Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All , , Coverage

All Music Coverage

Novelist, journalist, editor and television producer Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop radiates brilliance. In dazzling prose, she casts a spotlight on the creative genius of Black women musicians including Mahalia Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Mariah Carey, Marilyn McCoo and many more.

Weaving together the threads of memoir, biography and criticism, Smith illustrates how her intense love of music has been shaped by Black women’s art. These women helped her find her way as a Black girl in 1970s Oakland, giving her strength and the confidence to write about the music that defined her life. Now, when people ask Smith, “Why does Tina Turner matter? Why is Mary J. Blige important?” her answers, she writes, “are passionate and learned because I want credit to be given where credit is due.” For Smith, this especially includes giving Black women credit for being the progenitors of American soul, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and pop.

For example, Smith traces the career of Cissy Houston who, as part of the singing group the Sweet Inspirations, shaped the sound of megahits such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Son of a Preacher Man”—works that became foundational to the classic rock format and went on to influence everyone from the Counting Crows to U2. As Smith writes, “The Grammy Awards of the artists they have influenced would fill a hangar,” yet the Sweets are rarely mentioned in connection to these and other iconic songs.

As Smith teases out the immeasurable influence of both underappreciated background singers and idols who are household names, she illuminates the qualities these artists have in common, “most of which revolve around the transmogrification of Black oppression to fleeting and inclusive Black joy.” Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Danyel Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Johnny Cash is remembered for his familiar greeting (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”), his booming bass-baritone voice and his signature chugging guitar lines. Many of his songs delve into his experiences with addiction, such as “I Walk the Line,” and his tempestuous love affairs, such as “Jackson”—but many of his most famous songs also demonstrate Cash’s close attention to poverty and marginalization, like “Man in Black” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Michael Stewart Foley’s Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash offers a broader glimpse of this aspect of Cash’s music.

Drawing on untapped archives, Foley explores Cash’s life and music, illustrating how Cash’s impoverished childhood in rural Arkansas, where he witnessed brutal acts of racism and injustice, led to what Foley calls a “politics of empathy.” Foley writes that Cash “came to his political positions based on his personal experience, often guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to issues.” Foley traces the development of Cash’s politics over the course of his musical career, from Cash’s Sun Records days to his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin in the early 2000s. Foley also closely focuses on “The Johnny Cash Show,” and especially the closing segment of the show called “Ride This Train,” to illustrate the ways that Cash invited guest musicians such as Odetta and Stevie Wonder onto the show to break down racial barriers and confront American society’s tendency to divide rather than unite. Foley points out that Cash’s “empathy was not so much rooted in solidarity as it was based on witnessing: documenting sorrows and struggles, making it possible for . . . the subjugated, the exploited, the marginalized to be seen.”

Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.

With unique depth, Citizen Cash combines biography, cultural analysis and music history to examine Johnny Cash’s political and social ideas.

When B.B. King died in May 2015, the world lost an artist whose distinctive style shaped several generations of musicians. King’s fluid guitar riffs and lead runs still define the blues for many fans. Eric Clapton called King “the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” but as journalist Daniel de Visé points out in his absorbing new biography, King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, King’s journey to such acclaim was never easy. Even King himself might have deferred to other blues artists, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, as more worthy of Clapton’s accolade.

Drawing on extensive interviews with almost every surviving member of King’s inner circle, including family, friends and band members, de Visé chronicles King’s life from his birth into a sharecropper family in Mississippi, to his parents’ split, to his early years being raised by his grandmother. King loved gospel music and sang in the choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church, but as much as he liked the Soul Stirrers and other gospel groups, he noticed they didn’t have a guitar, the instrument he most wanted to learn. One of his ministers taught King three chords on the guitar, and when he turned 16, King bought the fire-red Stella that would kick off his journey to becoming a master of the instrument. Recalling his exquisite joy at having a guitar in his hands, King said, “Never have been so excited. Couldn’t keep my hands off her. If I was feeling lonely, I’d pick up the guitar . . . happy, horny, mad, or sad, the guitar was right there, a righteous pacifier and comforting companion.”

Soon enough, King left Mississippi for Memphis and became an international star. As de Visé points out, though, King always looked over his shoulder at the poverty and scenes of racial injustice out of which he had grown, incorporating those deep feelings of loss into his music so that his listeners could feel his sorrow as he bent the blues through his guitar strings. King of the Blues is the first full and authoritative biography of King, and it accomplishes what all good music books should: It drives readers to revisit King’s music and savor it again.

King of the Blues is the first authoritative biography of B.B. King, and as all good music books should, it will drive readers to revisit King’s iconic music.

Hurtling down the blind curves and treacherous twists and turns of family dysfunction and social displacement, Antonio Michael Downing searches for himself among the cultural clutter of sports, religion and music. Combining staccato prose and singsong storytelling, Downing’s Saga Boy: My Life of Blackness and Becoming navigates loneliness, uncertainty, fear, hopelessness and hunger.

Downing grew up in Trinidad with his grandmother, Miss Excelly, dreaming of mango season. She taught him two important things: how to sing and “the magic of the Queen’s English.” While his childhood was not idyllic, Downing felt safe with his grandmother and her love. When Miss Excelly died, however, he and his brother were shipped off to Canada to live with an aunt, and thus began a peripatetic lifestyle marked by a lack of security or family love.

Downing was shuttled between aunts in Canada. He never quite fit in at any particular place, though he valiantly threw himself into basketball and music in high school. He eventually recovered his love for language and writing at the University of Waterloo and put together a show with an artist friend who painted scenes from a short story Downing wrote. That experience gave birth to DJ Mic Dainjay, Downing's alter ego that he used as a performer during a time when he was also working at Blackberry as a sales representative. Today he performs music as John Orpheus.

Downing’s heart-wrenching memoir chronicles his saga of trying on and casting off many masks, learning the dimensions of the face through which he sees the world and the world sees him. As he writes, “This is a story about unbelonging, about placeness, about leaving everything behind. This is about metamorphosis: death and rebirth. . . . This is a story about family and forgiveness. About becoming what you always were.”

Combining staccato prose and singsong storytelling, Saga Boy hurtles down the treacherous twists and turns of family dysfunction and social displacement.

“When emotional truth is the goal, and courage is part of the equation, the process is deeply therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” writes Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier in her debut book. Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting is memoir, autobiography, creative process guide and journal of spiritual formation all in one. It’s a true expression of the inseparability of songwriting, spiritual practice, recovery and relationship that have been endemic to Gauthier’s 25-year career.

Saved by a Song is organized topically, with each chapter pairing a song title with an element of craft; for example, “Drag Queens in Limousines: Story/Meaning.” Starting with the song’s lyrics, Gauthier recounts her personal connection to the song through concrete, accessible personal narrative. By the end of each chapter, readers have gained a behind-the-scenes scoop on the real-life experiences that influenced the song and a wise takeaway for their own lives.

Readers also get a play-by-play of how to put art into practice. One of the biggest questions novice writers have is, “How did the artist get from this (their own experience) to that (a polished work)?” The elements of craft can seem like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. Gauthier creates an external map of the mysterious internal songwriting process not once but 13 times throughout the book.

Alongside these gems from her lifelong study of creative practice—think Anne Lamott meets Julia Cameron meets Patti Smith—Gauthier also shares all the gory details of her recovery from addiction, plus quotations from the artists and writers who influenced her own development. In Gauthier’s words, “I believe songs that heal come from a higher place. They help us with the struggle of being human and by letting us know we are not alone. This is the greatest gift a song can give a songwriter and a songwriter can give the world.”

Anyone who can still write from the heart about writing from the heart after being in the music business as long as Gauthier has is the real deal. Her book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Mary Gauthier’s debut book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Both of Hanif Abdurraqib’s earlier books—They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest—skillfully weave memoir and cultural criticism. He’s known for unraveling our ideas about music, history and culture and then using threads of commentary and insight to stitch a totally original pattern.

With the same ingenuity, Abdurraqib traces the depth and diversity of Black modes of performance in his brilliant A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. Opening with an examination of Black dancers who participated in the dance marathons of the early 20th century, Abdurraqib dispenses prose in motions that shuffle forward, step sideways, leap diagonally and waltz gracefully through five sections exploring different facets of Black performance in America.

Performance can be liberating, like when dance marathons give partners “a powerful enough relationship with freedom that you understand its limitations.” It can also provide an opportunity to show off, as in the dance line on “Soul Train.” Performance can demonstrate self-awareness, too—a chance to define yourself by how your body moves when you’re throwing down in a beef, which Abdurraqib vividly illustrates as a kind of performance. He traces the rich history of performance through sketches of Black magicians, dancers and musicians, including Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Josephine Baker, Aretha Franklin and Merry Clayton, who’s most famous for her performance on the Rolling Stones’ track “Gimme Shelter.” Clayton’s chapter may be the best in the book, if only because it gives her the recognition she deserves for her ethereal voice.

A vibrant showcase of sharp writing, Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America attests that Black performance at its root is not simply an outward show of talent but also a means of survival. Read carefully. Abdurraqib’s book is a challenge not to accept the usual explanations for the performances we witness.

Hanif Abdurraqib unravels our ideas about music, history and culture and then uses threads of commentary and insight to stitch a totally original pattern.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!