When we think about modern pop music our minds often go to the gyrating hips, blonde tresses, and girl power anthems of the ‘80s to early aughts. Madonna, Britney, Gaga, TSwift. But the unsung champions and pioneers of the genre are the prolific Black women who are featured in journalist, critic, and author Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop.
Her ode to these women–both familiar and not so familiar–is explored in a chronicle of the evolution of pop. Told through intensely researched mini-biographies, this narrative breaks the mold by infusing Smith’s own story and relationship to pop music within its pages.
Former editor-in-chief of VIBE and Billboard magazines and host of Spotify podcast Black Girl Songbook, Smith writes with the unique authority and passion for these icons of pop and in doing so cements their legacy.
You’ll learn about Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who sang her poems, Mahalia Jackson and Dionne Warwick, and move on to Gladys Knight and the Pips, then to Whitney, to Janet, to Mariah, all while swaying to the rhythm of their iconic music. Smith even made a playlist to accompany the book (more on that below below).
We interviewed Smith to learn more about her process, her career, and her thoughts on whether we’re getting a new Rihanna album anytime soon. (Hint: if she knows anything, she’s not spilling.)
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FODOR’S: We love your Spotify playlists and it even inspired us making some of our own! If you were to make a playlist for readers to listen to you while reading this book, what would be your top five suggestions?
DANYEL SMITH: Just listen to this 16-song playlist. It’s a kind of soundtrack to the Introduction [chapter] of Shine Bright, and hints at the chapters to come. The playlist includes amazing songs from artists like Natalie Cole, Janet Jackson, Tamia, Aretha Franklin, Soul II Soul, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Sade.
Tell us a bit about your tenure at VIBE, and the hip hop and pop music scene in New York City at the time. Reading about it and growing up during it feels like such a distinct, incredible time in music and history.
It was wild. Dazzling. Frightening. Heartbreaking, and overwhelming. It was deeply fun. It was working with brilliant creatives who were committed to excellent storytelling about music and hip-hop culture. We shared that purpose. And on our best days, we set the world straight about Black culture. If it weren’t for affinity publications including VIBE, as well as XXL, Ebony, Tan, Jet, Essence, Right On!, The Source, King, Honey, Suede, and VIBE Vixen, as well as institutions like Soul Train and BET–all of which emerged in response to the segregationist mores of mainstream American journalism and broadcasting–we wouldn’t have much detail about the depths of Black genius, by any gender, at all. So, yes. We worked really hard at VIBE, and we really loved it. Those days called for and received the strongest part of me.
We were so struck by the gorgeous cover and bold title of this book. Can you tell us a little about that?
The title is meant to be a manifestation, a goal, a prompt, a lyric, a song! And the design team at One World [the publishing imprint at Penguin Random House] was into it. They are phenomenal. They work intimately with authors and editors. They go to unexpected places with their work.
Real talk, do you think we’ll ever get R9 from Riri?
If I knew, I would not tell.
This book isn’t just about Black music history and musicians. It has pieces of you. And you’ve been honest about the difficulty in weaving in your own stories. How did you decide to write personal accounts and anecdotes on these pages?
It was difficult, but it was time. I had a big nudge from my editor, Chris Jackson. I had massive encouragement from my husband, Elliott, and from my sister, Raquel.
Relatively younger readers and music lovers will discover a lot of “old tech” in the book. How do you imagine our music experience has changed from records to iPods to phones to Alexa?
I’m most concerned about songs that I love that are, for whatever reason, not available on DSPs [digital signal processors]. If an artist’s work is not available for streaming, their legacy is at best minimized. And at worst, the legacy is erased.
Your résumé is bonkers! With several books and awards to your name, multiple runs as an editor-in-chief, a Yaddo fellowship, and podcast host for starters…what’s one gig you’d love to add or something you’d love to do?
Direct a documentary. Do music supervision for directors I love. Open a sandwich shop in a college town near a big lake, or an ocean.
We found this book so transportive, and read reviews where women mentioned stopping the book to listen to the song you’re discussing. Did you do the same while writing? What was that process like?
While researching and writing I listened to music intensely, and intentionally. I made scores of playlists. Looked for patterns and vibes and links and missing links. Writing Shine Bright is one of the most challenging and most amazing parts of my career.
As a young Black woman, I feel like this book is such a love letter not only to these women but to Black women in general, can you talk a bit about the response you’ve gotten to the book?
It’s wonderful. Especially when people take photos of themselves experiencing the book, and post it on Instagram. Especially when people make playlists based on particular chapters. Especially when people tweet out facts from Shine Bright that are new to them. Especially when Black women see their heroes—and so, themselves—in new ways. I’m grateful.
‘Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop’ by Danyel Smith (published by Roc Lit 101/Penguin Random House) is available now in hardback, e-book, and audiobook.