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Sunday, April 20th, 2008
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I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft

by Lashonda Ka Barnett

I Got Thunder: A Review

A review by Keidra Chaney

Scan any mainstream music magazine's annual rundown of "great songwriters," and you'll likely see black men prominently represented. Regardless of genre, it's easy to list a few choice names: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Prince. Similarly, a list of great vocalists is likely to be populated by a number of black women. After all, the popular image of the black female R&B/soul songstress is sacred to music critics; no one would deny the influence of legendary vocalists like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, or Tina Turner, or even today's Top-40-dominating R&B "divas" like Beyoncé and Rihanna.

But when critical discussion turns to musical authorship, particularly in genres outside of R&B, soul, or gospel, black women are likely to be overlooked. They are often lauded for "interpreting" the music of male songwriters and composers but given short shrift as musical innovators in their own right. (Think of Dionne Warwick, whose career is inextricably tied to Burt Bacharach's.) Sarah Lawrence College historian LaShonda Katrice Barnett recognized this notable gap in music history and criticism; her response, I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft, goes a long way toward giving black women songwriters their due. I Got Thunder is the first part of a two-volume collection of interviews. The companion volume, Let Them Resound: Black Women Songwriters on Songwriting, is scheduled for release later this year.

Featuring interviews with nearly two dozen notable performers spanning multiple genres, the book is a significant addition to academic music criticism as an oral history and historical record of black musicians. Artists whose contributions as songwriters are often overlooked in favor of their vocal performances, like Chaka Khan and gospel artist Shirley Caesar, are presented with a rare opportunity to talk about musicianship and their creative process. Although many of the women interviewed -- including Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Tramaine Hawkins, and Joan Armatrading -- are well known in most critical circles, Barnett also highlights songwriters like folk singer Tokunbo Akinro who enjoy smaller cult followings but are no less distinguished.

In a notable departure from much of contemporary music writing, Barnett chose to publish her exchanges in a Q&A format, leaving little room for armchair music criticism or psychoanalysis. In quite a few cases, such as with Nina Simone, it was the first time I'd encountered these artists in their own words, rather than seeing them through the lens of a music critic.

The interview format also allows readers to make fascinating connections between the artists: For instance, a number of them cite Joan Baez as a musical influence; the majority of the women reveal knowledge of their musical calling before the age of 10. A notable thread running through many of the interviews is the artist's resistance to being musically pigeonholed, whether by the music industry, critics, or her own fans. Warwick comments: "I hate the whole labeling thing. I've always thought that who the singer is is whatever the listening ear decides."

Ironically, the sole drawback to I Got Thunder is the relative underrepresentation of the newer generation of black female musicians established firmly outside of the soul/R&B/jazz/gospel spectrum. It would be great to hear from artists such as Imani Coppola, the Go! Team's Ninja, or folk-rocker Kimya Dawson, but perhaps their stories are already being scheduled for a third volume.

Keidra Chaney is a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine.


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