make those type of moves. So once I was able to work full time, then I was like, that I have to work full time. So I had to get up early. Because my morning mind when I was younger, when I was in my 20s, and 30s. I could really just be up all night, like writing until three in the morning, and I would wake up in the morning, and that work would be so good. Now when I do it, it’s like girl who said what? Oh, no, man. No man, like no man, like, I can do some really good editing. In the middle of the night, I can I can work from 12 to three in the morning, on stuff that already exists, I can refine it. But to pull stuff new from my brain at one in the morning, oh, those days are gone. So I would just set my alarm for like 430. And then my goal would be to write until like 11 One of the quote unquote rules of the household is I make breakfast. That is my, one of my responsibilities at the crib. So I negotiated with my husband out of that responsibility for most days. And I was able to write it was so great. So right, I don’t want to make it sound too romantic. But it was so great to write and then I could see the sun coming up. So then I would know that I’d already gotten like hour and a half or two hours in and I can’t listen to music as I write that has lyrics in it. Because those lyrics are just distracting me from my own words in my head. Now I will pull up things to make sure I have the lyrics right or to hear something and get inspired by it. But I can’t just have music on in the background like for the entire five or six hours of work. No, I can’t do that I listen to instrumentals. Or I just have silence. Sometimes I have the TV on mute. Sometimes I try to get like real like I am a writer I am going to light a candle. I love this. And so Sometimes that’s really nice. Yeah, you know, but it’s not romantic. And sometimes I’m not even at home. Sometimes I’m at the library, sometimes I’m at the cafe. I like to be out and about hearing, you know, you get, I guess I call it white noise, to just have that kind of just like, there’s energy around you that’s not disturbing you, but you feel a part of the world. But yeah, man, I just would have my headphones on, you know, transcribing interviews and just trying to write but actually writing things like not adding in research or figuring out where quotes go into paragraphs. But actually, for me, like writing, like, if you read the introduction, where it’s just like, my love for music is intense. Like, first of all, I wrote the introduction last out of everything in the book, but we’re just, we’re I’m just writing like, I’m just stringing sentences together out of my own brain. Now that’s morning work for me, I have to have my my first mind I have to be coming off my dreams and the subconscious has to still be noisy in my head.
Traci Thomas 51:13
I have a few questions. I just like I absolutely have to ask you. One of them is a quick one that I asked everybody, which is what’s the word you can never spell correctly on the first try?
Danyel Smith 51:21
Okay, that would be restaurant. Restaurant.
Traci Thomas 51:23
Okay. This is a, this is a word that all the geniuses and like important people tell me this word comes up all the time. Jason Reynolds, you Angelina Jolie, Quinton Tarantino. I’m telling you, it’s like the craziest word that comes up on this show.
Danyel Smith 51:40
Why is it like this?
Traci Thomas 51:41
I don’t know. Why is it like this? I don’t know. And the weirdest part is, is that that’s like, I’m a terrible speller. And that is one of the words I can spell. No problem. But every other word I can’t spell. It’s so funny.
Danyel Smith 51:54
It’s the Us, the As.
Traci Thomas 51:58
Yeah, you’re not alone. You’re not alone. I’m glad to know, ya know, you’re, you’re in good company. Okay, this is another thing that came up in the book, but also came up just sort of organically to me, I get a sense that you’re competitive, you want to be the best you want to do great work. I also, I mean, you sort of say it and a few ways here and there throughout the book. And also, you wrote this incredibly ambitious and incredible book. And you can’t do that without being competitive. I don’t care if anyone says, you also have been I have met a few people in the last few months who have worked for you and are with you. And every single one of them has mentioned what an incredible mentor, what an incredible editor what an incredible person to work for and with. And so I’m wondering how you channel your competitive energy, and use it also to help other people that you’re with?
Danyel Smith 52:52
Okay, so that makes me emotional, it makes me really happy. When it’s honestly, it’s not easy. Yeah, I want to be the best. But it’s like, I don’t want to be like by myself doing good work. It’s corny, and lonely. And who would I speak with at parties, if I didn’t have other people who, who loves to write and think deeply about things and, and just argue about, you know, points that maybe don’t matter to everyone else. But because we’ve thought about it so much, and studied it so much and researched so much. It matters to us. There’s nothing quite like the joy of meeting a writer who you can see has just what it takes, if they just work a little bit harder. And I’m privileged to know a lot of those people when I’ve worked with a lot of those people. It’s really so amazing to see somebody’s work. Go from like, a B to A. And don’t let me find somebody that we can say from a C to because because you can see you can you can I can see. And somebody’s copy. Even if it’s raggedy, that they have what it takes. I can see intention. I can see creativity. I can see passion. I can see rigor, that they’re paying attention to the details, and they’re researching. Man, I can work with you in your raggedy as run on sentences. You know, I can work with you. If you’re if your lead is really should be your conclusion and your conclusion should be your lead. I can work with you if you don’t know that you should probably talk to other people about authors to add to your own opinion or take on a topic, I can show you the joys of the source and why it’s so important to be precise with your adjectives. If you need them at all, because a lot of times you should be able to build a sentence without them use it, you know, don’t use them, like the main course, as I say is seasoning seasoning. I can remind you that you’re starting to sound like other people. And that’s just a moment of insecurity. And so please consider going back to your own voice it is that strong, ma’am or sir? What are you doing? Why are you sounding like your friends here? Why are you standing like your friends in these sentences? You can go right back to your own voice and get it done much more powerfully. Ma’am, young lady, let’s get this done. So those are the kinds of things that it just makes me happy. A lot of times in those moments, I’m not doing my own writing a lot of times I separate my life. Like I said I was editing at ESPN. It’s one of the reasons probably why it was time for me to leave. Because after ESPN sent me to to Doha to Qatar to do a cover story on Simone Biles for ESPN, the magazine. I was for all intents and purposes, ready to get back to writing full time I there was something about going to a far a faraway place that I’d never been seeing us an exhibition of sport that I had never experienced. And going to Houston and spending time two days with Simone Biles, another genius, just genius. Just a genius. She endured me and we got some good work done. And I worked really hard on that piece. And I worked so hard on it that I knew it was time for me to just get back to writing. But then I’m doing writing now. And again, as I say, God willing, life is long. And I’ll go back to editing again at some point to take a break from writing because both things take a lot out of a person. They really do. But you make me really happy if you say people say I’ve been a good editor because I promise so I want folks to be good. Like, what are we all doing out of here for not being good? I like what am I going to read? Yeah, pardon my language but like the fuck like what am I going to read? What am I going to read? If y’all ain’t out here like writing good stuff? Like are you kidding me? And there’s so much good work out there right now. So um, I really do. I really do appreciate knowing that.
Traci Thomas 57:38
Yeah, no, so many people. Speaking of good work, I have just two more questions. One is for people who love shine bright, what are some other books you might recommend to them to read that are maybe in conversation with your work?
Danyel Smith 57:50
Well, I’ve mentioned clever hopes the motherlode. It’s an important book, and not just for the way it reads but also for the way it was conceived with the illustrations. And just the way it looks as an object in your, in your wherever you live. It’s a beautiful piece of art. It’s just an item. And Clover is a genius about wrapping so many other things. I would say Donnie Waltons, I think it’s called the last revival of Opal and Met.
Traci Thomas 58:17
Yes, we’ve done we had Dawnie on the show last fall.
Danyel Smith 58:22
Isn’t she brilliant? So she’s a brilliant woman. So that when Daphne Brooks, Dr. Daphne Brooks up yo, liner notes for the revolution was about black feminism in in pop, and it’s an amazing book. And then I will take it also to some books that inspired me. There’s a book by Dr. Paula Giddings called when and where I enter the impact of black women on on race and sex in America. I really could not have written this book without that book I’ve written I’ve read it too many times to count in whole or in part, and I’m blessed to think that Dr. getting’s gave me a blurb for this book. And I had never spoken to her before that so definitely that it will change your mind about so many things and also if you read shine bright and he read when and where I entered you will see so blatantly the influence of that book on shine bright the way she profiled these different women and the way she but then would add in stories of other women that kind of were like digressions from the main person so it’s it’s not quite a whole bite but the influence is properly there. So yes, definitely get Dr. Giddings book as well.
Traci Thomas 59:43
Okay, last question. If you could have one person dead or alive read shine bright who would you want it to be?
Danyel Smith 59:50
Why are you asking me all these emotional questions?
Traci Thomas 59:53
I also love your emotion I love it on black girls songbook. i It’s one of my favorite things about you is like you’re so human and I just So I really appreciate it. I’m sorry to make you cry.
Danyel Smith 1:00:02
But it’s not. It’s It’s It’s okay. It’s good. There’s many. There’s elephants, Gerald. There’s Ella Fitzgerald and there’s Whitney. Yeah. And there’s Whitney.
Traci Thomas 1:00:16
Thank you so much, Danyel. This has been such a dream. Everyone you already know this Shine Bright is our book club pick for May. We’re going to be discussing it with Novena on May 25, you still have time to read it. I couldn’t put it down. I read it in two and a half days. I just I loved it. I just it’s and I listened to some of the audiobook which I also loved. And and then I when I finished I started listening to more episodes of black girls songbook, your podcast, because I needed more. So people there’s so much Danyel, brilliant Danyel content out there. There’s things for you to read. There’s things for you to listen to. Thank you so much, Danyel.
Danyel Smith 1:00:52
I don’t even know what to say to you. I really don’t. You’re absolutely brilliant thing. I appreciate deeply. Your close attention to the text. It matters. It matters. It matters deeply. It matters for me and I know it matters for all of us. So thank you please keep doing what you’re doing.
Traci Thomas 1:01:11
No, I’m gonna cry. Thank you everyone else we will see you in the Stacks
Alright, that’s it for today. Thank you all so much for listening. And thank you again to Danyel Smith for joining us. I also want to say thank you to Carla Bruce Eddings and Andrea Pura for coordinating this interview. This month’s book club selection is Danielle’s book shine bright a very personal history of black women and pop which we will discuss on May 25. With Novena Carmel. If you love the show and want inside access to it head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack and make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you’re listening to this podcast right now. If you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter and check out the website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin McCreight. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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