She Drew the Hallelujah

Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound BY Daphne A. Brooks. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press. . $35.

The cover of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound

AMERICA, IT SEEMS, WOULD LIKE A COOKIE. After centuries of literally and figuratively relying on Black women while simultaneously shoving them toward the margins of public life, conspicuous acknowledgment has become en vogue. The market now chases our purchasing power and the electoral establishment has recognized our political power and cultural institutions have added us to their guest lists. It has never been easier to find the right shade of foundation. Kamala Harris’s smile greets visitors to federal buildings around the country; Stacey Abrams is approaching household-name status. In return, America wants that cookie.

This phenomenon has been especially evident in the arts, where, in the past few years, high-profile films, television series, and documentaries have revisited the lives and careers of artists including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and Ma Rainey (in the form of a Netflix reimagining of August Wilson’s play about the blues icon). At this winter’s Grammys, where the formal music industry puts its agenda on display, multiple Black women not only won big, they won in prime time. As a writer who is most often called on when an editor wants someone to cover Black women, I find that my inbox has never been hotter. And yet. While there has been much discourse about the limits of representation, little attention has been paid to its pernicious aftereffects. Among them, the emptiness of watching surface-level inclusion pass for something more substantial. Like, all this effort just to be seen?

The critic and scholar Daphne A. Brooks models an alternative in the form of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, the first entry in a trilogy that traces “an epic journey through radical sound from Bessie Smith to Beyoncé.” She’s in good company: Clover Hope’s The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop charts the careers of women—most of them Black, many of them unsung—who have shaped rap music and culture. (Full disclosure: I have a one-hundred-word blurb in the book.) Danyel Smith’s forthcoming Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop promises to do the same. This is work Black women, including Brooks and Hope and Smith and many others, have long done; now everyone else is watching.

Though Brooks doesn’t articulate it as such, the ethos of the Cite Black Women campaign, launched by the anthropologist Christen A. Smith nearly five years ago in an effort to “push people to critically rethink the politics of knowledge production by engaging in a radical praxis of citation that acknowledges and honors Black women’s transnational intellectual production,” runs through Liner Notes. Across two sections, Side A and Side B, Brooks doesn’t simply document or catalogue or spotlight the existence of Black women musicians; she enshrines their foundational impact on culture as we know it in the public record. The book is almost too constellatory to fully describe: its first half offers several chapters of groundwork, exploring the breadth of Black women artists’ culture-making over the course of the last one-hundred-plus years; its second half takes the baton with a focus on a handful of musicians and the critics, artists, and fans who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to frame their legacies. Brooks moves deftly between eras, from early-twentieth-century blues and vaudeville to Lemonade-era Beyoncé, just as she moves between language dense with academic conventions and playful, music-critic prose. The material is too expansive to be contained by any single mode.

“Listening to the sonic palimpsests, the layers of social and cultural memory embedded in their music, allows for ways to navigate the lacunae of histories that obscure Black women as the resourceful heroines of a pop culture industry that views them as irrelevant and disposable,” Brooks writes in the introduction, as if to say: baby, we have done way, way more than exist. This is how Liner Notes forms a galaxy out of the familiar paradox that, throughout American history, Black women have been invisible and hypervisible at the same damn time. She turns to the artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose 1989 mixed-media piece Ode to Affirmative Action illustrates this reality using the singer Dee Dee Sharp as a case study. Sharp’s voice was once ubiquitous; in 1962, she became the first Black woman to land on the American Top 40 charts, when her song “Mashed Potato Time” peaked at number two. Though she presaged an entire style of New Frontier–era culture, Sharp quickly faded into obscurity. Weems, like Brooks herself, “calls attention to and pushes back against the precarity of Black women artists who are embraced, temporarily canonized, institutionalized, and yet perhaps still always on the verge of disappearing from these institutional spaces.”

Carrie Mae Weems, Ode to Affirmation Action, 1989, gelatin silver print on paper, vinyl record, overall 24 x 30".
Carrie Mae Weems, Ode to Affirmation Action, 1989, gelatin silver print on paper, vinyl record, overall 24 x 30". © Carrie Mae Weems; Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Rather than argue a point, Brooks illuminates many. In the first chapter, “Toward a Black Feminist Intellectual Tradition in Sound,” she demonstrates how the pianist Mary Lou Williams exemplifies American modernity, through her transcendent writing about jazz and race and through the ways postindustrial transport, from the New York City subway to Williams’s obsession with cars, brought freedom and movement into her compositions. In the subsequent chapter, “Sister, Can You Line It Out?: Zora Neale Hurston Notes the Sound,” Brooks posits that Hurston—novelist and journalist, yes, but also occasionally a singer—is one of countless Black women artists who have functioned as cultural historians. Here, Brooks outlines how Hurston used “the aesthetics of blues narratology” to inform her ethnographic work and cultural criticism. Brooks calculates that even when Black women musicians are widely beloved—like an Aretha Franklin or a Beyoncé—they are reduced to their voices or their aesthetics or otherwise critically marginalized. And so, using archival study, academic analysis, music criticism, personal stories, and experiments with speculation, she presents a world-building exercise qua alternate reality:

What if we could get everybody in the same room and around the same table to do some hardcore Black thinking, some mindful meditation on the capaciousness of Blackness, some deep listening to the sounds and performances that evade easy logic, and what if, still more, we could mix it up in the mosh pit with rock and roll criticism in order to tell a different story about popular music culture, one that takes seriously the women who made new sounds and, likewise, thought hard about how to go about writing down and recuperating the value of said sounds for the ages? Can we even imagine a history of popular music that regards as priceless the innovations of a different cast of lead characters from the ones so often deified?

The “everybody” Brooks refers to are the dozens of artists, theorists, critics, collectors, listeners, and regular-degular fans she invokes in her attempt to tell a different story. At her table, cultural theorist Fred Moten and blues pioneer Ma Rainey and alt-star Solange and literature scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams and singer-poet-songwriter Jamila Woods and historian Robin D. G. Kelley and artist-activist Abbey Lincoln and (white) feminist historian Rosetta Reitz and Brooks’s own mother, Ms. Juanita, sit next to each other. At her table, Janelle Monáe is not merely an artist but also an architect of metatextual thought, a “dazzling and whimsical icon of Afrofuturist posthuman alterities.” Mamie Smith was not only a vaudeville performer but also a cultural curator, mashing up styles and genres and moods to “work [her] way to the center of the culture industry and thus fundamentally transform it.” Rhiannon Giddens is not only a musician but also a radical keeper of cultural memory, “with an eye toward recuperating the humanity of the enslaved.” Chez Brooks, the artist is a critic, a scholar, an archivist, and a historian.

As both critic and scholar herself, Brooks endeavors to blur those lines and, in some cases, to obliterate them. Her previous two books, a lyrical exegesis of Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album Grace and Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910, a volume about the politics of Black performance, are clearly demarcated as either critical or scholarly. Liner Notes bridges those approaches, weaving Black Studies, and a Black-feminist philosophy, into popular-press music criticism. The latter has long been shorthand for the white-male tradition of rock criticism, which Brooks slants with both critique and reverence. It would maybe seem at odds with her Black feminism to seek out connections between, say, Greil Marcus and Angela Davis. But that generous curiosity is among Brooks’s strengths: Liner Notes functions as an indictment—of the general mishandling of Black women’s sonic legacies, and of specific mishandlings, too—but it is foremost an invitation to do more and better work, to view criticism as an act of love and artmaking as an act of historical imperative.

Brooks skates over other binaries too, including the music-criticism philosophies of rockism, which elevates conventional rock performance as the standard by which to evaluate music, and poptimism, the reactionary ethos that often equates mainstream success with cultural relevance, to arrive at a third mode. Hers is a hybrid philosophy, capacious enough to grant the biggest of pop stars the presumption of intellect; in fact, she reserves some of her highest praise for Beyoncé, whom she credits, generously, as embodying Saidiya Hartman’s theory that the contemporary Black experience can be understood as an afterlife of slavery. But Brooks’s approach also offers reverence to the obscurest of the obscure, honoring the women whose names we’ll never know and damning the history that wrested from them their power. Brooks does not conflate reach with significance, or anonymity with hagiographic adulation: the women whose work she charts—from “lost” 1930s blueswomen Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas to Solange Knowles—belong to a vast ontology.

READING LINER NOTES, I THOUGHT OF A STORY I learned of last year in a newsletter written by the journalist Kelsey McKinney: in her early twenties, in the late 1840s, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black woman considered to be a leading suffragist, published a book of poems that included the widely anthologized abolitionist piece “Bible Defense of Slavery.” Despite Harper’s profile in the suffrage movement, her collection was presumed by scholars to have disappeared. In 2015, researcher Johanna Ortner wrote about finding it with a single keyword search. It’s not that Harper’s work wasn’t archived; it’s that, for some 150 years, no one with access cared enough to look.

“History” is not a synonym for “the past.” Brooks engages this idea across Liner Notes. In articulating the intellectual labor of so many Black women artists—unknown, “undertheorized,” or both—she implicitly acknowledges those who, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the capital-A archive, but whose contributions surround us nonetheless. While Liner Notes is occasionally weighed down by a dry-mouthed scholarly tone, it is free of the proprietary, competitive, or potentially hostile vibe of the academy. Brooks imagines, and calls into being, not an antagonistic relationship but a psychically collaborative one. And this enthusiasm is contagious. So much so that it has made me, a reluctant participant in my own career as a music critic, giddy about the work that still needs to be done. It is a gentle invitation to take my contributions to documenting and theorizing the work of Black women more seriously—even, maybe especially, when they feel insignificant. After a talk I gave while interviewing for my current teaching job, a generous colleague addressed the search committee on my behalf, referencing my work in The FADER: “She was the first journalist to take Cardi B seriously, to treat her like a human and an artist,” she enthused, referring to a pair of profiles of the rapper I’d written years earlier, before her ascent to stardom. It was a kind intervention, and not only because it was said to a room of people with some amount of power over my livelihood.

In truth, I rarely thought about my work actually existing anywhere outside of my anxious brain. For several years, I worked at a magazine that was often the first “mainstream” publication to give artists, many of them Black and many of them women, critical consideration. And when Vogue and Rolling Stone and the New York Times inevitably came calling, our work would become eclipsed. I took that to mean I would be too. Reading Liner Notes, I felt compelled to reconsider my personal archive, particularly as a Black woman who frequently writes about Black women. Might my profile of the Tennessee rapper and mother-of-four BbyMutha one day mean something to a scholar looking to understand how Black women from the South exploded expressions of single parenthood? Might my story about the Philly artist Tierra Whack offer a starting point for someone thinking about the cultural significance of the Black woman as trickster? Might my piece about Solange’s A Seat at the Table contribute to the mounting proof that Black women’s intellectual labor has shaped the social internet as we know it? Reading Side B of Brooks’s volume, in which she examines how critics of all kinds have shaped the way the world has understood the women she writes about, I felt she would demand this self-reflection or at least encourage it.

The idea of the album liner note itself, a literal collaboration between artist and critic and the figurative starting point for Liner Notes for the Revolution, underscores Brooks’s notion that the relationship between musician and writer or musician and fan can be a site of potential collaboration. In a piece for the New York Times, Brooks argued: “Writing about records from the vantage point of the marginalized provides fresh ways of hearing the sounds. The ability to take an intricate snapshot of a particular recording and then trace the concentric circles of its resonance beyond the studio are reasons notes still matter and why these women authors so deeply value them.” While I have never been invited to write anyone’s liner notes, Brooks’s assessment here gives me a new way to frame my work, and a renewed commitment to the practice.

Brooks does not offer a completist survey; how could she? But neither does she promise one. Anything exhaustive must come in collaboration; it is up to other writers and thinkers to join her in exploring the intellectual work and cultural contributions made, for instance, by Black women from other parts of the world, during other eras, working in other forms. And yet that points to one of Liner Notes for the Revolution’s few flaws: its high barrier of entry. It requires an agreement with, or at least an understanding of, the premise that there is a condition of Black womanhood that intrinsically connects Abbey Lincoln to Janelle Monáe, or Bessie Smith to Beyoncé, not because of a shared musical tradition, but because of centuries of common social and political forces.

The question hanging over that frame is what it means today, for the Black women musicians working in a society that purports to be different. Consider this indictment from the novelist Yaa Gyasi, published in a story I edited for that aforementioned magazine: “We have the tendency today to look at our ancestors with this idea that we are somehow smarter or more moral people,” she said. We’re not. The unfortunate truth is that many of the realities that bind Black women to each other, and that result in the obscurity and the undertheorization Brooks critiques in the first place, remain in play. There’s even a new force to add: the terror of the algorithm, which has its own uniquely violent way of making Black women simultaneously invisible and hypervisible. Google, I’ve learned time and again, is not a neutral archive. Brooks may not have intended it as such, but Liner Notes is a loud warning shot: seeing Black women everywhere is not the same as seeing Black women.

Rawiya Kameir is a contributing editor at Pitchfork and an assistant teaching professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.