I Got Thunder: Black Woman Songwriters and Their Craft

Posted Dec 29 2008

An insightful review of a book highlighting interviews with prominent singers and songwriters, including Abbey Lincoln, Angelique Kidjo, Brenda Russell, Chaka Khan, Dianne Reeves, Dionne Warwick, Miriam Makeba, Narissa Bond, Nina Simone, Nona Hendryx, Oleta Adams, Pamela Means, Shemekia Copeland, Shirley Caesar, Tokunbo Akinro, Toshi Reagon, and Tramaine Hawkins.

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4/5 Stars

I met LaShonda when she came to the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco. She is engaging and has a great sense of humor. This book consists of the transcripts from her interviews with about 20 different Black Women Singer/Songwriters. I believe that no other book has taken on the enormous task of interviewing and focusing on Black Women singer-songwriters. Mainstream music and music history has taken them for granted, and LaShonda makes a move to correct this gross oversight. You get the impression of sitting down with these ladies and being a part of their private conversation. It's great, and you also get to learn the stories behind how these ladies became singers and get their recommendations if you're an aspiring musician or other creative artist.

I would have given this book a 5, hearing Nina Simone, Dianne Reeves, and Nona Hendryx tell about their experiences in the music industry is just awesome. However; LaShonda obviously has a bias toward a particular type of music and she seems to strongly guide many of the conversations-- except with Nina Simone, of course. There were many times when the conversations would stray away from a focus on the women and their craft and lean toward LaShonda's particular areas of interest. When this happened, I felt like there were missed opportunities to discover more of what makes these ladies tick-- like going more into depth in their unique experiences as Black Women.

There is also a strong anti-hip-hop sentiment throughout the book. I am definitely of the hip-hop generation and I tended to disagree with the way hip-hop was continuously seen as degrading and immature. Yeah, that;s the commercial hip-hop that makes it to the airwaves by design, but what about all the amazingly revolutionary stuff that never hits the airwaves-- like Malkia Cyril and Rosa Clemente, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, Zion I, Medusa, check out the Womanhood Learning Project, We B*Girlz Festival, I mean the resources are endless. LaShonda is very good at what she does, but I feel like a great interviewer and researcher needs to look at all angles of an issue, and not let their own biases get in the way. If hip-hop is talked about so much, reseach needs to be done, and the source needs to be questioned. Some of the artists interviewed, like Chaka Khan had good things to say, but most don't really know enough about what's really going down. I would have loved it if she would have sought out to balance the perspective by interviewing a woman who is part of the hip-hop movement or at least in the mix-- like Jill Scott or Erykah Badu. That would have really done it for me. Jeff Chang says, "it's a small number of black artists — Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and 50 Cent, to name some — who are paid large amounts to perpetuate some of America's oldest racial and sexual stereotypes." Furthermore, Chang says, "none of the critics who accuse hip-hop of single-handedly coarsening the culture think to speak with members of the hip-hop generation.... To confuse commercial rap made by a few artists with how hip-hop is actually lived by millions is to miss the good that hip-hop does. If hip-hop's critics paid attention to the hip-hop generation, they would learn that the discussion has already begun without them and that they might need to listen. Then a real intergenerational conversation could begin."

I know I'm ranting about this one issue, but for me it is a big deal. There is too much stereotyping, and it seems unfortunate that LaShonda and most of the artists she interviewed are not in touch with the next new movement in Black music. We are seeing a resurgence of amazing artists going back to the classic Jazz and Blues, like Lizz Wright and Toshi Reagon (interviewed in the book), but there is a whole other movement that is changing people's lives and ways of thinking.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great book, with some great insights. My judgements are not because I didn't tear through this book in a week, and not because I was not completely fascinated by the tid-bits of knowledge I gained from every page. My critiques are more directed toward how the sequel would improve upon this landmark undertaking. As I said earlier, to my knowledge, no other book has taken up interviewing these ladies this in-depthly-- and folks like Nina Simone, who are no longer with us.


1. Brittany D. said at June 6, 2008 6:56 pm:

I have never heard of this book or its author. As writer my own self I think that its is a huge deal to be able to interview legendary singers and songwriters such has Nina Simone, Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick, and Shirley Caesar. If the author LaShonda is asking these ladies opinion on hip-hop and how they feel about it then thats is understandable. If it was me my focus would be on the artist, finding out more about their experiences in the Music Industry, and trying to figure their secrets of sucess. Overall I think that I will go and get this book just to read the interview involving Nina Simone. But I do agree that maybe the book could have been more balanced if she would have interviews some like Erykah Badu.

2. Mariana Torres said at June 12, 2008 12:14 am:

In my opion i beleive that this generation has changed drastically when before hip-hop used to be inpowerring, educational, and at times spiritual. Being able to speak to a women singer before was an honor as for today many women are accepted as singers their fore its not much of a strugle today for them. But women singers back then really had to work their way up because they were not accepted in that industry.

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