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You’re listening to IT’S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I’m your guest host this week, Juana Summers.

All right, y’all, writing a book is a feat. And if you ask just about any author, they will certainly tell you. But today’s guest knew exactly where to find inspiration.


DANYEL SMITH: So I would just listen to, say, all of the songs that made it to No. 1 R&B in 1971 that were created by women.

SUMMERS: That’s longtime friend of the show Danyel Smith. She says she relied heavily on playlists while working on her new book “Shine Bright: A Very Personal History Of Black Women In Pop.”

SMITH: You know, super specific, slightly nerdy playlists.

SUMMERS: Songs like “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight.


JEAN KNIGHT: (Singing) Mr. Big Stuff. Who do you think you are?

SUMMERS: “Want Ads” by Honey Cone.


HONEY CONE: (Singing) Want, young man single and free.

SMITH: That got me through chapters.

SUMMERS: “If I Were Your Woman” by Gladys Knight & the Pips.


GLADYS KNIGHT: (Singing) If I were your woman…

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) If you were my woman…

KNIGHT: (Singing) If I were your woman…

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) If you were my woman…

SMITH: That also just inspired me – you know, getting up in the morning and keeping my mind focused on work.


SUMMERS: Now, Danyel is the queen of music reporting. She is the former editor in chief at both Billboard and Vibe magazines. And she is also the host of the Spotify podcast “Black Girl Songbook.” I have been a big fan of hers for a really long time. And her new book is a love letter to Black women in pop music, many of whom have not been given their due. Danyel recognizes their legacies and captures how the genre was built on their achievements in a way that I have just never heard it described before. I also saw myself reflected in her book. It’s about growing up as a Black girl in this country and what it’s like to both achieve, but also to be wildly underestimated. It’s a book about humility and also this really imaginative and beautiful bravery. All right, y’all. Let’s get into it. Here is my chat with Danyel.


SUMMERS: This book is such a personal and intimate journey through the history of Black women in pop music. It starts with Phillis Wheatley, a woman who was enslaved and saying her poems. And it stretches through history with stories about all of the greats that we know, like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight and Janet Jackson. I have to ask about your inspiration for writing this book. It feels to me like you’ve been writing it your whole life.

SMITH: The main inspiration is I just literally never feel like Black women in music receive the credit they are due. I also just feel like Black women’s lives and, to some degree also, Black people’s artistic and genius – the genius side of their lives is written about so often in summary. I think their lives are written about so often as like a moment of Black History Month or written about as a moment of a first being accomplished. And all of these things are smart, and all of these things are important, but I wanted to very much write about the details of the genius of Black women’s lives, everything from what the material of their dresses was to what wigs they decided to put on to the decor at the clubs they most often performed at to their actual births, their mothers, you know, giving birth to them, and what were the circumstances of those birth moments? I think all of this kind of stuff is important.

And if you look at writing about people like Paul McCartney or you look at writing people like Eric Clapton or all these, you know, famous white male rock stars, you know this stuff. But so often for Black women, we just don’t know these things. And these things do contribute to people’s genius, to people’s lives, to what they create.

SUMMERS: What is lost when we don’t learn about those origin stories, those minute details like the fabric and the texture of these women’s lives? What are we missing when we don’t talk about that?

SMITH: I mean, it’s – the word is used a lot, but it’s used a lot because it’s the right word. It contributes to erasure. It contributes to a dealing artists with a kind of simplicity. It doesn’t acknowledge – for example, I go into it in “Shine Bright” – this moment of Gladys Knight recording, you know, one of the vocal tracks for “Midnight Train To Georgia.” You know how hard it is to just even find that…


SMITH: …Who was in the room, what vocal they were laying, who the instrumentalists were, who the engineer was, where Gladys was standing in the room when she was recording?


SMITH: Like, where is that just all in one place? And also, frankly, for me, it’s my voice on the topic just because I consider myself to be a very passionate creator, a very rigorous reporter, and I wanted it just all there in one place with that kind of passion and rigor.

SUMMERS: Can we talk more about that song in that moment? I love how you describe the song as the story of a woman torn. I also love that song. What makes you love it so much?

SMITH: I mean, there’s, like, 8 million reasons I love every…


SMITH: I love every beat of that song. I love the vocal arrangement. I love every instrument on its own and with all of the other instruments. I love the conversation going on back and forth between Gladys Knight and her Pips.


KNIGHT: (Singing) LA proved too much for the man.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Too much for the man. He couldn’t make it.

SMITH: I just also love it, though, because I’m a California girl. And the song – actually, it seems like it’s about Georgia, but really, it’s about California. It’s about a couple that came to California to try to make it, as Gladys says over and over in the song.


KNIGHT: (Singing) He kept dreaming…


KNIGHT: (Singing) …Ooh, that someday he’d be the star.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) A superstar, but he didn’t get far.

SMITH: I identify with being a California girl who has always kind of been trying to make it. My mother is a California girl who tried to make it. My grandmother, my great-grandparents, came up from the South to try to make it. So this resonates with me on super, like – almost like DNA levels – “Midnight Train To Georgia.”

And also, just as a woman, it shows up as a pattern in “Shine Bright” so often. There’s just so often these times where it seems that if you’re a straight Black woman involved with a straight Black male, a straight white male, a straight male, there can be a certain amount of resentment for the Black woman’s success, her work ethic or her ambition. And I feel that tension in “Midnight Train To Georgia” a lot. Everyone always assumes – especially because she says, and I’ll be with you…


KNIGHT: (Singing) I’ll be with you.

SMITH: And the Pips say, I know you will. And they almost step on her saying that.


KNIGHT: (Singing) On that midnight train to Georgia.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Leaving on the midnight train to Georgia.

SMITH: My thing is, we don’t even know how she means that. She can mean I’ll be with you in spirit, bro. Like, I’ll be with you, like, in your heart (laughter).

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: But I’m in Los Angeles, and I haven’t pawned all my hopes yet. Like, I haven’t sold my car. Like, I’m still going to be here. I got you to the station. I love you dearly, and I wish you well. But I’m perhaps not jumping on this midnight train to Georgia. That’s always been my read of it, even from when I was a kid.

SUMMERS: I have to say, I was so impressed by the way in which you seem to think so critically about music, even when you were so young and the way that you talked about the ways that men, who largely had all of the bylines back then, were writing about women, writing about Black women artists, writing about women fanbases and how they enjoyed music. How did you start thinking about music in that way? It’s just so nuanced and layered.

SMITH: Well, one, I appreciate that. Two, I just have always loved music. I’ve always been nosy.

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: And so I guess it makes sense that I would become, you know, a culture writer, a music critic. But it really started for me reading the liner notes of albums. We used to have albums in the house. My mother was very big with the Columbia Club where you would, like – for a penny, you would get 10 albums. Whatever that cult was, we were in it deeply.

SUMMERS: Yeah (laughter).

SMITH: And my mother would let us pick, like, three of the albums or whatever the ratio was. And these things were treasures in the house. And even before that, I just remember, like, “Songs In The Key Of Life,” the album art and the lyric book and everything that came with Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life” album. These things impacted me, the design – I think it also contributed to me wanting to become a magazine editor, the way these things were designed. And there seemed to be so much emotion in them and so much poetry.

And then by the time I got to high school, I would go to the library – I write about it a little bit in “Shine Bright” – and I would look at the magazines, the old Life magazines, the old Rolling Stone magazines. I went to a great high school – St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood, Calif. – and we used to have these bound issues of these old magazines. And I would just go through them, and I would read about what people were saying about, you know, The Beatles and what they were saying about, you know, all the big groups of the ’60s – Motown, The Supremes. And I would so rarely see a woman’s byline. I would literally be searching for it. I would literally go to the next collection of bound issues just looking, looking for a woman’s byline, even something I could make up. Like, maybe if she spelled it with a I-E, maybe it means it’s a woman.


SMITH: (Laughter) But I couldn’t find it, man, and it made me mad.


SUMMERS: Coming up, Danyel tells me about the time she interviewed Whitney Houston in her home.


SUMMERS: I will say, for me, when I was reading this book – when you got to the part of the book where you first started talking about the gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, I actually had to pick up my phone and text my mom because I just have these, like, very deep and vivid memories of remembering her putting on those CDs in our kitchen, especially if someone had passed on. I still cannot listen to her singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” without literally getting goosebumps running down my spine. And I’m curious if you can talk about her a little bit and what she means to you.

SMITH: You know, what’s so wild about my relationship to Mahalia Jackson is that it’s more new than a lot of the relationships…

SUMMERS: Really?

SMITH: …I have to a lot of the women in “Shine Bright.” I’m a Catholic, by tribe if not by practice. And so I didn’t listen to a lot of gospel as a kid. I wasn’t in a gospel choir as a kid. And when I would hear gospel music live, it was going to the churches of my friends. But the thing about Mahalia is that I realized as I was writing “Shine Bright,” that I already knew, of course, that gospel was at the center of so much, at the beginning of so much. It’s foundational to so much. But what I began to realize – it’s not just gospel that’s at the center; it’s Mahalia herself.


MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

SMITH: It’s her voice. But again, to me, because it’s very specifically about Black women in pop music, so much of my book is very much about Black women’s ambition. And people don’t often write about the ambition of Mahalia Jackson, where she really started picking up that driftwood out of the Mississippi River to warm the house that basically had no roof. It’s like, listen. And then to – for her to get to Chicago and then for her to have to work these crazy jobs – she worked as a maid in a lumber camp. Can you imagine being a young Black woman working as a cleaner, as a service person in a lumber camp? It’s just got to be filled with fear. Like, I cannot…


SMITH: …Begin to imagine. And then her – imagine just her getting out of that and wanting more, and her ambition to also bring gospel to a wider and wider and wider audience. Like, that just really became as fascinating to me as listening to her voice.


JACKSON: (Singing) From my home.

SUMMERS: Wow. You described this book as an attempt for yourself to explore your intense love and devotion to music. And it made me wonder what this book taught you about yourself and about how you grew up.

SMITH: You know, you know things, but then you don’t necessarily just go around acknowledging them or stating them. And I think as much as I’ve written about music in my life, I didn’t always go around saying that it saved my life. It gave me whole parts of my childhood that were missing because of the tumultuous nature of my childhood, which I write about a good deal in “Shine Bright.” And it’s the first time I’m really writing about it publicly ’cause I’ve written about it semi-autobiographically in, you know, a novel that I wrote in ’03 called “More Like Wrestling,” and I’ve got stacks and stacks of journals about it. And Lord knows, like, I probably damn near killed my…

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: …MFA cohort reading aloud about it in tears. Like, it goes on and on. But this is the first time I really put it out there. And so – but I just decided, you know, I’m in my mid-50s, and it’s like, who am I saving it for, and why am I not telling the story of what is really the story of myself and my sister, Raquel, who loves music also, is a passionate music lover? But I just wanted to say and, again, give the music of Black women the credit that it’s due even in my life. Like, to just go around saying, oh, my God, I just love music so much, that’s why I became a music critic – I mean, yeah, sure. But if I hadn’t listened to Natalie Cole when I was 8 and 9 years old, would I be a music critic right now? I just don’t know that I would be.


NATALIE COLE: (Singing) This will be an everlasting love. This will…

SMITH: If I hadn’t listened to Sade when I was in my early 20s and late teens, would I be the former editor in chief of Vibe or Billboard? I don’t know that I would be.


SADE: (Singing) Oh, when you’re cold, I’ll be there. Hold you tight to me.

SMITH: These women don’t just have, like, a passing effect on me. It’s not – and I love to dance, and I have danced and hopefully will continue to dance many, many nights until the actual break of dawn. But I’m talking about being in service to my soul, like, and getting me to where I needed to be as, like, a human on this earth. And they deserve that credit.

SUMMERS: Yeah. Especially as a journalist, one of the moments that I was so curious about in this book was the opportunity that you had to meet with Whitney Houston in her home. And I would just love to know what she was like. It stuck with me – for whatever reason, I don’t know why – that you said she introduced herself using all three names, using her middle name, too. That detail just really – I don’t know, it’s stuck in my head since I read it.

SMITH: Yes. You know, it actually is that she introduced herself to Robyn Crawford like that at day camp and that Robyn Crawford never forgot that because no one was going around introducing – I can imagine if I got on the radio with you today and I was just like, hi, how are you? My name is Danyel Victoria Smith Wilson (laughter). People would be, like, OK, interesting.


SMITH: But you would remember me, right? And that’s what Whitney Houston was doing. And she also did like in her life to be called for a time Whitney Houston Brown. So, you know, names are important. I think that Whitney was always trying to say who she was because, you know, she couldn’t really say who she was. So I think she always strived for this kind of clarity in her work and in her vocal performances and, you know, that she couldn’t really live out again as a human on this earth. So spending time with her that evening in New Jersey, I was just really struck by how much fun she seemed like she liked to have. She invited me to play some type of Nerf football in her living room.

SUMMERS: I love that.

SMITH: And it was – when I think about it, it was just a moment. And I also recall something that I think happens in a lot of – I’ve interviewed different women in their homes. And I find that in so many women’s homes, they have their awards not on their first floor or in their front room but away. And Whitney had her stuff, you know – and some homes, they had – and this was a huge mansion. But, you know, they have, like, what’s called a rumpus room, or, like, a very nicely redone basement or something…


SMITH: …Like that. And Whitney had a beautiful room, an awards room in that New Jersey mansion that was beautiful. It was, like, dark, but the awards, the Grammys and things or American Music Awards are all in these glass cases that were beautifully lit. But they were still in the basement. I don’t even think I put that in the book. But it’s, like, I remember my niece coming over, and I have a few awards for writing, and my niece asked me one day – she said, why are your awards in the back of the place? And I’m like, are they?

SUMMERS: Why are they in the back?

SMITH: I mean, these are the questions that need answers, like, because I think as Black women, we – and as women, probably, we hesitate so often to put our accomplishments out front. We don’t want to offend anyone. We don’t want anyone to think that we’re vain. We don’t want to appear too loud. We don’t want to appear conceited. That was such a huge crime – I remember in my adolescence – for a girl to be considered conceited. Oh, my God, she’s…

SUMMERS: Oh, yeah.

SMITH: …Awful. She’s conceited. Do you remember this, right? And…

SUMMERS: Oh, I do.

SMITH: …I think it’s – right? Isn’t it a whole thing? And I don’t like her. She thinks too much of herself. She thinks she’s all that. Or elementary school – she thinks she’s cute. She thinks she’s smart. And it’s like, well, perhaps I am cute. Perhaps I am smart. Perhaps I am accomplished. Perhaps I have won the awards because of my talent and my work ethic. But because I don’t want to sit anybody back on their heels, I’ll put my trophies, you know, somewhat away. And if someone asks, sure, I’ll show them. But, you know, and – if they ask. And it’s just bananas to me that Whitney Houston, the voice of the 20th century, was doing the same.


SUMMERS: After the break, what Danyel wants people to take away from “Shine Bright.”


SUMMERS: You have talked so much in this book and in this conversation about the ways in which Black women’s contributions have been unvalued, how their – how our achievements are often erased. And as you and I know well, those – the limits of that do not stop with the music industry. But you also make this point in this book that we can’t continue to linger and live and be held back by the fear of that erasure. So I guess I’m curious how you have gotten to that point because it’s really easy to be mad about a lot of this – right? – to be frustrated about the things that these women were denied and deprived of. How did you arrive at that conclusion, that we can’t linger?

SMITH: I may have printed this (ph) – I think I arrived at that part internally a while ago. I don’t think I would be the places that I’ve been in my life and career had I been moving in fear. I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I’ve never been scared.


SMITH: That might be actually every morning upon awaking. But I think I just had to figure it out, even as a kid because of my childhood, that if I allowed the fear of erasure to keep me silent or to not make public my creativity, to not sort of just have a good time in my life, to not be of service to a community of people who deserve to be served with amazing culture journalism like I did at Vibe in particular – many places, but at “Vibe” in particular – then why was I here? And so I just came to it, but I just would very often not say it. I would not claim it. I think I would give it all over to – I just wanted to be a success, right?


SMITH: I would give it just, like, to that. And the thing is, it isn’t just – I don’t think that ambition itself is about necessarily what we come to think of as success. Oh, my God, you know, the cute apartment, the cute car, the dynamic partnership. I think ambition is just, like, leaving something behind and even living in the thing while you’re here. Like, it’s so hard on some days just to do that. I was writing about Simone Biles. I was blessed because ESPN sent me all the way to the Middle East to write about Simone Biles when she was competing in the World Championships there.


SMITH: So that was my first time going to a big gymnastics meet like that. And it was literally like a torture chamber. It was like a hall of horrors (laughter). Like, it was like, OK, so first we want you to walk on this 4-inch balance beam and, like, do all kind of flips on it and land on your inner thighs. So that’s what we want you to do. And then after that, we want you to go over to the nonparallel bars or whatever and just, like, flip around and then, like, do, like, 80 million flips in the air and then land really hard on your feet. Careful, don’t break your whole neck and, like, paralyze yourself. And then after that, please, like, go jump over this pommel horse and just – and mind you, look cute while you’re doing it. Cheer on your teammates, and smile for the camera in, like, a glittery leotard also while you’re doing it. And I mean, I think that Simone Biles has been doing a fantastic job of letting people know just who she is and what her work is. But at that time, not so much. You know…


SMITH: …She was still, I believe, realizing, you know, her strength and her power. But I said at that time that, you know, people love to blow accomplishments off of Black women like we’re dandelions.


SMITH: And I just believe that. I believe that people think it’s so easy for us to do those things in this hall of horrors that we’re all so often walking through. It’s just like, by all means, go into that big corporation where they’ve pretty much said they don’t want you there, and do excel, please. Please look happy and charming every single day. Please shake the hands of people who you know dislike you and wouldn’t send their children to school with you. Please wear your hair in a way that we deem appropriate, and then please go home to your family and don’t act like you’re being driven crazy on a daily basis.

SUMMERS: It feels impossible.

SMITH: And, you know, I was not brought up to feel sorry for myself. I was not brought up to do anything but the things that I am doing now. And some of that, you know, upbringing was painful, as it is for so many of us, but that doesn’t mean that these things should go unacknowledged. And better – these things should be celebrated. These things should be lifted up in the spaces that acknowledge Black women in music or wherever we happen to be doing our work as the geniuses as we so often are. It’s just bananas to me that if you look at The Supremes and The Beatles, those two groups, they were doing so much of – great work at the same time, going back and forth with No. 1 pop hits over and over again, that they are not viewed with the same esteem.


SMITH: This is not my opinion. There are data points to back this up – a number of documentaries, number of magazine covers, number of appearances, number of world – all these things. I hate it to be like that. But I worked at…


SMITH: …Billboard, and I believe in a good data point. You know what I mean?

SUMMERS: (Laughter) Yes, I do.

SMITH: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: When you think about your book, I am curious, what do you want people to take away from it? And when you were thinking about writing this book, who was in your mind? Who were you writing for?

SMITH: Oh, man. It’s super clear who I was writing for. I was writing for the ladies…

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: …In the book. I was writing for the Dixie Cups.


THE DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) My grandma and your grandma were sitting by the fire.

SMITH: I was writing for Jody Watley, Mariah Carey.


MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) Just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby. When I close my eyes…

SMITH: I was writing for Millie Small from Jamaica.


MILLIE SMALL: (Singing) My boy lollipop, you make my heart go giddy-up. You are…

SMITH: For Mahalia Jackson, (inaudible) and Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston and her Sweet Inspirations.


THE SWEET INSPIRATIONS: (Singing) I need your sweet inspiration. I need…

SMITH: Unheralded, unheralded, their contributions to rock, pop, gospel, everything. Dionne Warwick. I was writing for them, without question. I mean – and, you know, I added myself to the book late in the process.

SUMMERS: Say more about that.

SMITH: The book has been like its own little journey. I’m with One World Penguin Random House. They are the second publisher for this book. When Chris Jackson – a genius in his very own right – at One World, bought the book, you know, I guess it was five or six chapters. I thought they were super amazing chapters, right? And Chris was like, they are, of course, in that voice that means they are sort of just fine. And (laughter) he says, I think I bought a good book, but I think that we can finish with a great book if you claim your story as a Black woman in pop music.


SMITH: And it wasn’t that smooth. Like, it’s not like I said, OK, definitely, let me jump on that (laughter). It took more conversations and a lot of encouragement from him, actually, and from my husband and from my sister. The good ending to this story for me is that a book that had been taking me years and years to get done, it got done relatively quickly after that.

SUMMERS: What changed?

SMITH: Oh, I started telling my truth. I started not just saying, you know, these are the accomplishments of these women, but these are the accomplishments of these women, and this is how they affected me and the women of my generation or of my mother’s generation or of my grandmother’s generation. That’s when the book got really good to me. That’s when it got not easy, but just, like, it began to flow. I mean, really, to be able to write about my grandmother’s relationship with Nancy Wilson…


SMITH: …I’ve been thinking about it since I was in high school and had never articulated it. Why am I at Lincoln Center crying at a Nancy Wilson concert that I begged my husband to get me tickets to? Why?

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

SMITH: Why, why? Why have I never written about that? Well, now I have. And I know why I was crying at the Nancy Wilson show – because I see my grandmother crying to those records. The Black woman fans of my grandmother’s generation, where are those stories? Those women had musical heroes. There’s so much work to be done, and I’m happy to be living in a time when so much of it is being done. You know what I mean? When I think about the work of Dr. Daphne Brooks, when I think about the work of Clover Hope. You know, there’s so – Dawnie Walton – there’s so many women right now reclaiming their own stories, reclaiming the stories of Black women, Black women artists, Black women fans, Black woman’s culture, frankly. And so it feels like a really good time to be out here trying to do this work. I feel like a part of a really dynamic sisterhood.


SUMMERS: Well, I, for one, am very glad that this book is out in the world, and I appreciate you talking to me about it.

SMITH: Oh, for sure, Juana. I’m so happy that you called to talk to me about it. And I – and the thing is, I really do appreciate the close attention to the text. It’s never not a big deal to me that someone reads my work. I really do appreciate it. Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thank you for being here.

Danyel Smith is the author of the new book, “Shine Bright: A Very Personal History Of Black Women In Pop.” And it’s out now. You can also catch Danyel’s podcast, “Black Girl Songbook,” on Spotify. And if you want to hear more of the songs from this episode, find our playlist on And do not forget – keep sending us your best things. We really want to hear from you every week. Record yourself and send a voice file to [email protected] Again, that is I-B-A-M at

All right, y’all. This episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry Krbechek, and it was edited by Acacia Squires and Tamar Charney. We had engineering support on this episode from Stacey Abbott. We’ll be back in your feeds on Friday. Take care. We’ll talk soon.

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