Sounds of revolution: A Yale scholar gives unheralded musicians their due

Yale’s Daphne Brooks discusses her multi-award-winning book “Liner Notes for the Revolution” and the overlooked Black women musicians it documents.
Daphne Brooks

Daphne Brooks (Photo by Andrew Hurley)

Music has been a part of Daphne Brooks’ life since she can remember. Her childhood home was filled with the sounds of all kinds of records, including Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin. She even played a little bit of piano herself. But she says she never got very good at it.

So Brooks turned her love of music into a more scholarly pursuit.

Brooks, a Yale scholar and renowned music critic, has written articles and books about how Black activists and artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries overcame social and political marginalization through performance, and about Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album “Grace.” She also wrote liner notes for such iconic artists as Prince, Aretha Franklin, and Tammi Terrell (a singer-songwriter known best for her duets with Marvin Gaye).

Her most recent book, “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound” (Harvard University Press), has been lauded far and wide for its musical scholarship, literary excellence, and contribution to African-American and cultural studies. (The book has won nine academic and public-facing awards and prizes, including the Museum of African American History’s Stone Book Award, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, and, most recently, the American Musicological Society’s 2022 Music in American Culture Award.)

In a recent interview with Yale News, Brooks discussed the years-long journey of writing “Liner Notes for the Revolution,” the unheralded musicians it documents, and why their work was so revolutionary. Brooks is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Music in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

What inspired your book “Liner Notes for the Revolution”?

Daphne Brooks: Initially, I thought I was writing a critical study of Black women musicians across the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Then I realized that I had three narratives that I wanted to weave together. One was about the musicians themselves; the other about the critics who had control over the narratives producing knowledge about their music; and the third about the fans’ relationship with the music, and how they created knowledge about and derived meaning from it. I wanted to trace all of the dialectical relations between different figures across these three narratives. It was an intricate little dance that took some time to work out.

What did you most hope to convey through the book about Black women’s musicianship?

Brooks: Ultimately, I set out to convey to readers how unequal the phenomenon of knowledge production really is in American culture, how we often aren’t even conscious of the fact that there are structures of power linked to taste in popular culture. There are historical forces that produce knowledge about cultural objects, forces that infuse certain works of art with great value and simultaneously diminish the worth of other works, other cultural forms, other culture workers.

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith (Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Image courtesy of the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, ©Van Vechten Trust)

That’s had a devastating impact on how we think about and articulate who the key artists are who have contributed to our modern, expressive life. There are so many ways that music is interwoven into our everyday lives, and marginalized peoples — and specifically African Americans in this country — have played a mammoth role in music production. I wanted to be able to really draw out those narratives and pay attention to the reasons why we know about certain artists and don’t know about others, to think about who’s been in control of those narratives.

Your book is itself a sort of musical archive. Did your own extensive research take you all over the country to listen to sound recordings?

Brooks: It was really important to me to pay attention to recordings of the early 20th century — such as the phenomenon of “race records” [records made by and for African Americans] and specifically the recordings on the Paramount Records label [known for its blues and jazz records in the 1920s and ‘30s].

About a year before I joined the Yale faculty in 2014, I was contacted by Dean and Scott Blackwood of the indie record label Revenant Records, as well as the team representing rock musician Jack White, who runs his own label Third Man Records, which is based in Nashville. They were in the process of reissuing all of the recordings from Paramount Records. To launch the re-release of the catalogue, they decided to mount a public event at the New York Public Library to listen to and discuss a sampling of those records, and they invited me to participate in the program. That was my introduction to the Paramount Records archive.

It was important to me to listen closely to that archive. There are hundreds upon hundreds of recordings of African-American artists that have been lost to history. Some are by artists whose names we never knew. I wanted to really ask questions not just about who they were, but why we don’t know them, what kinds of stories we need to tell about racial and gender power that have led to certain musicians being lost to history.

What does the ‘Revolution’ in the book title refer to?

Brooks: It has to do with the ways in which the figures in American culture who are the most devalued, the most overlooked, and the most marginalized are, nevertheless, able to create such mammoth cultural change. I wanted to show how absolutely revolutionary it was for these people, who were given nothing, to actually give back everything to this country, to culturally transform it at the level of expressive life.

Their contributions are not miniscule. Their music undergirds our ability to know each other and to know ourselves. To me, that is revolutionary.

Did your own experience of writing liner notes for records earlier in your career influence the writing of the book?

Brooks: As I reflect on it now, those early liner notes writing assignments were part of the path towards writing the book. I think the method of writing liner notes — which I tried to take centrally to heart while working on this book — is to write close to the music, to write alongside the music, to write an intimate conversation with each track on a recording. The larger scale of the book necessitated that I not only write alongside music but to write alongside history and to write alongside cultural events in a way that is dialectically alive and in conversation with a series of sonic events and performances. I wanted to invite the reader into a kind of immersive, shared experience akin to that of sonic performance.

Has it felt ironic to you that you are getting so much attention for a book about women who never got the attention they deserved?

Brooks: I do feel the ironies. It’s very moving to think about the ways that the book has resonated across different disciplinary publics: in performance studies, in music, in public-facing writing circles. If anything, I want to hold on to the fact that so many of the women that I’m writing about did not have their say in the public sphere. If this book can be held up for them as a kind of a marker of the ground that they laid for me to do my own work, then I feel like we’ve moved the ball forward in some ways.

Has your experience writing the book influenced your teaching?

In fall of 2021 I taught a graduate-level class called the “Archive and the Speculative” that came about entirely because of the gift that “Liner Notes” gave to me to think about what archives convey to us, what gets left out of archives, and what African-American creatives and intellectuals — everyone from the legendary Toni Morrison to the great Saidiya Hartman — have done to use archival fragments and pieces of historical memory to tell stories about the enormity of African-American life. These fragments are often portals to history, sometimes the only thing marginalized peoples have at their disposal to weave together the intimate details of our past when we had no resources to build our own museums, our own libraries. Our class considered the ways that a whole hosts of artists and scholars have innovated speculative meditations on archival fragments in order to imagine the fuller worlds and lives of everyday African Americans in the shadows of history. This was my approach to writing about some of the lesser known artists in “Liner Notes,” and I carried it back into my teaching.

The classroom became a place for me to invite my students to sit with the archival fragments that we have available to us in the Beinecke Library. And that’s certainly something that I tried to do in “Liner Notes” with the recordings of these so-called “lost” blues women.

I also think having written the book has enlivened my teaching. It’s inspired me to be more experimental with how I lead my classes, to break the fourth wall in asking lots of questions about epistemological riddles. Like, how do we know what we think we know about culture? Being able to do that while working with archival materials is electrifying, and it gives my students the tools to really push themselves to ask deeper, wider questions of history.

What are you currently working on?

Brooks: I’m just finishing up editing a collection of essays by a wide array of leading scholars, journalists and artists. It’s entitled  “Blackstar Rising & the Purple Reign: Pop Culture & the Sonic Afterlives of David Bowie and Prince” [Duke University Press]. The anthology emerged out of a 2017 Yale conference I organized on Prince and David Bowie to mark their respective passings the year before. It pays tribute to a kind of Black feminist rereading of each of these figures’ pathbreaking careers.

This year I was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Cullman Center Fellowship at the New York Public Library, and this support has allowed me to work on a project to reorient our relationship to the George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward opera “Porgy and Bess.” I’m investigating the ways in which Black women lie at the heart of the narrative of “Porgy and Bess” and also constitute its fundamental aesthetic engine. That’s a story that strangely — or maybe not strangely given how power works in this country — hasn’t been told.

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