A Fierce Musical Legacy

Photo by Asia KepkaPhoto by Asia Kepka
By Sarah Rodman

Sitting in a quiet classroom down the hall from her office in Byerly Hall, Daphne Brooks is ruminating on Aretha Franklin.

“I thought it would be really important to start off my research here working with an absolute icon who is associated with fundamental notions and presumptions about ‘authentic black womanhood,’” says Brooks, a 2010–2011 Radcliffe Institute fellow.

It’s no surprise that Brooks, a professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University, has got the Queen of Soul on her mind. In the past year, in a series of unrelated events, she’s been asked to think hard about Franklin’s legacy.

Just prior to her arrival at the Institute, she was tapped by Columbia Records to write liner notes for an upcoming boxed set of Franklin’s work. That request came on the heels of Brooks’s being invited to give a Franklin-centered sermon during an ecumenical service at Princeton. And in November, she gave a talk at the Institute about Franklin’s “sonic black feminism.” Brooks concludes with a chuckle, “I’m having an Aretha Franklin moment I didn’t know I was supposed to have.”

It was all doubtless good preparation for what she is doing at the Institute—writing a book on just how much R-E-S-P-E-C-T black female musical performers deserve for their role in shaping the cultural landscape. The book, Subterranean Blues: Black Women and Sound Subcultures—from Minstrelsy through the New Millennium, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

Franklin is just one of many performers the gregarious 42-year-old Palo Alto native examines in Subterranean Blues. Images of these fierce ladies— Franklin, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, and others—adorn the walls of her office as a kind of chorus of silent witnesses and spiritual cheerleaders. “It’s really good to remember the bodies, the actual people, the flesh behind the recordings,” she says of the posters, drawings, and magazine covers.

The book, Brooks’s third, is a chronology of the intersection of African American women’s music with history: Aretha Franklin gave voice to the civil rights movement during the 1960s, for example, performing at rallies alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and recasting such white American classics as “Over the Rainbow” in the recording studio. Whether or not Franklin was aware of it, Brooks sees it as a shift. And some of the cultural collisions Brooks analyzes are less heralded than others.

“What I’m trying to do with the book is look at those big moments that have been archived and canonized”—think black opera singer Marian Anderson’s groundbreaking 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial—“and place them alongside moments that are overlooked as being historical in some way.”

One of those, Brooks believes, is R&B singer Mary J. Blige’s searing performance with U2 of that band’s song “One” during a 2005 Hurricane Katrina benefit.

“The telethon marks this moment in which you have a black woman”—one oft called Franklin’s heir and the “queen of hip-hop soul”—“using a sonic performance in order to articulate this cultural, sociopolitical crisis for black women who, at that moment in time, have been spectacularly disenfranchised because of Hurricane Katrina,” says Brooks. “It was a reimagining of the song in this extraordinary way.”

Brooks, who previously penned Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Duke University Press, 2006), is excited to be working on her new book in Cambridge. Not only does she feel she has vast resources 
at her disposal—including rare archival materials at the Schlesinger Library and elsewhere at Harvard—but also she gets a charge from working in an environment with such a diversity of scholars outside her field. “It’s an important challenge to me in being able to write a narrative that can reach a broad audience because it’s such an important topic,” she says.

Plus, she’s thrilled to be working with Harvard University Press, which has published works on popular music by some of her favorite writers, including veteran rock critics Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. Brooks peppers a lengthy, joyously digressive conversation with many names—authors, colleagues, friends, mentors, and research assistants—who have inspired her along the way. She knows full well on whose shoulders she stands.

Some of those shoulders belong to her family.

“The other key enormous figure in my musical life and my black feminist literary life is my sister,” says Brooks of Renel Brooks-Moon. Older by 10 years, Brooks-Moon is the announcer for the San Francisco Giants. Brooks says she is grateful to her for “coming home from college and bringing James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. My sister was this bridge figure for me. And the sounds coming from her bedroom!” She squeals with gleeful remembrance of the records she heard through the wall.

Brooks went off on her own journey of discovery from there, thanks also in part to parents she credits with “giving me a sense of entitlement to love all kinds of cultures.” She grew up an avid concertgoer in the 1980s; her public school administrator father and English teacher mother would patiently drive her to venues and wait in parking lots as she immersed herself in everything from the Go-Go’s to the Police and Run-DMC. “That’s an important foundational influence—they set up this world where I could hear Journey,” she says with a chuckle of the Bay Area arena rockers whose song “Lights” holds a special place in her heart.

Using a narrative voice she deems “very hybrid,” Brooks hopes readers of Subterranean Blues will see the connective tissues between Simone, Franklin, and contemporary artists like Blige and Beyoncé and current attitudes and assumptions about black women. It’s a voice pieced together from her studies at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles and the many Saturdays she spent as an adolescent loitering in the aisles of her local Tower Records, reading Rolling Stone and Creem magazines.

“It’s a little bit academic, a little bit rock journalist, which is what I wanted to be when I was growing up,” Brooks recalls. “The first black feminist rock critic with a column in Rolling Stone is all I wanted to be. I literally said that to one of my professors at Berkeley, and she said, ‘That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard—don’t you want benefits?’” She laughs. “I was 18, I didn’t know. She said you need to get a PhD and try to do both things. And that’s what happened.”

A Chorus of Musically Minded Fellows

Donald Berman RI ’11, a pianist who teaches at Tufts University, is digging deep in the archives at the Loeb Music Library to unearth unknown, unpublished, and underperformed scores composed between 1910 and 1960. His ultimate aim? To ignite the ears of his audience.

Composer Yu-Hui Chang RI ’11 is working on a number of commissions during her Radcliffe residency, including a piece for both Chinese and Western instruments. A Bunting Fellow at the Institute this year, she is affiliated with Brandeis University.

Brown University ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller 
PHD ’05, RI ’11, a Bunting Fellow this year, explores how “virtual performances” change how we perceive creativity, embodiment, and musicality. She is currently completing Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Paul Desenne RI ’11, a Venezuelan composer and cellist, is creating a tragicomic chamber opera linking the parallel roots of Latin American music and coffee. Desenne—who is affiliated with FESNOJIV (commonly known as “El Sistema”), a government-funded organization aimed at promoting music education and practice—is the Rieman and Baketel Fellow for Music.

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