Danyel Smith has long championed the criminally overlooked work of Black women in music. And that is evident in her words and her résumé. Whether helming Vibe magazine, being an editor at Billboard, or penning cultural think pieces for ESPN's The Undefeated, Smith's editorial legacy centers on the Black women musicians who soundtracked not just her own life but entire generations.
Smith's laudable knowledge of the music industry, and the Black women who helped shape it, are the subject of her latest venture, Black Girl Songbook, a Spotify original series made in collaboration with The Ringer.
In the show, Smith looks back at some of the musical moments in history that shaped and shook not just the recording industry but the cultural landscape at large. Iconic moments in time such as Whitney Houston's incomparable rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV and Sade's everlasting cool-girl legacy are both part of the show, as well as celebrating underrated stars like Deborah Cox and influential newcomers like Ella Mai and Ari Lennox. Smith's retelling of these cultural narratives is expressed with warmth and utter genuineness, solidifying Black Girl Songbook as not just another recorded venture, but a safe space for Black women to come together and reminisce about the songs that shaped us.
Below, BAZAAR.com speaks with Smith about how Black Girl Songbook came to be, the future of music journalism, and what she wants her own legacy to be.
You're someone who has long championed and highlighted the incredible and diverse work of Black women in music. Why was now the time to take this passion of yours and turn it into an original show?
I think that's the $64,000 question. Why now? There's such a bunch of reasons. I think the main reason is I finally finished the book I've been working on for about six years. And when I say six years, I mean probably I've been working on it in one form or another my entire career. It's called Shine Bright, and it's a personal history of Black women in pop music. I finished it, it's being published in the first week in July of 2021.
And the main thing about doing the research for that book is that it just reiterated to me every time I went to the stats in the library, every time I'm getting my Google on, that there's just not enough talk about the genius of Black women in music. There's just isn't enough. And if I talked about it 12 hours a day for the rest of my life, that's just ... nothing is enough. We're all trying, all of us that write about Black women and try to talk about their genius and their contributions. Still, it's not enough. Just that at the beginning of my career, I [said], Dude, becoming a cultural journalist as a calling in addition to a career, I view talking about the work of Black women. I think at this point in my career as a calling as well. It just is what is important and what I want to do.
There are endless women you could have covered and focused on. How did you decide which women were going to be part of the series?
I love how you feel we're organized like that. How did we decide? My career has been being an editor. So I like to think I have some expertise looking at the landscape and trying to pick out artists that people will want to hear about either because they are under-celebrated, or because maybe there's something about them we're still trying to figure out, or because there's a particular song that makes us so happy and we just need to talk about why—or that makes us so sad and we need to talk about why. Maybe there are personal histories that will provide some context for that woman's art in career. So I just began to look at it like that. And then the team at The Ringer and Spotify, they are just so great. They know what they're doing. And me plus them equals Black Girl Songbook.
I knew the first episode was going to be on Whitney Houston, but it didn't even click in my brain until Super Bowl weekend that wow, it's been 30 years. It still feels like yesterday.
Isn't that crazy. It's so wild time flies when we're having fun, right? And the piece that I wrote for ESPN and the magazine, it is five years old already, which I can't believe. And I wrote that piece for ESPN and the magazine, even before I went to work at ESPN. So that seems already an eternity ago. But the piece always gets re-shared around the time of Super Bowl. It gets me shared around the time of the anniversary of when a Houston's birthday or the anniversary of the day that she died. And so when I looked up and I realized not just was it the 30th anniversary of her performance, but it was also Jazmine Sullivan doing it 30 years later in the exact same arena. That's when it just began to really click that this should be the premiere episode.
When you were creating these episodes and narrating these stories, did you feel the pressure that comes with honoring larger-than-life icons, like Whitney?
That's a good question. I feel that my history has prepared me for this show on Spotify. I feel Black Girl Songbook is very about giving Black women new credit where they do, and every show is not necessarily a flower dimming. Every show is very specifically about giving them credit for the work that they put in. It's like there is labor involved in carrying pop music for the last 80 years, which is what, in my opinion, Black women have done. And I feel since I have been writing about music and being a leader at influential cultural publications like Vibe and Billboard, I'm prepared to make choices. And it's unfortunate that choices have to be made, but I feel very prepared for it. My own life experience of just loving music, as much as I do, also makes me kind of ready for the challenge.
And frankly, the fun of it, I find myself, really as I have my whole life, get in front of a library, whether it's in my head or whether it's on my record cases or at Spotify surrounded by amazing music from Black women, whether they're singing, writing, producing, playing instruments, rapping, whatever they're doing. So I just feel I'm ready. I'm ready, because I have a history. I'm ready because I love Black women making things and making music. And also, it just requires some excitement. I just feel very like, "This is what I'm supposed to be doing right now." I feel pressure, I guess the answer to that is yes, but I'm managing it.
I was taken aback truly by your words and how you described these moments in the first episode—we don't really see or feel that passion in a lot of music criticism anymore. Because you've seen so much of how the media and music worlds have changed so quickly over the years, do you think we're losing that magic behind true music journalism?
I mean, this is a long conversation [laughs]. And one that needs to be had honestly, and I'm happy to be having it with you. But I think that there is definitely still a similar passion. Every generation has their music. And I should say this with the generations that are younger than me—they have the same relationship to Cardi B, that I had to with Queen Latifah. I feel a very intense love that women have for their musical heroes. I see younger women lifting up women that aren't even halfway famous yet. And lifting them up to the start and also interrogating them when they feel that they deserve to have questions to ask of their lyrics or their mood or whatever.
So I don't think that we're losing a love for the music. I do think that just because journalism has been in a bit of a downtime, politely, over the last generation, that there just hasn't been a lot of space, particularly, for all music criticism. And when you talk about how people of color are Black people writing about Black music, it's just not there anymore. And if it is there, it's existing in a way that I love, which is, "I'm going to talk about how I feel about things that are social," or what five, eight years ago were on Tumblr, now are on Instagram. ... But what I think is missing sometimes is people writing for an editor or a mentor that is training them to talk about how they feel about the music, whether or not the music has merit, why they might feel a certain way about a certain sound or a certain artist.
This comes from training, and I'm blessed to have been trained. And part of my training was people saying to me, "You have the part down where you're talking about the technical part of the music. You should feel more comfortable." And I love it, because my producer said at Spotify, Lani was saying, "Feel comfortable reasserting yourself, Danyel, your story matters. Your thoughts on a particular artist or a particular song, a particular woman's work, it's your thought that matters because of your experience and expertise."
And that's what I think is missing. If anything, it's that kind of life. I love to edit people. When I was at ESPN, I had such an amazing team of young people, and they came to me damn near perfect with regard to their skills and their expertise, but then it's my job to even make them better, right? To help them help themselves into being even better. That's what's missing to me.
When you think of artists such as Beyoncé and The Weeknd being snubbed for Grammys, and other countless, talented Black artists, we're in a period of time when possibly these awards mean less than they did before. As we're entering this new era of reckoning within the recording industry, what makes a musical icon if accolades are starting to lose their shine?
To me, what makes an icon, it's never been different. It's the people. In the older days, it's what the people purchase at the record stores. Today, it's in what they stream. Today, it's what they listen to. On special occasions, it's what they listen to. In the car, when you're driving. It used to be the posters that people put up on their walls. Now, it's the things that people put in their IG stream and up on Twitter. It's what people, even still today, call into radio stations and request at terrestrial radio stations. It's what people put on their playlists. It's the people all the time.
Music, to me, is why I like pop music. I know there's a lot of energy and brilliance from the underground. When I was much younger, I was a part of hip-hop when it was still a subculture. So I know that the future lies in the sub. Do you know what I'm saying?
But all that being said, I love that a lot of times, people are like, "Oh, I'm sick of such and such a song, it's been played too many times," or, "Everybody always plays that. I'm sick of it." I'm that person that's always playing it. I'm that person that's like, "No, definitely run that back." When you use ... "I Will Always Love You," y'all can act like you're mad as much as you want, but everybody loves this record and there's reasons for it. And here's the thing—and it deserves to be discussed—it deserves to be talked about. And to me, that's what makes an icon. It's the people's choice, man. I love a good award.
I've been to Whitney Houston's home. When they used to walk me through her awards room I could see the pride on her face. She had each one individually live with a beautiful, modest downstairs—not even upstairs in her living room and everything, right? Just a personal room downstairs when she was living in New Jersey. And even then Houston knew that the Grammys are flawed, she knew that the Billboard numbers were flawed. But she also knew that she was the people's choice. And that matters. That is what makes an icon, man. It just does. But to go back to it, and the women that are chronic like that, they're never spoken at like that. They're rarely spoken up like that. Rarely spoken of that they are as genius as their male counterparts. And I really am tired of that.
Who are some rising Black women in music you're loving right now?
I know that Ella Mai is tired of me saying her name on the Internet. Because I love her. I think she has such an incredible way of singing about love and desire.
I'm a big Cardi B fan. She's already probably that icon status though. Oh, and I love Jhené [Aiko]. She's got a certain vocabulary—I believe she's from California. It feels like we're speaking to each other when I listen to her. I know she's nominated for GRAMMYs, but I really feel she's still a little bit too underrated. And Ari Lennox! She is just extra enough to make me happy. I love her the most.
With this series, you're looking back at these music icons, but you're also a person of influence yourself when it comes to music journalism and analyzing these women, their influence, and their legacies. Having done this work for so long, what do you want your career legacy to be after doing so many amazing projects, especially this one?
That's a massive question. I just want people to remember me for having done a good job. I mean, you want that stuff, you want your family to remember you as a good daughter, sister, auntie, all those things that I am. God knows I'm proud that there are no family of the good wife.
I just want to have done a good job and for people to remember me for having had a good time while doing it too. It remains so much fun for me. I did not think that I was going to grow up and be a person who gets to listen to music for a living. That is not what I thought when I was 15. That is not what I thought even when I was 20. But once I found out that this was going to be my thing, I just got very committed as I tend to do about things that I love. So if you want to give me some flowers, that's the color.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.