Black Women Talk Songwriting

LaShonda Katrice Barnett interviewed more than 40 black female musicians in her quest to know about the craft of songwriting. She shares what she learned in her book, I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft, and tells Farai Chideya how these women shaped modern music.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

LaShonda Katrice Barnett teaches creative writing for a living. She says she's always been passionate about the word. But that passion didn't necessarily include lyrics to music. Then one day, Barnett came across the work of singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln. The artist's way of storytelling opened up a whole new world.

(Soundbite of song, "Throw It Away")

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Artist): (Singing) I think about the life I lived, figure made of clay. I think about the things I loved, the things I gave away.

Ms. LaSHONDA KATRICE BARNETT (Author, "I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft"): I saw this album and picked it up. I had never heard of her, and it blew me away. From there, it just sort of snowballed.

CHIDEYA: It got LaShonda Katrice Barnett thinking about female songwriters. Do black women bring something different to songwriting? LaShonda interviewed more than 40 female musicians about the process of creating songs. She's turned that into a book titled "I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft."

Ms. BARNETT: Farai, I think that the image of a black woman stepping on stage up to a microphone is a very common image. And I think when comparing female musicianship to male musicianship, the ideals that it's somehow less serious. And I don't know if that's because in our society, we are sort of naturally trained to look at women as caregivers, as nurturers, as an emotional or at least, as being more than - more emotional than men.

I was teaching a course at Jazz Lincoln Center spring of 2006 and we had one evening, a one two-hour session, to devote to Billie Holliday, which is not enough time, of course. But I remember at the end of the class, feeling very down because the students were very, very interested in Holliday as this tragic figure.

Had questions about her lovers and her drug abuse and various things that I'm thinking to myself and I tried to shift the conversation a couple of times, but I remember thinking that it's too bad that we can't really focus on a conversation about her musicianship. The fact that, you know, she was also a songwriter. She penned the lyrics to "Don't Explain," which has been covered many times.

CHIDEYA: That's actually one of my favorite songs.

Ms. BARNETT: But that didn't come up during the course of our two-hour conversation. And that really did stay with me. I think I wrote the proposal for the book a couple of weeks after that incident.

CHIDEYA: So you decided to interview people to go to the source, musicians, you interviewed the legendary Nina Simone. How was that?

Ms. BARNETT: It was slaving(ph). I was awestruck. I interviewed Ms. Simone by a telephone in June of '99. And, Farai, my palms are sweating so much I could barely maintain my grip on the receiver. It was amazing.

CHIDEYA: Give me a moment from that.

Ms. BARNETT: I was a little bit surprised by the fact that Ms. Simone seemed very interested in sort of getting the legacy, getting her musical legacy down. And as I listened to her, I realized that she was merely trying to make the point that there are all these anecdotes about me as being the defiant one, but I'm a musician. I'm a classically trained pianist. I take my craft very, very seriously. I'm at the piano six to eight hours a day. And I just remember thinking, you know, I wished that we could talk more about her songs.

But Simone was on another page, she was just wanted to really drive home the fact that she is very serious musician, which is, of course, nobody would doubt. All it takes is one listen to anything that Simone ever recorded and you come away with that.

(Soundbite of song, "Four Women")

Ms. NINA SIMONE (Jazz Artist): (Singing) My skin is black.

CHIDEYA: This is her song, "Four Women."

(Soundbite of song, "Four Women")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) My arms are long. My hair is wooly. My back is strong, strong enough to take the pain. It's been inflicted again and again. What do they call me? My name is Aunt Sarah.

CHIDEYA: Let's just skip around a little bit in genre. You have Angelique Kidjo. She does not generally sing in English, although she started to. What did she have to say about that?

Ms. BARNETT: Actually, Farai, that was the last question that I asked her. I asked her to speculate as she would about her popularity in America. Because, as you pointed out, she doesn't sing in English on most of her albums. She records in Yoruba. She records in Fon, Portuguese, French, but rarely English. And she said, well, you know, like music is a universal language. And I think that people are responding to something else in my voice. There's an emotional connection to that.

And I believe she's absolutely right. One of my favorite songs is (unintelligible). And I have no idea what the song is about. But the first time I heard it, my heart was enthralled. I just couldn't get over the beauty of the song.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Now, some of the people in your book might not automatically be thought of as songwriters. People like Chaka Khan, for example.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Thing")

Ms. CHAKA KHAN (Singer): (Singing) I will love you anyway even if you cannot stay. I think you are the one for me. Here is where you ought to be.

CHIDEYA: What did you learn about her approach to songwriting?

Ms. BARNETT: It's very interesting to talking to Chaka because she sees herself as a conduit for the music. She was not willing to dissect and analyze the music on a certain level. She was more interested in getting out the idea that you have to come to the music very humble.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Thing")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Oh sweet thing. Don't you know you're my everything?

CHIDEYA: Now, there's a story behind "Sweet Thing." Tell us (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARNETT: Yes, absolutely. I asked what inspired that and she said that she was sitting around with Tony Maiden. And that she and Tony wrote the song together. And I said, okay, but who inspired the song? Who were you thinking about? And she laughed and she said, girl, I think I told all my boyfriends at the time that that song was about them. But the song was really about Tony. And then she started talking about the wonderful, a musical chemistry that she had with Tony and, you know - the fact that the song was written in less than five minutes, just blows me away because that's an R&B staple. That would be with us forever.

(Soundbite of song, "Sweet Thing")

Ms. KHAN: (Singing) Oh, sweet thing.

(Soundbite of song, "Down to Zero")

Ms. JOAN ARMATRADING (Artist): (Singing) Oh the feeling when you're reeling. You step lightly thinking you're number one. Down to zero with a word. Leaving for another one. Now you walk with your feet back on the ground down to the ground, down to the ground.

CHIDEYA: There are also people who were format breakers like Joan Armatrading. And she said it is something about the songs that demand that the lyrics be as poetic as the notes you strum together. Talk about what you got from the interview with her.

Ms. BARNETT: I wasn't surprised, first of all, to learn that Joan Armatrading wrote limericks or poems as a youth because anybody who studies her lyrics, you can - the poetry just leaps at you from the page. I was really taken aback by the work that she puts into meshing or fusing the music with the lyrics - and the way that she was able to speak so eloquently about it. Well, just the fact that, you know, she's in her mid-50s, but she's still very open and still embracing lots of different ideas and fusing them at her music. It was very inspiring because she still opens her mind.

CHIDEYA: Was there any difference you found between the people who might be 60s and above and the people who might be 40s and below?

Ms. BARNETT: Well, the major thing that I noticed is that in the diamond group, that's the older group, they're very, very concerned with the state of black music today and they spoke about that at me. But some of that I kept in the book and other pieces I kept out.

But with the younger artists, they talked about the fact that there was a shift in the music that nowadays, for example, you'd be hard pressed to find whole families listening to the same music.

Brenda Russell spoke about this and Dianne Reeves. And they remembered fondly, you know, the time when they were growing up how moms and fathers and grandmothers and cousins - everybody was enjoying the same music and how - that's sadly missing. They see a lot of that in today's culture. So that was one thing that really struck home with me.

CHIDEYA: Well, LaShonda, thank you so much.

Ms. BARNETT: Thank you very much for having me.

CHIDEYA: LaShonda Katrice Barnett teaches creative writing and jazz history at Sarah Lawrence College. Her book is "I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft."

(Soundbite of song, "Endangered Species")

Ms. DIANNE REEVES (Singer): (Singing) I am an endangered species but I sing no victim's song. I am a woman. I am an artist. I know where my voice belongs. I am an endangered species but I sing no victim's song. I am a woman. I am an artist. I know where my voice belongs. I am a woman. I exist. I shake my fist but not my hips. My skin is dark my body is strong. I sign of rebirth no victim's song.

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. And thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. No spaces, just nprnewsandnotes.org. To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Tomorrow, cooling family tensions that could heat up your holiday.

(Soundbite of song, "Endangered Species")

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) Silence my reflex no tongue to speak. I work in the fields, I work in the store. I type up the deals and I mop the floors. I am an endangered species.

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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