“Quiet as it’s kept, Black women of sound have a secret,” starts Daphne Brooks in her new book, “Liner Notes for the Revolution — The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound.”
Brooks will discuss her ideas in a video-streamed conversation with past Poet Laureate of the United States and chair of the Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts Tracey Smith on Thursday, April 1, at 6 p.m. as part of the Labyrinth Books’ livestream presentations.
A professor of African American studies, American studies, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and music at Yale University, Brooks is also the author of several award-winning books, including “Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910.”
Her new book is the first volume in a trilogy titled “Subterranean Blues: Black Women Sound Modernity.”
Continuing the above idea of a “secret,” Brooks says that Black women of sound possess “a history unfolding on other frequencies while the world adores them and yet mishears them, celebrates them and yet ignores them, heralds them and simultaneously devalues them.
“Theirs is a history that is, nonetheless, populated with revolutionaries” such as vaudevillian musical-comedian Muriel Ringgold; first blues recording artist Mamie Smith; opera soprano and the original Bess in “Porgy and Bess,” Anne Brown; and the more familiar artists Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, and, more recently, Etta James.
“Theirs is a history of the utopic and the transformative, the strange and strategically unruly” and, says Brooks, the “Black women musicians who have made the modern world.”
Getting to the heart of her argument, Brooks writes, “Black women’s musical practices are, in short, revolutionary because they are inextricably linked to the matter of Black life. Their strategies of performance perpetually and inventively philosophize the prodigiousness of its scope. But also — and quite crucially — Black women’s musical practices are revolutionary because of the ways in which said practices both forecast and execute the viability and potentiality of Black life.”
Brooks links the efforts of these women to a “revolution in intellectual labor,” noting that she uses the world “labor” self-consciously and referencing back to “Black radical tradition theorist Cedric Robinson’s classic observations about the way that Black work matters in relation to modern life. He insists that we ‘pay close attention to what (W.E.B.) Du Bois was saying: slavery was the specific historical institutions through which the Black worker had been introduced into the modern world system. However, it was not as slaves that one could come to an understanding of the significance that these Black men, women, and children had for American development. It was as labor. He had entitled the first chapter to ‘Black Reconstruction,’ ‘The Black Worker’ . . . The profound urgency of Black women’s culture work cannot be overstated.”
After using an example of Mamie Smith’s 1920 “Crazy Blues,” which, the author says, “effectively blew up the segregated pop cultural scene by seizing hold of modernity’s new sonic technologies” and gave “Black thought, Black rage, Black desire” a “few and unhindered channels for expression in the age of Jim Crow terror” that enabled “Crazy Blues” be transformed into a “missive sent out to Black publics who bought her joint in droves. It said to them that all that feeling, all those strategies for living, could be improvised in the music, in sonic performances that bucked convention, mixed and made new forms, and expressed the capaciousness of Black humanity.”
Brooks says her new book “enters into this awesome, generations-spanning tradition of meditating on the insurgency of Black sound in three ways”:
First, she writes, “it lays claim to the idea that modern popular music culture would cease to exist in the ways that we’ve come to know it without Black women artists.”
After giving a nod to landmark Black feminist scholarship and pioneering critics, Brooks says her book intends to explore the work of “lesser-known figures as well as dearly beloved icons, all of whom curate sonic performances that not only push the boundaries of musical experimentalism and invention but also produce daring and lyrical expressions of Blackness and womanhood that affirms the richness of their lifeworlds.
“These Black women artists refuse the terms of being scripted as objects” but “choose to design their own mischievous and colorful, sometimes brooding and rage-filled, and always disruptive and questing definitions of a self that is intent on living a free life.”
Second, she notes, the book takes seriously the idea of “the archive” of “both the documentary record preserved by institutional powerbrokers and the faded pages we might imagine stored in an elderly sister’s trunk — as a crucial, culture-making entity that Black women musicians and critics have had to negotiate in relation to their own artistic ambitions and to the problem of Black historical memory more broadly.’
Furthermore, she adds, these Black women artists are archives who “have operated through their music as the repositories of the past” and “engaged in active projects to archive their own creative practices. To document the intellectual and creative processes tied to their music, all of which amounts to a Black feminist intellectual history in sound that has thus far gone unmarked and unheralded.”
And third, the book “excavates a counterhistory of popular music criticism, that deeply undertheorized form of critical writing that for several pivotal decades of the 20th century were closely entangled with the social and cultural economy and sustainability of popular music culture.”
A practice that Brooks said “marginalized African American women’s role in popular music history, resulting in a grossly skewed understanding of the place at the center of modern music innovation.”
And a mindset that was able to see the Black women music performers as “fugitive thinkers, critics, and theorists of sound.”
Written in a lively and expressive manner, the book shows Brooks’ passion and presents a fittingly provocative and researched argument to bring cultural and critical respect to Black women musicians. The discussion should prove the same.
“Liner Notes for the Revolution — The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound,” 608 pages, $39.95. Harvard University Press.
Author Daphne Brooks will be in discussion with Tracey Smith, during a Labyrinth Books livestream, Thursday, April 1, 6 p.m. The free event is cosponsored by the Princeton Public Library, Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, Princeton University Concerts, and the African American Studies Department at Princeton.
To register, go to www.labyrinthbooks.com/events/1251.