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Song Catchers

Interviews With Black Female Singer/Songwriters Provide Inspiring Peek Into Creative Process

LADY SINGS THE BLUES: Shemekia Copeland shares her thoughts on songwriting in a new interview anthology.

By Darcelle Bleau | Posted 11/21/2007

I Got Thunder

LaShonda Katrice Barnett, editor

Thunder's Mouth Press

I Got Thunder, edited by LaShonda Katrice Barnett, a professor of history and Africana studies at Sarah Lawrence College, and recently published by Thunder's Mouth Press, is a curious book. It is a series of interviews with black female singer/songwriters who talk about their life and craft. It is a container for these women's personal philosophies, idiosyncratically expressed. It is a treatise on creativity and spirituality and inspiration. It is a songbook.

The book's structure is simple. After a short introduction, Barnett includes verbatim transcriptions of 20 interviews, arranged alphabetically by the artist's first name, from Abbey Lincoln to Tramaine Hawkins. Each interview is preceded by a brief biography. By far, most of the book's pages are devoted to the Q&A.

Though simple in structure, Thunder is a complex work. Barnett's questions provide the impetus for exploring each artist and her artistry, but they're also flexible enough to allow for interpretation. No two interviews are similar, though Barnett's preoccupations do present themselves. She asks each artist when she began to sing or began to consider herself a "singer." She chooses a song from each artist's repertoire and asks for the story of its inspiration. This is, perhaps, the interview form at its best, as each question is both tight in its formulation and open-ended. By the third or fourth question, the singer's professional personality and drive begin to show through.

What constitutes professional personality and drive for these women? That answer is as individual as the women themselves. For Abbey Lincoln, it's the story: "I've always been concerned with the story I'm telling. This music is social. Our music is social. Nobody cares whether it sounds pretty or not. Can you tell the people what it's like to be here? To live here? That's what the people care about."

Oleta Adams agrees: "I write lyrics first. The story is most important for me. . . . I focus on the lyric and the mood because I want the audience to become addicted to a feeling. What I want to say is, this is how I think you feel in this situation, and then I'm going to portray that with the words, and the music helps evoke the mood." These two women, and many others, have accepted the role of the griot, and they guard the memory of their people with their stories, and they express those stories in song.

Storytelling is not the focus of all the singers in this collection. Dionne Warwick reveals her requirements for social content in her material: "I am worried that so much of today's black music isn't giving the people anything useful. Historically, we have been a people, and we still are a people, that have always valued social awareness and have had social ideas reflected in our art forms--in music, literature, drama, visual art. And, I might add, that often there wasn't only a problem presented but also a solution." Perhaps the most vehemently political singer/songwriter interviewed is Miriam Makeba. A South African activist who was crucial to the anti-apartheid debate, Makeba takes her role as a socially conscious singer very seriously: "I have always felt it very important to be a cultural ambassador--especially to my black sisters in music. We have a lot of work to do to right the wrongs inflicted on our people in the past, and we can only do this work by sharing and teaching one another. The sharing is the spiritual aspect; the teaching is the practical aspect."

As a number of the women in the collection sing gospel, there are many who see spirituality as the key to their work. Tramaine Hawkins expresses her spiritual commitment as a "duty to testify because we have a higher calling. It's not about me. At my best, I'm being used by God . . . the duty, the responsibility to be true to that and to minister that in your music is enormous."

On par with spirituality is creativity. For Narissa Bond, that manifests itself as a calling in a secular sense. "I found that when I was quiet enough, like early in the morning or late at night, melodies would come to me. Lyrics started to come to me in the same way. I started to view these songs as gifts given to me from a higher power. . . . I believe artists are the chosen ones sensitive enough to see and feel the messages that are always there."

Each of the interviewed women is aware of her place and purpose, taking something on. Shemekia Copeland: "And I see it, or I hear it, so much--women who disrespect themselves also disrespect men. And I like to deal with this phenomenon in my music because it needs correcting in our culture." Chaka Khan: "I thought to myself, I need to find another way of reaching people and making them aware of the plights of the black nation, the injustices of black life, but also the beauty of it. I was inspired by how the [Black Panther Party] had empowered me and I wanted to be able to do that--to empower people." Ang%uFFFDlique Kidjo: "When you live in a country where the only response to the troubles of the youth and to people's needs is jail, then something is definitely wrong. I believe that a lot of hip-hop is trying to address this wrongness."

And they all are acting to address the wrongness that they have identified. They get up onstage and sing about it. They conduct interviews and talk about it. They testify. More than anything else--more than the fact that most of them first sang in church at a young age; more than the fact that each one of them has loved and lost love; more than the fact that each one is devoted to advancing the causes of gender and race--these women are united in their need to testify. Testify to the beauty and sorrows of life. Testify to the cycles of loss and renewal. Testify to friendship and family. Testify to the power of song.

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