How Black Women Musicians Defined What We Call Culture

Historians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, music, popular culture, criticism

Inspired by the liner notes that accompany vinyl records, which started as places for advertising and became “potent places for experimentation and critique,” Daphne Brooks places her own book between genres. Liner Notes for the Revolution is at once a “counterhistory of popular music criticism,” archival scholarship on the lost and under-remembered figures of Black women’s music-making, and a manual for how to listen to music in a way that understands singing itself as culture work and intellectual labor. Frankfurt School thinkers make frequent appearances in the bibliography, as do Black feminist scholars from Zora Neale Hurston on, but they’re almost outnumbered by critics, poets, and fiction writers, and they’re all placed on equal intellectual ground with the musicians themselves.

Brooks writes with buoyant passion about the musicians and performances that mean so much to her, intellectually as well as personally. Her chattiness with her reader reflects the importance she places on the openness and intimacy that singers create with their audience, as well as the sensibility that she prizes in criticism and scholarship, of discarding useless hierarchies and barriers to understanding. We spoke on Zoom earlier this month; the following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

NAWAL ARJINI: Would you talk about the revolution in the title?

DAPHNE BROOKS: It’s deeply embedded in my core presumption that any art made by Black folks is revolutionary in that it defies the odds of how African Americans are historically expected to be able to articulate their humanity. I was trying to chart this overlooked, undertheorized history of Black women thinkers, whether they be musicians, writers, or everyday, round-the-way sisters on their way to the record store, who expressed their ideas about culture and taste and desire. Black women musicians were central to defining “modern culture.” It was these twinned axes of revolutionary cultural expressiveness and cultural thought that I wanted to explore in the book.

NA: You quote Robert Christgau’s argument that “rock criticism embraced a dream or metaphor of perpetual revolution.” What’s the relationship between that revolution and the ones you write about?

DB: The golden age of rock music criticism has informed my thinking, and I also battle with it. That epoch of writing was centered on a belief among predominantly white male critics that rock-and-roll music culture was the most revolutionary and insurgent cultural expression of the post–World War II era. The way those writers identified revolution was this radical, sui generis individualism that rock artists, they argued, gave birth to. My contention is that, if we trace the history of popular music culture back to the catastrophe of 1619, there’s a long, vibrant artistic tradition that comes out of that catastrophe. That’s a longer duree of revolution than the boys in the club were trying to chart in the ’60s.

Read entire article at The Nation

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