Recently I spent a rare, early morning walking around and about the campus of my high school alma mater, Miss Porter's School. I have not resided in Farmington in over 30 years, and though I still do make my way to campus at various times throughout the year, it is often during the week when the campus is bustling with faculty, a fair share of vehicular traffic on Main Street is moving, voices of eager students serve as the soundtrack, and simply through eyeing those women and adults in-training, I witness an enormous welcoming wave of the future. I am on par with the community walking swiftly on my way here or there, always for the purpose of uplifting, enhancing, or celebrating the gem in Farmington that once was, and I will forever call home. On this day, however, the hour is so early on a week's end, there are no cars, and no busy faculty and administrators missioning to and fro. And most students, after yet another all-encompassing muscle-strengthening week, are gifting themselves the additional rejuvenation and rest they need and deserve.
Me? I am fully awake, now on par with the birds, and other freely moving animals and insects. I am alert and already in full swing of the day.
My only goal is to walk until I hit my time limit, but what puts a pep in my step is the voice in my ears along the way. It belongs to Danyel Smith, best known for her work in what I call "intentional music journalism." She is the author of two novels, and today also serves as podcast host and producer of Black Girl Songbook, adding onto her repertoire of contributions to popular culture. Though I am late to this party, I am excitedly listening to her memoir/ode to Black female music legends, Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop. One can call the work empowering or powerful, but those words are unfortunately now so often used for things that don't always deserve it, and even if deserving, the affirmations can feel canned. Shine Bright is not canned empowerment. Danyel's words and compilation of them are Raw, Intelligent, Profound, Original, Exquisite, True, and Necessary. But do I feel powerful while taking in the story? YES.
For any young Black woman aspiring to a career in music, from those who want to hold a microphone, to those who want to work behind the scenes, Shine Bright should be required reading. It should be required reading for all women, because just as I am moved by Joan of Arc or Frida Kahlo, every woman can learn about the women in Shine Bright if only to know the truths about the culture-shifting, pioneering achievements of Black women. If you are like me, a Black woman not in the music industry, but who wants to know more about women who look like you other than how good we can look "if we just do this or that", learn more about what we have and can accomplish in this world, run to your nearest bookstore, or add immediately to your Audible library (I have done both). Multi-task into your lives Danyel's precious and priceless history lessons which also involve her own traumatic childhood and triumphant life. You will find yourselves as I did, ending the book not only wanting to know more, but also wanting to DO more.
I walk briskly, eyeing all that is around me as I listen, at the same time taking mental notes of what has changed in Farmington since I walked these same roads as a teenager. Not much has. Still the same simple, neat, shingled, stone, or brick houses and old sheds. Still the same businesses which are dressed up as welcoming residences that look like you could both purchase something and stay for dinner. Still the same trees that thankfully, on time, are showing off their budding leaves. Still the same air that when I pause to inhale while waiting for crosswalks to allow fills me up unlike New York City air, Milwaukee air, Atlanta air, Madrid air, London air, Chicago air, Los Angeles air. It was in Farmington where I first paid full attention to breathing in and out and enjoying what that tasted and felt like. I'd spent the initial 14 of my years breathing to get by in some way or another. One never forgets her real first exhale.
I pass an enormous banner draped over a fence that serves as an entrance to an athletic field that stops me in my tracks. "GIRLS WIN HERE" it shouts. "I love that!" I declare to myself aloud, simultaneously pressing the stop button on my phone to put Danyel's voice on hold as I take in the moment. I understand that this sign is placed specifically and purposefully to invoke the resounding team spirit that is Miss Porter's athletics, but this banner also means to speak to the whole of my school community. In all ways, "GIRLS WIN HERE." I stand in front of the sign, tilt my head and smile. I look around where I am standing and position myself to get a clear capture of it. I am so proud of Miss Porter's School and how this statement is true for me and for every young hopeful who joins the community.
I continue to walk the campus, up hills and almost out of town, at times dizzied by what Danyel is divulging to me in the voice of a spoken word artist with ultra-precise diction about the many Black girls who did not win, who were taken advantage of, music genres built on the backs of them with zero recognition. It is not hard to understand how though these truths are real, what is also real is that for a number of these female pioneers and game changers of various musical genres, in some form or another, there was an inequitable understanding that was communicated to so many of us, including Danyel when she was not yet a teenager that she describes. "Men are to be given all benefits of all doubts even though it was in the moment of our most focused efforts of achievement of joy that we were most mocked, most attacked." These words are offered at the start of Shine Bright, almost letting us know as an audience what stories were to come to exemplify what happens when we take heed to this unfair expectation.
There were so many "I did not know, I had no idea" moments, like:
-Millie Small, whose song, My Boy Lollipop sold 7 million units was the first Jamaican singer to sell over a million copies. She paved the way for Bob Marley and all of Reggae music. A bad contract she signed left her destitute in the end.
-Donna Summer, though denied entrance into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame the year she died of lung cancer and was subsequently given the honor the year after, was a pioneer in rock-pop fusion with records like her double platinum Bad Girls and earned an American Music Award for Favorite Pop-Rock Female Artist.
-The complex and racially controversial success of Marilyn Macoo with her group "The Fifth Dimension", famous for feel-good hits like, Let the Sunshine In left the group feeling of isolation from the Black community in the struggle for equity and pop.
-Leontyne Price earned a 25-minute standing ovation.
Danyel's tone is basically unflappable through sharing the highs and lows, yet I do witness moments when her words crackle with emotional reverence when she speaks about unsung heroes like Cissy Houston, whom she refers to as "God", or when she remembers Jody Watley's acceptance speech, and Danyel speaks about Ms. Watley with such pride, as she does affectionately about her sister Raquel. Danyel trusts us with painful memories like the continuous thread of damage inflicted on her at the hands of her stepfather while growing up. For each female artist who expressed that "music was their freedom", or how much they needed to escape where they were living, Danyel empathizes with every single one. I do not not relate. She sets the record straight about stories skewed in favor of a dishonest male counterpart, such as the husband of Billie Holiday, who most of us know as the gallant and chivalrous savior in Lady Sings The Blues, starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams. Danyel's words for the otherwise abusive and treacherous gold-digging husband of Ms. Holiday are so coarse, I feel like my ears and brain are going to catch on fire and burn in the hell to which Danyel has banished his soul just by listening to this admonishment. I have a special relationship with Ms. Holiday as a life-long fan and I was commissioned to serve as a contributing editor for the recent iconography, Lady Day: Body and Soul. My ears might feel hot, but for the truth of what I know about Ms. Holiday’s death, I don’t not appreciate what I am hearing.
Shine Bright weaves in other unknowns like freedom fighter Harriette Moore, an educator and activist, who, with her husband, was bombed for refusing to stop speaking out about civil rights for Black people. Noreen Woods, a longtime executive of Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun (also founder of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 1983) was never given proper recognition for her contributions to the industry despite decades of remaining steadfast to the causes of her longtime boss. About Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who has been labeled the "Godmother of Rock n' Roll", Danyel is keen to note the pioneer who is Ms. Tharpe based on quotes from those men who were considered the pioneers of rock n' roll like Chuck Berry to distinguish, 'Godmother is a friend of the mother...The mother gives birth.' Danyel scoffs at mainstream presumptions about Tina Turner's shift and potential as a rock n' roll solo artist, "Keep it within Nutbush City Limits. Remain vulnerable to our cultural and emotional looting, Be comfortable being our gritty and soulful Black inspiration for White Rock... Leave the big stages, baby girl, to us." Aren't we glad Ms. Turner didn't listen?
I spend my afternoon learning intimate, need-to-know moments and details about those Black women artists who helped orchestrate the soundtrack of my generation's childhood and teen and adult life from Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, and Janet Jackson, who, while not denying feeling ok about competing against her big brother Michael, does admit to having uneasy feelings when he was not the winner. The conditioning of us girls and women has been and still is real.
Shine Bright is rife with stories of vulnerability and success, a simmering Jambalaya or well-seasoned gumbo with smartly written descriptions that evolve the book into a 3-dimensional work. I can literally see the scenes. "Plane shuttering like a soul leaving a body...”, "I felt like a giant blister, but kept walking", "Perspiration on her temples like tiny dimes of mercury",... and it goes on. Again, you must read for yourself what Danyel wrote about Billie Holiday's conniving husband. I cannot unsee the scene.
It is true when it is said that an artist can save the best for last, as the last passages of Shine Bright are indeed special and best because Danyel focuses more on intention and how urgent it is that Black women preserve and celebrate ourselves, uplift ourselves, acknowledge ourselves and ensure that the world recognizes us, too. This, she affirms, is why she continues to write. Right on, I say to that.
“If we stop, we will be forgotten...because so many Black women and much of Black women's work is undervalued and strategically unremembered. We cannot sit quietly while everyone dresses like us, and sings like us, and writes like us, and just kind of steals us from ourselves.”
For what I was able to listen to on Audible during my walk around Farmington and all of the voice notes taken along the way, (and later notes on paper), I am entirely and eternally grateful that I was intervened and introduced to a place where girls win, for who knows how the conditioning and miseducating would have affected me long term (I learn mid-story that Danyel also attended an all-girls high school). But even if you are a full-on adult, of sound body and mind and today wish to be free of the talons of patriarchy however you experience it, learning how to shine bright can be a solid first step. The girls of the past may not always have "won" in their day, but in the book, Shine Bright, they all win here. Having their truths be told by Danyel makes them the victors.
I am aware that there have been numerous thoughtful pieces written about Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright since the book’s 2022 release (I decided not to read any until I was finished writing my own). Yet, as with any classic album, this work will be ‘discovered’ over and over again.