We spoke with veteran journalist Danyel Smith about her series Black Girl Songbook, interviewing Whitney Houston years ago, and how she keeps pushing forward even amid the ever-changing media landscape.
Danyel Smith is one of the most respected voices in music journalism. She’s known for her excellent cover stories and features centering Black women in music, in addition to her profiles on a bevy of cultural figures. Her innate passion for storytelling has left a mark on each major publication she’s led, that includes helming VIBE and ESPN’s The Undefeated and her work as an editor at Billboard.
It comes as no surprise that her latest creative venture, Black Girl Songbook, is a culmination of all of her experiences. The Spotify original series created with The Ringer delves into the career-shifting moments of Black women who are often left out of major music conversations.
The level of care that goes into each episode is exactly what you’d expect from a journalism veteran like Smith. In one episode, Atlanta singer Ciara’s career is given a cohesive, fleshed out look; Smith doesn’t just mention Ciara’s hits like “Oh” or “Goodies,” but she provides context around how her sound became central to Southern hip-hop and R&B.
“I wanted to place her in the musical canon because I think that Ciara is so often under celebrated,” Smith said over a Zoom call in late March. “That’s where Black Girl Songbook comes in. We are the space and the place where Black women in music get their credit as due. I say it every episode and it’s just true.”
Whitney Houston, Deborah Cox, and Sade are centered in additional episodes. The inaugural episode, which focuses on Houston’s iconic “Star Spangled Banner” rendition at Super Bowl XXV, showcases why the show is a must-listen. Smith’s reporting and research skills expertly merge with her candid commentary, creating the perfect formula. But, this formula also does so much more — it signifies the gap that the series fills as it dissects the best work of unsung female artists.
We recently spoke with Danyel Smith who talked about Black Girl Songbook, interviewing Whitney Houston years ago, and how she keeps pushing forward even amid the ever-changing media landscape.
What I love most about Black Girl Songbook is the fact that you’re taking these careers, you’re dissecting them, but, you’re also bringing up different songs and moments throughout their careers. Was this initially what you all set out to do?
I think what I initially set out to do was to extend my commitment just to Black women in pop music. And I think as I began thinking about the show on Spotify taking place, I was very consumed with the idea of both talking about these women’s careers, but also being able to play music. That was huge to me. And once I started talking to the great folks at The Ringer, and I began hearing about this music and talk initiative that they were working on, I felt like this is where I want to be.
I think there’s such a strength in podcasting without a lot of music and there’s obviously so much strength and magic in music just being music. But when you put those two together, it paints such a picture and it’s so intimate because most people are listening to things on their headphones or their earbuds. To me, it’s just a very intimate conversation where I can talk to you about it. I can back up my points with [the] actual sound of music. It matters so much to me.
In terms of the process behind when you are putting together the episodes, does that look like doing the research and then hopping in the studio to record, but you also kind of have space to be a creative thinker?
The production team and the creative team that I work with at The Ringer and Spotify, they’re flawless. They’re just such a great group of people. We have a lot of creative meetings all the time. And at the same time, I’ve been reporting and thinking about music for, as you say, for a good minute. And so I bring those strengths with me.
For me, it’s also very important to have the reporting and the facts and the context. I want the listeners of Black Girl Songbook to know not just what was going on in the particular performer or artist’s life, but what was going on in the world at the time when particular songs came out.
I feel like the music of men is always dissected and dealt with in these ways. And I feel like it’s much more rare for music critics, music opinion writers, music reporters, music authors, music content creators, to go deeply, deeply in depth and in detail about the music of women. Black Girl Songbook is here to fill that space.
I definitely agree. What I’ve really enjoyed about the Ciara episode was how you were breaking down her Southern influences. Can you talk about why that was important for you to dig into that and where she lies in the music canon?
I wanted to place her in the musical canon because I think Ciara is so often under celebrated. She’s so often talked about mostly in the context of who she’s dating or who she’s married to, in this case. [Her and Russell Wilson] have a great marriage and we’re all super excited for them, but it is to be remembered that Ciara is a multi-platinum recording artist, singer, songwriter, [and] performer. She’s an insanely gifted choreographer and dancer. I think that people forget just how powerful her biggest moments in music were and how much impact she had on culture.
People were a little bit upset with me for saying that she can pick up the strings of Janet Jackson’s legacy. I stand by what I said; it’s absolutely true. First of all, Janet’s not as celebrated as she should be but I think also, particularly with Ciara, people used to say when she was having her big moment and making her biggest impact on culture that Ciara was just making records with guys, or she was only good on other people’s records like Ludacris [and] Bow Wow.
Well, one, a lot of those records were actually Ciara’s that guys jumped on. And two, a lot of times when Ciara jumped on guys’ records, she helped lead them to the top of the charts and have some of their biggest hits. That’s where Black Girl Songbook comes in. We are the space and the place where black women in music get their credit as due.
In the Ciara episode, you talked about her marriage to Russell Wilson. I like how you brought up you and [your husband] Elliot Wilson. I think it’s just important for people to talk about love and partnerships because we’re human beings.
I’m glad that you are sharing your feelings about that because it encourages me and it gives me further permission actually to keep talking about those kinds of things. It’s not easy to talk about other people’s relationships with respect. And when I say to talk about them with respect, what I really mean is to talk about them without just giving the usual beats of [whether] they’re together or not. Especially relationships between people who have managed to stay together for a long time and have families and things like that. These long relationships, speaking as one, as you said, who is in one, they’re complicated, they’re amazing, they’re rewarding, and they’re zany. You live and learn every day in these relationships.
And to have a successful relationship as almost any woman knows, Black or otherwise, to be in any type of partnership, it’s a challenge when you’re also trying to excel at your job, when you’re also trying to excel as a mom or other kind of caretaker, when you’re also trying to find peace and balance in your life. These things are, as you say, very real for us. And they remain very real for Black women in pop.
What was that moment for you when you first fell in love with journalism or storytelling?
I can remember being in second or third grade and there was a teacher. Shout out to Mrs. Gibbs at Bella Vista Elementary School in Oakland, California. I really do credit her for being the first with making me want to tell stories because she was like, “So you guys like hearing me read stories to you?” And we were all like, “Yes we do.” She’s like, “OK, so we’re all going to make our own story books.” So we had to write a little story. The story was probably like five sentences, but you wrote a little story, each sentence on a different piece of paper, and with every piece of paper that a sentence was on, you had to draw a picture under it that illustrated the sentence.
When I think about reading the story out loud, I mean, that’s essentially what I’m doing on Songbook every week, writing a little story, trying to illustrate it with some facts and figures. A little bit of my personality and reading it aloud.
What stories are you most proud of sharing with the world? I love the 1995 Whitney Houston VIBE cover story that I’ve been seeing on my timeline over and over again.
It’s always hard to talk about Whitney to be honest. I think we’re all going to be in mourning for a really long time. At least I know I will be. And I say this knowing that she’s not a perfect person. And I say this knowing that I have arguments with her about a lot of things in my head and some I’ve had with her in print, but that was quite an accomplishment really for the whole team at VIBE at that time, to make that story happen. It was a very tumultuous time in Whitney Houston’s life, and she was having some problems with her husband at the time, Bobby Brown. She had wanted to cancel the interview, cover shoot, and we all rallied and made that story happen. And I got out to New Jersey and I was supposed to get 20 minutes [with her]. All the way out in Jersey from Manhattan. If you’re from the East, you know, depending on the time of day, that is not a short ride.
I got there and she was amazing. I plan on going into it much more in future episodes of the show. I feel blessed to have had that time with her. It was like four hours. And then I saw her again at the photo shoot and we had some time together as well, but that evening at her house and it was the stereotypical cliche of it was a dark and stormy night. It was literally raining, pouring, thunder, lightning, drama, and Whitney Houston and I and a baby Bobby Christina and Robin Crawford were in her home and she blessed me talking about her life and her love and how she feels about music and work. It really is one of the more epic evenings of my life.
That leans over into Shine Bright, your upcoming book, are you excited to release it?
Shine Bright is being published on September 7th, 2021. It’s existed in my head [for] almost the entirety of my career. So I’m very happy that it exists very soon on paper and it can be in my hands and hopefully in everybody’s hands. It’s billed as a personal history of Black women and pop. So really it is me telling the story of all of my, so many of my, favorite women, Black women artists, recording artists. And it also tells the story of my life really as a kid and also just becoming a journalist. So it’s a merge of both and I’m very proud of it.
I’m really interested in knowing what has sustained you year after year as you’ve been in this space and you’ve watched the space of journalism evolve?
With regard to what sustains me. I think it’s been a real journey, honestly. I think that I definitely had, a period, years even, for a variety of reasons, of being very down. And feeling like the profession that I chose no longer mattered as much as it did, and not knowing where I could find my place in it. And what sustained me through that, to some degree, my own backbone. To some degree, my community of friends and family. And to a large degree, my partnership with my husband who is a long-time journalist himself. Who’s moved over to the tech side [at TIDAL], but is a journalist forever at heart. And I think a combination of those things made me say, let me figure some things out, let me learn some things.