The Real Story of Black Women in Pop

Originally published for The Meteor Newsletter on April 16, 2022

It’s impossible to discuss the last 25 years of  Black popular music criticism without invoking the name Danyel Smith—the first woman to serve as Vibe magazine’s editor in chief. Between her career as a writer, helping capture and document the musical soundscapes that reflect different facets of Black life, to her personal journey, anchored by the ebbs and flows of Black popular culture—Smith’s frame of reference is deeply informed by an innate understanding of the transformative power of music history and its integral role in the definition of cultural identity and belonging. Now, with Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,  Smith expertly places herself in the canon of Black writers and de facto archivists such as Greg TateCheryl Wall, and Saidiya Hartman. It’s part history, part memoir, and along the way, it also reclaims Black women’s rightful place in pop music.

Shamira Ibrahim: One thing I’ve always liked about your writing is the way you make these intricate connections. You start with connecting “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer to the 18th-century poet Phyllis Wheatley. How have you honed the ability to draw these connections for people who may not immediately see the through-lines that go from antebellum slavery through generations of pop music?


Danyel Smith: I appreciate the close attention to the text—that always matters to me very much. At this point in my career, it’s just the way I think, and frankly, I decided to stop fighting it. I have training as a journalist – years of on-the-job training, some training from school, some me training myself, and a lot of that has to do with getting things right. Getting the dates right, getting the moments right, getting the details right. For me, a big part of my work is resisting summary; I feel like so often, Black women’s lives are written about in summary. It is a privilege to have the time, honestly, to just actually think.

I really do adore and admire and often engage with Phyllis Wheatley and her work; the same for Donna Summer. I don’t know that I thought about them both being Boston girls until I was getting close to maybe the midpoint of this book. You’re just writing Boston a million times, and you’re checking your spelling of Massachusetts a million times, and something shakes out; you hear the Boston inflection again in Donna Summers’ voice. It came to me because I had time to think and then had the confidence to stop fighting that negative voice in my head that says, “does that really matter?”

Shamira Explains It All Issue No 2: Independence Day

This originally published on July 6th 2020 as part of my Newsletter series on Substack here.

Today (July 6th) marks 45 years of Comorian independence from French rule – when three of the four islands of Grand Comore (Ngazidja), Moheli (Mwali), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Mayotte (Mahore) successfully parted ways with the notoriously domineering regime of French colonialism.

It came a full 15 years after the wave of what is known as the “Year of Africa” (1960); where 17 African nations declared independence from colonial rule – overwhelmingly from France – including the then-Republic of the Congo from Belgium (marked by Patrice Lumumba’s seminal speech), and punctuated by Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah’s address at the United Nations General Assembly:

For years, Africa has been the foot-stool of colonialism and imperialism, exploitation and degradation. From the north to the south, from the east to the west, her sons languished in the chains of slavery and humiliation, and Africa’s exploiters and self-appointed controllers of her destiny strode across our land with incredible inhumanity without mercy, without shame, and without honour.

This year was concluded by the ratification of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in the United Nations – which, it should be noted, was abstained by the colonial powers of Belgium France, Portugal, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States.

(We also got the Congolese Rhumba hit “Indépendance Cha Cha.”)

Of course, no fracture comes without its pound of flesh: many of the countries within the Francophonie in particular continued to orbit around the vestiges of the colonial empire. The CFA remained that kept many countries economically tied to France, with their reserves kept in French treasuries, simply rebranding from colonies francaise d’Afrique to communaute financiere africaine in West Africa and Cooperation financiere en Afrique centrale elsewhere. This is a financial bind that is still being unwound to this day – with a proposition pending for a new regional currency, that is still pegged to the Euro and backed by the French Treasury, running at odds with the ongoing ECOWAS efforts (led by Nigeria) to form the Eco currency.

In the case of the Comorian archipelago, after winning our vote for independence (with the key assistance of several under-acknowledged women in the organizing efforts leading up to independence) with 95% of the vote, France rejected the vote and demanded assessment island by island, in which Mayotte was accounted as voting to retain French ties, and used as a just cause for annexation – despite running afoul of the aforementioned UN policy on decolonization. Since then, twenty UN resolutions have condemned France’s annexation of Mayotte – including an attempted United Nations Security Council resolution in 1976 recognizing Comorian sovereignty over Mayotte, supported by 11 of the 15 members and vetoed by France, whose permanent seat on the Council is an outgrowth of their colonial reign. Below is a link to a summary video of the road to independence in French for those who can understand:

Since then, Mayotte has become part of the French outre-mer – yet another remnant of the formal colonial era – officially becoming an “overseas” department in 2011, joining the likes of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, and Réunion. In the time since, a visa known as the visa Balladur was put in place in 1995 (named after Édouard Balladur, the prime minister of France at the time) requiring clearance for Comorian nationals to enter the 4th island. It has caused fractures and significant loss (emotional and physical) that remain to this day, particularly with generations of Mahorais that are raised with the knowledge of being “French” and consider Comorians outsiders, and the stratification of resources that exist between the two communities. For more insight (in English), please feel free to watch this Al Jazeera special below (although I caution that even this cannot fully capture all the nuances of such a complex matter).

I chose to do the second issue of this newsletter on Comorian Independence Day for a few reasons. The first is, of course, out of pride for my homeland; the second is to impart the key takeaway that historically-supported pathways to freedom are red-herrings that can still come with many caveats, whether it be the trappings of neo-colonialism or seizure of assets. Operating within these constructs is not a route to liberation so much as it is a route to incrementalism, with punitive tactics undertaken in tandem by former overseers (for the sake of brevity, look up Bob Denard).

I think about this a lot in this current moment, as our various communities and organizing groups start to think through what the future we envision for ourselves as Black peoples would start to look like. In Angela Davis’ “Lectures on Liberation” , she said, “one of the most acute paradoxes present in the history of Western society is that while on a philosophical plane freedom has been delineated in the most lofty and sublime fashion, concrete reality has always been permeated with the most brutal forms of unfreedom, of enslavement.”

This is what we are all trying to break free from and reimagine; all forms of enslavement, from neocolonialism to the modern prison industrial complex in the Americas and everything in between. As Angela Davis said during the Dream Defenders’ Sunday School session on June 14th, “Abolition allows us to get to the root of the problem. That is how it is the radical alternative.” K Agebebiyi added, “the prison system aims to redefine who can be human. We know that we are human. Abolition requires me to ask, ‘how can the human in me, see and honor the human in you?’” Derecka Purnell eloquently stated, “it’s an invitation to think about the politics and struggle through it together.”

It’s wondrous to see how so many conversations within the diaspora overlap and speak to each other, even accidentally. In a moment when so much ado and handwringing is made about the nature of removing Confederate Statues, venerating slaveholding Founding Fathers, or genocidal explorers who never even touched American soil, I think about the dialogue around the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement – particularly the 2015 remarks given by Achille Mbembe, titled “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” :

“To bring Rhodes’ statue down is far from erasing history, and nobody should be asking us to be eternally indebted to Rhodes for having “donated” his money and for having bequeathed “his” land to the University. If anything, we should be asking how did he acquire the land in the first instance…But bringing Rhodes’ statue down is one of the many legitimate ways in which we can, today in South Africa, demythologize that history and put it to rest – which is precisely the work memory properly understood is supposed to accomplish. For memory to fulfill this function long after the Truth and Reconciliation paradigm has run out of steam, the demythologizing of certain versions of history must go hand in hand with the demythologizing of whiteness. This is not because whiteness is the same as history. Human history, by definition, is history beyond whiteness. Human history is about the future. Whiteness is about entrapment.”

(It should be noted, of course, that the Rhodes Scholarship has still retained its name).

Of course, this pattern of coalescent discourse is a cyclical behavior that can be seen in all sorts of diasporic thought, whether it be socio-political or purely arts-related (in each instance, it is still creative in spirit). Take, for example, this conversation between Haitian poet Rene Depestre and Martinican writer and co-founder of the Negritude movement Aimé Cesaire during the Cultural Congress of Havana in 1967, transcribed in the seminal text “Discourse on Colonialism”:

A.C.: I remember very well that around that time we read the poems of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. I knew very well who McKay was because in 1929 or 1930 an anthology of American Negro poetry appeared in Paris. And McKay’s novel, Banjo – describing the life of dock workers in Marseilles – was published in 1930. This was really one of the first works in which an author spoke of the Negro and gave him a certain literary dignity. I must say, therefore, that although I was not directly influenced by any American Negroes, at least I felt that the movement in the United States created an atmosphere that was indispensable for a very clear coming to consciousness. During the 1920’s and 1930’s I came under three main influences, roughly speaking. The first was the French literary influence, through the works of Mallarme, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, and Claudel. The second was Africa. I knew very little about Africa, but I deepened my knowledge through ethnographic studies… and as for the third influence, it was the Negro Renaissance Movement in the United States, which did not influence me directly but still created an atmosphere which allowed me to become conscious of the solidarity of the black world.

He later continues:

I have always recognized that what was happening to my brothers in Algeria and the United States had its repercussions in me. I understood that I could not be indifferent to what was happening in Haiti or Africa. Then, in a way, we slowly came to the idea of a sort of black civilization spread throughout the world. And I have come to the realization that there was a “Negro situation” that existed in different geographical areas, that Africa was also my country. There was the African continent, the Antilles, Haiti; there were Martinicans and Brazilian Negroes, etc. That’s what Negritude meant to me.

I can only hope that we recognize the power of this as we continue to conceptualize and dream of the world and spaces we deserve; and lean on each other as an oppressed peoples to help get there.

This month:

That’s the thing about posthumous albums — they’re forever framed by the circumstances under which they were released, forever tied to death. They become an exercise in myth-making as much as reminders of what has been lost. To listen to Shoot for the Stars is to wonder where Pop begins and ends, to search for him among his peers and imagine that their chart-topping and history-making ascents would’ve been his destiny as well. In his absence, we’re left only with snapshots of his potential, possibilities refracted through other people’s imaginations and suspended now within the span of the album. It could never be enough, but it’ll have to do.

  • If you aren’t already subscribed to Woy Magazine’s weekly newsletter – providing you with news and commentary on Haiti and the Diaspora – you should be. The latest issue covers important information around organizing efforts and protests that have been happening in Haiti that have been facing police violence tactics akin to that in the United States, as well as mass deportation updates.
  • Black women who were formerly employed at OkayAfrica and OkayPlayer (Antoinette, Oyinkan, Hanan, Ivie, Sinat, Winnie, Olabisi and others) have been making unprecedented waves in Black media for mistreatment at the hands of their CEO and publisher Abiola Oke (who has since relinquished his position), demanding his removal and other amends be implemented at the publication moving forward. Important note: they have not alleged personally to any sexual assault/harassment (while allegations have been revealed as a result of this ongoing story) or requested their jobs back. As someone who has worked with OkayAfrica for some time and was nominated for #Okay100Women this year, hearing the accounts of the mistreatment was unnerving; but I will always stand with, believe, and support trusted Black women voices in media, and hope to see more people do so. Click here to stay up to date with the latest developments and donate to their fund if you can. #itsneverokay
  • On American Independence Day, I had a conversation with Sophia Gurulé – a Xicana public defender who represents incarcerated immigrants facing deportation – on #FreeOusman, the concept of citizenship and sovereignty, harmful immigrant narratives, the prison-to-deportation pipeline and race and class implications, DACA, ICE, and anything else that came to mind around identity, borders, and the carceral state, and how this all fits with the Movement for Black Lives and in my reporting on police brutality for Black immigrants. Feel free to check that out below (as well as my purple hair).
Alchimist 🧪 on Twitter: "Assa Traoré en couverture du magazine ...
  • Comorian-American (by way of France) rapper Napoleon Da Legend has a fantastic EP out, Charles de Gaulle, with tracks in both French and EnglishGive it a listen below:
  • Malcolm-Aimé Musoni launched the first installment of his Zine, Blacks Rule Vol 1, with the collaboration of a lot of Black creatives (myself included). I did want to explicitly pull out an excerpt of an essay from my friend Mack titled “Kill the Cop in Your Head,” because I think it’s especially potent and resonant for right now – but check the rest out for yourself.

I leave you with three final things: 1) the audio of Lumumba’s Independence Day speech, 2)one of my favorite montage videos of the Comorian National anthem (with French subtitles 3) a lovely playlist from the women at FourTwo Creative. Yes, you can let go and get free. ♥️

Alors, c’est tout!

Shamira Explains It All Issue No. 1: New York is Burning

This originally published on June 1st 2020 as part of my Newsletter series on Substack here.

Welcome to Shamira Explains It All/Shamira Explique Tout, a culture newsletter discussing the origins and impact of Black production and exchange, identity, and intellectual property via our digital, social, and archival discussions – and whatever else may be timely and interesting. Part English, Part French (la moitié est écrite en français, ou plus, si le thème du mois le demande). Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at

Sistas, how y’all feel? Brothas, y’all alright?

I originally wanted to launch this newsletter on my birthday – for a variety of reasons, that did not come to fruition. So I’m launching this on my mother’s birthday instead – a woman who as born in a country that had that to claw and fight for its independence from its oppressors, and continues to try to find its way. It grounds me in a sobering truth – eradicating the most visible oppressors is only the first step. But as Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Over the past few days, cities across the United States have been rife with clashes between organizers, protesters, and their respective law enforcement forces. Some people are confrontational and others are not; all methods of protest are legitimate (including this amazing form of surveillance disruption by K-pop stans). Ultimately, the concept of a “peaceful” protest is a farce; it presumes opposing forces that do not seek to engage the community as enemy combatants. Corporations and businesses are not people, despite the fact that the Supreme Court opted to give them protections that treated them as such; but when discussing looting, keep in mind that there is record unemployment in a public health crisis with little to no social safety network to keep people afloat. As people have pointed out recently, Martin Luther King, in his advocacy for nonviolence, still expressed that “a riot is the language of the unheard:”

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

With regards to how people discuss MLK and nonviolence in general, it is frequently misconstrued and decontextualized. I encourage people to listen to this clip from Bomani Jones’ ESPN Radio Show about the impetus behind MLK Day and the clarity of his actual message – that the greatest weapon he employed wasn’t pacifism, but shame.

In Brooklyn, near-unprecedented violence is ongoing in Fort Greene and Flatbush. It should not be lost on spectators that the nexus of brutality going on in Kings Country is happening around the Barclays Center – the source of its own violence on the Black community in Brooklyn. Gentrification and displacement go hand in hand with over policing and stop and frisk. I explored that in my piece for OkayPlayer

Lastly, I will just share my quick (and growing) thread on surveillance practices and ethics with journalism and organizing. It will be an ever expanding discussion as we continue to accept loss of privacy to the state and use of that data in a retaliatory manner, but one that we have to accept is a very present threat in the first place. This is an excerpt from an unpublished essay I wrote some time ago on surveillance and criminalization of Black communities:

Between the patterns of zeros and ones rests a minotaur for the digital age – amalgamating the sophistry of inherent Black criminality within a web of innovation that only serves as an anchor to longstanding pathologies. If we have any hope of a technological age that isn’t inextricably contracted to white supremacy, we would be well-suited to look at the threshold between mythology and history in order to reshape the way we think about applying harm reduction and racial equity. The surest way to get swallowed alive by a monster is to fail to realize that one is even there; and it is only by identifying that framework that we can begin to lay down the thread that will guide the perception of inherent Black criminality from the bowels of a modern digital labyrinth. 

We have a long way to go to understand just how much data we have forfeited to third parties and actors that profit from participation in the prison industrial complex. A calculation can never supersede the inherent biases that it is introduced to and the fact remains that the carceral state was designed out of a pathology to funnel brown bodies into boxes. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, “whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.”  The superimposition of automation belies this truth, but as Saidiya Hartman spoke to “a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago”, so has the digital model continued to reinforce the punitive history behind bars: it is all it knows, and therefore all it can be.

Playlist for the Month:

This month:

  • If you are uploading pictures of protestors or people organizing – use this tool to scrub metadata and blur peoples faces and other identifying features.
  • Try to contribute to vetted bail funds if you can. Here is a Twitter Thread with links to bail funds throughout the nation. (Important Note: The NYC Chapter has said they are overwhelmed by funds, so you may want to divert funds to local organizations in need of resources instead – like Equality for Flatbush’s mutual aid fund, so that they can continue investing in their police abolition organizing as well as community support)
  • For those who want to get involved but can’t take to the streets for various reasons (like myself, because of my immigration status) , here is a link to various to be in the struggle.
  • If you are interested in additional anti-carceral reading during this quarantine, for those of you who are just starting out – I encourage you to check out Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?
  • This is a great 5-minute appearance from Cornel West on CNN worth checking out (where he references the Samuel Beckett quote above). Key takeaway: “It looks as if the system cannot reform itself. We’ve tried Black faces in high places – too often our Black politicians, professional class, middle class, become too accommodated to the the capitalist economy…”
  • Here is some legal guidance for those who are arrested in New York City.

Francophone Corner:

  • Découvrez le lancement de SUNU : Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics, une création de la brillante Amy Sall. SUNU Journal cherche à interroger, critiquer et célébrer le passé et le présent, tout en contribuant à une riche lignée de production intellectuelle, culturelle artistique africaine et afro-diasporique.
  • Check out the launch of SUNU: Journal of African Affairs, Critical Thought + Aesthetics the brainchild of the brilliant Amy Sall. SUNU Journal seeks to interrogate, critique and celebrate the past and the present, whilst contributing to a rich lineage of African and Afro-diasporic intellectual, cultural + artistic production.
  • Soutenons les médias indépendants ! Avec ce concept de « blingzine » bilingue (français/anglais), 33 Carats propose 106 pages de découvertes hip hop, lifestyle et mode par une équipe de passionnées. C’est le thème de la Déconnexion qui est exploré pour ce numéro avec des interviews d’experts sur les stratégies marketing des rappeurs français, une visite de Négus l’exposition/album de Yassin Bey par la journaliste américaine Ebony Janice.  Mais le récit collaboratif fait de bling et de hip hop « Birkins and Drake » dont Life is Good  le premier épisode est écrit par moi 🙂 En bonus ; une interview exclusive d’Erykah Badu : pas mal pour un média indépendant !Erykah Badu lance son site Badu World Market, Elle y propose des collections limitées hoodies et tee-shirts oversize en collaboration avec l’artiste canadienne Jackie Musial. A l’occasion du lancement de ce nouveau projet de la chanteuse, une interview exclusive par Sanaa Carats, fondatrice et rédactrice en chef du média, est disponible dans le numéro 3. Le rappeur français Cleim Haring en couverture.En attendant la version papier, En vente sur Issuu : 
  • Support independent media! With this bilingual (French/English) “blingzine” concept, 33 Carats offers 106 pages of hip hop, lifestyle and fashion discoveries by a team of passionate people. Interviews with experts on the marketing strategies of French rappers, a visit to Négus exhibition/album by Yassin Bey by the American journalist Ebony Janice.  But the collaborative fictional series of bling and hip hop “Birkins and Drake” of which Life is Good is the first episode is written by me 🙂 As a bonus; an exclusive interview with Erykah Badu!Erykah Badu launches her website Badu World Market, where she offers limited collections of hoodies and oversize tee-shirts in collaboration with Canadian artist Jackie Musial. On the occasion of the launch of this new project of the singer, an exclusive interview by Sanaa Carats, founder and editor-in-chief of the media, is available in this third issue. Buy it here. sur Instagram: 33caratswebzineTwitter:

Alors, c’est tout. Sign up now so you don’t miss the next issue.

In the meantime, tell your friends!