Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith explores how Black female music artists have impacted the world and in particular the author’s world as she navigates her unstable childhood in 1970s California.
Were there champagne toasts with Mariah Carey on a private island off the coast of Antigua? Yes. Was I backstage with Beyoncé in Philly, in Paris, in Cleveland, in Brooklyn? All of it. Have I cruised the Upper West Side in a vintage Cadillac convertible with Queen Latifah? Yes, indeed. But, though I chalked it up to not wanting to get too close to creatives, I would have to cover as a writer or an editor—I actually did not feel worthy of such friendships.
Danyel Smith is a music entertainment journalist titan who’s most famous for her editor in chief stint at Vibe magazine at the height of hip-hop domination. With the quote above from the book, her work has sparked friendships with the Black celebrities forever shaping our culture. (Mariah Carey describes Danyel’s 2005 novel Bliss as such on the cover: “The music business can be an enchanted snake pit, but Danyel tells her heroine’s story with an insider’s knowledge, with power, and most of all, with emotion.”)
The author’s upbringing in Oakland, the city in which she reps with her whole heart, wasn’t always shiny. Her parents split when she and her sister are in elementary school, and her mother engages in a toxic relationship with a violent lawyer named Alvin who rages against the family. Her mother stays for the questionable financial stability, but when Danyel starts fighting back, that’s when she realizes what she wants the most is threatened by Alvin.
But the radio is on in Alvin’s car, and Danyel’s mother is still playing her albums. The music speaks to Danyel, even when she’s eating her free breakfast at school where the morning care teachers double as vocal trainers showing the kids how to croon to The Stylistics’ “Betcha by Golly, Wow.” The Black artists singing through speakers in different places influence Danyel. She will take her writing talents from her personal diary dedicated to getting rid of Alvin to media platforms describing the impact the artists had on pop culture, though sometimes unappreciated, she makes it her mission to ensure they are appreciated.
People wonder why I have been able to stand up to men in this business of music. To go to shows—glamorous and grimy—by myself. To negotiate with the worst of the promoters, the performers, publicists, security guards, police officers. To, on behalf of any given media organization, but mostly on behalf of Vibe, and on behalf of myself, not stand down. I just wasn’t that scared of men, not for a long time. “Step to me” was my front. “If you want this smoke.”
The don’t-back-down mantra happens to be how many of the artists she writes about are handling their livelihoods. One chapter is dedicated to the “Drinkard Family Dynasty.” The rich branch that produced Leontyne Price, the first Black woman to gain international fame as an opera singer. Leontyne’s cousin, Dionne Warwick, is the pop singer who reached a pinnacle of success in the 1970s and 1980s and whose impact surpasses generations with her “Twitter auntie” status regularly updating almost 600,000 followers. Dionne’s aunt, Cissy Houston, is the gospel singer who started touring with her group then with Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley before her solo debut. Cissy’s daughter, Whitney Houston, is arguably one of the greatest singers of our time, or as the author writes: “But—their problematic relationship notwithstanding—Cissy’s training of Whitney Houston is one of the most important accomplishments in the history of American music.” This familial connection between some of the greatest singers we ever known should be acknowledged more, and the author breaks down their roots and their personal histories to show the anguish they must have had for not always being appreciated for sharing their talents.
The chapter dedicated to Diana Ross examines how her departure from The Supremes and solo success branded “Miss Ross” as a diva in a negative light when she used to be a little girl from Detroit who had unfathomable dreams that by chance came true. Gladys Knight also gets her own chapter starting with how she became one of the hardest-working kids in showbusiness already performing with her cousins and friends, “The Pips,” so she can help her divorced mother put food on the table. We learn LaDonna Adrian Gaines would drop out of her high school she had said were full of “pretty violent people” straddling the racial lines in Boston to eventually head to Germany where she christens herself as Donna Summer. The shock and disappointment lies on the page when Mariah Carey, the queen of the ’90s pop who also released her own memoir, doesn’t get a single Grammy Award for her 1995 Daydream album that still produces the soundtracks to people’s lives to this day. The ups and the many downs of Black women breaking barriers in music are palpable.
The big stars get the props. Sprinklings of Phyllis Hyman, Millie Small of “My Boy Lollipop” fame, and Lisa Fischer whose performance of the 1991 hit “How Can I Ease the Pain” is pure magic, feel like they needed more recognition as they are singers who deserved the riches and stardom, but they remain “unsung” à la the popular TV One docuseries. Reading stories of Black women in pop reminds you of the many artists who changed the cultural landscape, sometimes as a one-hit wonder, but their achievements get lost in the mix. That’s where the author fills in those gaps with her Ringer podcast “Black Girl Songbook.” Episodes focus on artists like Deniece Williams, Angela Bofill, and Karyn White—all Black women who had defined music during a moment in time but now have fallen out of public discourse.
Overall, the author brilliantly tells her story in a poetic rhythm and how music saved her. The love for music she has is on the storytelling side, so she can promote the Black women who turned their love for music into a career beyond their imaginations. Published by Jay-Z’s literary imprint Roc Lit 101 under Penguin Random House with the title deriving from Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” this book serves as a reminder that music history is heavily influenced by Black women, but they unfortunately don’t always receive flowers for their immeasurable contributions.