The Real Story of Black Women in Pop

Not only do you interrogate commonly held narratives in white contemporary thought around Black pop culture, you also work to reconcile narratives within Black cultural thought. Particularly, the section around Elvis, where you tease out that it might be a little bit more complicated than people realize; there were Black fans of Elvis. What prompted you to want to interrogate it in that way?

I didn’t think it was truthful of me to write a whole book about Black women in pop and not write about my mother’s love for Elvis, my enjoyment of Elvis, and my great grandmother’s enjoyment. And [of] Johnny Cash, who comes from the Black gospel tradition. How was I going to write a book about myself and Black women in pop without addressing that? [Or] the way that Elvis slipped into Blackness to save himself after falling upon hard professional times.

But I’m on a constant mission to try to find a way to get Black women in music the credit that they are due. I think the Sweet Inspirations, led by Cissy Houston–Whitney  Houston’s mother–have had more impact on rock, pop, soul, and R&B than they’re ever going to be given credit for. I really tried to back that up with example upon example, especially with “Brown Eyed Girl” [the Van Morrison track on which the Sweet Inspirations sang the famed chorus]. 

And I want Cissy and her cohorts to be known—I don’t like it when Black women are called upon to save white men and not receive the credit for it. It had to be spoken upon, though, because it’s not enough for me to just say, ‘I don’t like it, I think it’s a mess, Elvis is so racist, etc.’ I refuse to participate in making our work and our fanship, and our music simple.

A question I have is about contemporary times—you make a cogent argument that “there’s a laziness” in positing that crossover success is somehow devaluing Black work as cheesy or selling out. Now that we’re seeing more women in rap, there’s been increased attention to the ability for women to crossover into pop success. Do you still see that judgment today? 

Do I think that people are saying that  Black girls’ rap is less than good rap because it’s popular amongst the whites? Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it? Pop is the people’s choice. [In the 1980s and ’90s] Pop became a bad word when Black artists like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Lionel Richie began to take it over. If we have people like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B winning and owning the top of the charts and then all of a sudden pop is again being referred to as less than, I would ask where that energy was when people like The Weeknd–who does beautiful work–was sitting at the top of the charts. Was there a lot of talk then? What about Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak? Is there talk there about how they’re selling out, or is it just that they’re making great, popular, and critically acclaimed music? I don’t know why that same grace isn’t extended to Nicki Minaj and Cardi B and their cohort.