Emily J. Lordi—an English professor at UMASS Amherst, who writes critical essays about Bilal and Beyoncé in addition to her scholarship—pursues several potent agendas in her new book.
First, she tries to complicate and reexamine the academic discourse around a group of important black authors and their connection with music. Second, she attempts to show that black pop music merits the same respect as black literature—and, of course, literature more broadly. Third, she hopes to illustrate that when we examine the relationship between literature and popular music with scrupulous care, our understanding of both deepens and changes.
Each chapter of Black Resonance pairs an author with a musician (sometimes two): Richard Wright and Bessie Smith. Gayl Jones alongside Billie Holiday. The author usually writes—in fiction, poetry or criticism—about his/her paired musician.
Lordi’s approach complicates received notions. When it comes to Ellison, for example, Lordi “aims to correct the critical bias … of reading his work only through his writings on secular male musicians” by connecting him to the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Jackson, the subject of Ellison’s only article “on a female (sacred) singer,” gives Lordi the opportunity to attempt a “more sincere vision of [his] modernist novel [The Invisible Man] … and a more complex vision of Jackson’s music.”
Black Resonance blends academic theory with musical analysis, emphasizing the diverse meanings contained in lyrics and in their delivery. Ambivalence as a form of resistance to oppression becomes crucial.
“If resistance is always the sign of a counter-story … ambivalence is perhaps the state of holding on to more than one story at a time.” Listening for ambivalence changes the way you hear—and appreciate—Mahalia Jackson’s blurring of words like “mourn” and “moan” in her signature song “Move Up A Little Higher.”
The insistence on the importance of ambiguity in Black Resonance connects with ideas also articulated by musicians (in a different context). Brian Eno—onetime member of Roxy Music and the producer of canonical albums from the Talking Heads and David Bowie—once wrote, “[R]ock music is built on distortion: on the idea that things are enriched, not degraded, by noise. To allow something to become noisy is to allow it to support multiple readings.”
Black Resonance not only applies academic techniques to popular music—it treats pop with respect, suggesting that it rewards the same close reading usually reserved for literary texts.
Lordi’s analysis of Nikki Giovanni’s poems in conjunction with Aretha Franklin’s covers allows each artist’s work to illuminate the other’s. Giovanni’s technique—she breaks lines “in odd ways” to stimulate movement—“elucidate[s] Franklin’s approach to song text.” Franklin “adds several new lyrics into [Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’] … by the time she gets to the bridge, she is singing twice as many lyrics as Cooke … performing a kind of rhythmic and harmonic enjambment whereby each repeated phrase leads directly to the next.”
Music also plays a central role in Giovanni’s poem “Dreams.” By referencing the Raelettes, who were an important part of Ray Charles’s sound, and the Sweet Inspirations, who aided Franklin, Giovanni embeds her poem in an R&B matrix, with an additional layer of significance.
“Dreams” ends with a decision:
i became more sensible
and decided i would
and just become
a sweet inspiration
Initially, “Giovanni appears to be telling the story of black women forfeiting artistic ambition to fulfill the traditional role of serving as a man’s ‘sweet inspiration.’” But Lordi points out that the Sweet Inspirations started as backing singers for men like Ray Charles before moving on to support Aretha Franklin at the peak of her success. Hearing the Sweet Inspirations in “sweet inspiration” “reroutes the story of women settling down to the task of inspiring men … ‘Dreams’ becomes an homage to black women singers who back up other black women.”
Lordi’s multiple readings also inform her take on Aretha Franklin’s embrace of backup singers in her most iconic song, “Respect.” Here, what may seem like an embellishment adds an essential element to Franklin’s artistry: “… if we think of the [‘ree-ree’ pattern of the backup singers] as a prefix, we might hear the singers stressing the extent to which they are remaking, or recreating, this song,” originally performed by Otis Redding.
Near the end of Black Resonance, Lordi recaps her work.
“[B]lack music is not a stable authenticating source of inspiration for black writers; instead, it is a force that writers … use their own literature to re-create.”
Of course, music benefits from the pairing as well. “Black literature is not authenticated by a stable image of black music but instead serves to make music newly, productively, strange.”
Black Resonance goes further, pointing to the value of hip-hop—or really, most post-70s black pop, which remains largely outside the accepted musical cannon (unlike, say, Billie Holiday). The rapper Pusha T addressed this last year in an interview with NPR in which he noted, “As an artist right now, my biggest thing is A) I want to see hip-hop become one of the genres that tour like The Eagles.” (He didn’t mention B.)
Scholars have attempted to boost hip-hop’s academic credentials by equating it with poetry. But this preserves the outdated hierarchy that needs disrupting, where literature and poetry exist in a class below music. Also, the music-as-poetry concept restricts tunes to a single dimension: words. If it’s just poetry, then we can forget about the endlessly inventive beats.
Lordi ends by suggesting “a need to revalue music.” As Aretha sang in another memorable song: “… it just ain’t fair.”
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today and Popmatters. He hails from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.