Celebrating Black Women in Pop Music

A conversation with Danyel Smith.

danyel smith
Penguin Random House

The subtitle of Danyel Smith’s new book, Shine Bright, is “A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,” so you’ll have to forgive me for sharing some very personal feelings: I consider myself a direct descendant of Smith, the cultural critic, novelist, podcaster, and editor who oversaw Vibe during the hip-hop magazine’s high point in the 1990s. As the first Black and female editor in chief of a mainstream magazine, Smith opened doors for my generation of Black female writers to thrive.

A hybrid of memoir, musical and cultural criticism, and group biography, Shine Bright is packed with historical details that reveal the lives and work of artists like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey, while also weaving in characters from Smith’s life, like her mother (who first introduced her to classic soul and R&B) and her sister.

Smith grew up in Oakland and Los Angeles and currently lives in Venice, California, with her husband, journalist and Tidal chief content officer Elliott Wilson. We spoke by phone about her book, her life, and, of course, her love of music. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

This book is a very personal account of your life in California. How much did Cali influence you?
I lived a double decade in New York, so in some ways, I feel like a dual citizen, but I finished the book here. I think there’s some poetry to that because I started out dreaming about being a writer and a journalist here in California as a kid.

If you weren’t a music writer, what do you think you would have done?
I always wanted to do something that had to do with words or books. I thought when I was a freshman in college that I was going to major in library studies, which came from my family saying, “Oh, she’s the girl who likes books. She should work at the library. That’s a good job with the city.” I took a few classes at Cal and knew it wasn’t for me. And then, I got into writing. My career has gone back and forth between writing and editing, but writing always calls me back. The word always calls me back.

What calls you back to California?
I’ve been trying to come back to California since I left! That’s the truth! I thought when I left it would be a five-year stint in New York City. I married a native New Yorker, so that stretched it out longer than I would have liked. Then my husband’s parents retired to Nevada, so then it seemed like the Wilsons were migrating to the West. It was time. It was about a year before the pandemic. I also felt a strong pull to be closer to my sister.

Yeah, you write about your sister a lot.
Yes, she’s proof of existence for me. Proof of life. Now I live in Venice and she lives in Redondo. So it’s very easy to see my sister. It’s very easy to see my nephew and my niece, when she’s home from college. My parents are near Pasadena. My aunt is in Ventura. It’s very nice after years of being away from the greatest state in the union.

I did a whole episode on Black Girl Songbook called “Black California Girls.” I feel that we are a special breed. We grow up in this very specific shadow of California girls that are blue-eyed and blond in a bikini gazing out into the coastline sunset. It’s a very slim girl, always, and she’s just lifted up as this ultimate “California girl.” But the thing is, we’re California girls, too. I don’t know every characteristic of Black California girls, but I do know that one of them is a love of nature and an appreciation of being outside. I think being born in California gives you an appreciation of blue skies in the morning, mountaintops at night, deserts in the afternoon, and different types of cultures. I think to be born here as a Black woman, we’re already special. But us California Black girls are sun-kissed. Sorry! It’s true.

When you were a little girl, did you know you were going to be the first of anything?
Girl, I didn’t know I was going to be the first to cross the street! No, I didn’t know anything like that. I think your generation is so much more self-aware than mine is in a lot of ways. I don’t know if my friends and I were aware of being in a narrative when we were in it. Maybe that’s just a working-class thing. I always felt like every year was a new adventure, and many years were about survival and figuring out what was the next thing. I don’t know that I had that thought.

What would you tell a young Black girl in Oakland who wanted to become a writer and explore music?
Things are very different now than when I was partying in my 20s and trying to become who I eventually was going to become, but I think some things haven’t changed. If you want to be a writer and get into music, I would say, Keep listening to music super loud. Don’t let anybody tell you that’s not real music or it’s not as good as the previous generation’s. When they tell you that, tell them that they can kiss your butt, and you pump the volume up and listen real hard and write about it the best way you know how to and build yourself a community of people who love music.•

Jordannah Elizabeth’s writing has appeared in NPR Music, the Village Voice, Downbeat, and New York Amsterdam News.
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