Why I Wrote a Book on The Queen of Hip Hop Soul
By Danny Alexander
My hometown library was built and long curated by a somewhat famous librarian named Ruth Brown, who just happens to share her name with the R&B artist who famously built Atlantic Records. In 1950, Bartlesville, Oklahoma’s Ruth Brown was fired for her civil rights activities, principally her work integrating the library around the children’s story hour. She was a member of the Congress for Racial Equality and was labeled a communist. Bette Davis played a fictionalized version of her in the 1956 movie Storm Center, yet she remains known mainly in civil rights circles (the Cold War environment I lived in as a child meant I didn’t even learn Brown’s story until years after I moved away). Since my own writing career has been focused on freedom of expression and a belief in trying to cross social boundaries that, in general, remain intact sixty-six years later, I was proud to have my first book signing across from her portrait in her former library. I was also happy to think she might have approved of the scene before her.
The Bartlesville Public Library was holding a local authors event, and I had been invited along with close to a dozen other writers. A significant number of the attendees were a group of women associated with an anthology series devoted to Black women’s empowerment, entitled Fabulous New Life. When I got talking to one of those authors, Sharon Reese, I realized we went to junior high together, only a grade apart. Sadly, despite the best efforts of Ruth Brown two decades before we attended school, there still weren't many real-life routes for a Sharon Reese to meet a Danny Alexander during our junior high days. The fact that Mary J. Blige helped Ms. Reese and I meet after all this time says something about why I wrote this book, and why I ever wrote about music in the first place.
When I got up to speak at the library, I decided to focus on those reasons. I could do that by telling a story that connected most of us in that room, certainly my age or over. When I was a kid in Oklahoma, one of the only shared experiences across the racial divide was music. The most popular radio stations were rivals KAKC 970 and KELI 1430. KAKC was born early in the rock and roll era (the mid-1950s), and KELI came on air in the early ‘60s. When I was just starting to interact with pop radio, I regularly heard “Countrypolitan” great Charlie Rich followed by Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, whose songs segued into Flint, Michigan, rockers Grand Funk Railroad, then into First Lady of Country Music Tammy Wynette, and then the Black and Chicano funk band War. The Top 40 was a place where people who would never meet in day-to-day life, people of different ethnic and class backgrounds, spoke frankly (often intimately) to each other as equals. When the O’Jays called out, “People all over the world/Join hands/Start a love train,” it sounded every bit as visionary as John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Music taught me to dream of a world far more inclusive and life-affirming than the one on the nightly news.
When I got a few years older and started reading music magazines, I found writers—Dave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus—who suggested the protest music of everyone from Patti Smith to the Clash to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five might indeed be able to change the world. But it was more elemental than that; they shared a sense that music’s unique dialogue among Bakersfield Okies, shotgun shack singers from Mississippi, coal miner’s daughters from Kentucky, and the children of Detroit assembly line workers had an inherent value that might change the dialogue about class and race in this country. Unlike much music writing today, often aimed at a certain in-group, these writers seemed to write directly to me, a 14-year-old boy sprawled across his bed trying to grasp the meaning of my music. I remember snatches of reviews that spoke for me, validating my own self-worth by telling me a particular three-note guitar solo was—at least for someone else besides me—a slice of heaven here on earth. Music compelled me to add my voice in the only way I knew how.
When a series of racist incidents occurred on my college campus in the mid-‘80s, I submitted a story to a networking newsletter called Rock & Roll Confidential because I had to express how I saw the racial divide on FM radio related to these events as well as to artists joining across genre lines to fight Apartheid in South Africa. For me, writing about music was a natural way of engaging with a more diverse and revealing conversation than I had heard anywhere else in life. Thirty years later, I still write for that newsletter, long renamed Rock & Rap Confidential.
Aside from being an unabashed fan, I chose to write my book about Mary J. Blige because she is known for her emphasis on dialogue. Having covered everything from hard rock to American Songbook standards, she stands for tearing down all kinds of walls. Unlike most heavily-branded divas and stars in the youth-driven market of the past ten years, Blige relates as an everyday woman, a Black working class woman who sees her audience as peers struggling with different versions of her own struggle. She connects directly with the women in her audience by singing frankly about everything from PMS to abusive relationships to learning to love yourself. And when she is called upon, as she so often is, to perform at benefits for hurricane relief or boys and girls clubs or veterans’ support, she approaches those causes as extensions of those same universal life struggles. At the Bartlesville Public Library reading, I chose a passage about her singing a Stephen Foster song, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” at a Haiti hurricane relief event. By doing so, she made the Haitian struggle personal, American, and universal all at the same time.
For all these reasons, my choice to write about Blige was a choice to write about the concerns of everyday people. To honor that, I decided to focus on musicians like Karyn White, Miki Howard, Jody Watley and Alyson Williams, those who lay the hip hop/R&B groundwork for Blige without achieving the same level of celebrity. I also chose to weave into the tapestry the voices of musicians and fans outside of the spotlight. I’m proud of this unorthodox mix that shows the impact of Blige’s career on everyday lives, her community linked by music.
That talk at the library came just a couple of days after we lost another artist who nurtured a community of musicians and engaged with everyday folks, and his loss hung over the gathering. Prince’s death has hit many of us harder than we ever could have expected, in part because we couldn’t expect it. Another big part of it is the enormity of his reach. Over that first weekend, MTV started playing videos again—all Prince all the time—and Sirius Channel 50 played a relentless, inspired mix drawn from every part of his four decades in the music business. Elton John, Ween, Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples, Ellie Goulding and thousands of bar bands and karaoke singers paid tribute to him. Mary J. Blige posted a 2012 concert pic of herself and Prince hugging after they performed her Chaka Khan cover “Sweet Thing” and Sinead O’Connor’s Prince cover, “Nothing Compares to You.”
When it came time to promote the book, I also felt certain that I wanted to carry that vision forward. I was lucky to have my first local radio show interview be a shared conversation with a local poet and a musician both influenced by Blige. In May, I will do a reading with TheRapy 101, a Guild Complex-sponsored hip hop collective in Chicago. On that trip, I’m trying to arrange a book talk around the water struggle in Flint, Michigan, a life and death struggle for Blige’s fans in the area. I am working with the Memphis Stax Museum on talks that involve students from the Soulsville Charter School. I’m doing community radio in Atlanta, and I’m interested in donating sales profits to organizations in each of these areas. I’ve been invited back to speak at a Juneteenth event at my hometown library, and I plan to donate the proceeds to Bartlesville’s Westside Community Center.
For me, this kind of activity in the community is what it’s all about. A book is an attempt to start a new conversation with others, and in my case the book is a tool to push through the kinds of social barriers music seeks to erase. That’s the call I’ve heard in rock and rap and soul (and all their kin) since I was that kid reading about the music in my bedroom. All these years later, I feel privileged to find new opportunities to respond.
Beginning his career about the same time Mary J. Blige signed her first record deal, music journalist Danny Alexander has worked as an associate editor for Dave Marsh’s music newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential and covered rock, hip hop, and soul for various publications. He is also the author of Liner Notes: Soul Asylum.