LaShonda Barnett is a very smart woman. Raised in Illinois by her music scholar mother, Barnett was a professor of history and Africana studies at Sarah Lawrence College from 2003 to 2006 (she now teaches in the SLC Writing Institute), lectures worldwide, and in conversation is prone to long, academic pauses so that she never says more than exactly what she means. Despite her pedigree, it wasn’t until her friend Phylicia Rashad – jazz enthusiast and, famously, Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show – gave her a gentle nudge that Barnett understood what she now believes she was meant to do all along.
“Rashad said that I was the best interview she’d ever had, that she had been given the opportunity to explore topics that had never come up,” remembers Barnett. “I realized that she was ‘grateful’ for the opportunity to discuss her craft, and that other black women artists might find the opportunity rewarding. I think that line of logic was right, because every woman that I approached said yes.”
What resulted is a treasure trove of raw emotion from some of jazz and soul’s greatest black scribes so bare in nature that it can pack a reality shock to devotees. R&B Hall-of-Famer Nona Hendryx, for example, remembers her church singer father as “a scoundrel and a scalawag,” to which Barnett responds, “I have a father like that.” Exchanges like this are disarming, for both the reader and the subject, and correlate directly to the amount of soul-baring. “It was funny,” says Barnett. “The more I avoided the personal, scandalous issues, the more they would talk about them. It was in speaking about their craft that they would open up completely, because their personal struggles are such a large part of what they do.” In some cases, the approach led to more frank, nearly anticlimactic revelations. Multiple Grammy-winner Chaka Khan, when asked about the inspiration behind her ’70s aphrodisiacal standard “Sweet Thing,” responds, “Girl, I don’t think anything inspired that song. I told all of my boyfriends around that time that it was them.”
Not all the denials of a technical aspect to their creativity come so fancifully. In fact, nearly every artist interviewed claimed she had no idea where her writing came from, which poses an interesting dilemma for the book’s very thesis: If, as Barnett says in the introduction, her goal “was to illuminate for music lovers and would-be students … the creative process,” then she unequivocally fails in her pursuit. With a couple of exceptions (Blue Note legend Dianne Reeves, in particular, knows exactly how she writes so beautifully), Barnett pushes through instance after instance of professional and cruelly succinct brush-offs. Singer Abbey Lincoln chalks up her songwriting to “a muse that visits me”; Barnett even presses Hendryx when the songstress claims she just “makes herself available for what’s in the air,” asking what she would tell future songwriters other than to be “chosen” in some way – Hendryx responds, “I was meant to listen and hear the music.” To Barnett, it was an expected result.
“As a creative person, I am aware that so much of what happens can be defined as divine inspiration,” says Barnett. “All of the artists see themselves as conduits, and I was prepared for that; however, I wanted them to tease out for me the process of creating after the initial inspiration has happened. Having a notion is not the same as manifesting the notion, obviously.”
None of Barnett’s subjects, though, posed quite the challenge of Ms. Nina Simone. In one of her last interviews, the jazz goddess at times seems to delight in dispelling nearly every preconception that’s been slapped on her by adoring fans and critics. Speaking with Barnett at length as part of Barnett’s doctoral thesis when she was only in her mid-20s, Simone consistently (and understandably) gets the jump on the young interviewer. Barnett admits her jaw dropped time and again at Simone’s declarations, from her lifetime’s worth of venom at her homeland – “I don’t like this country; I never did. America will sell her soul for money” – to her rejection of the jazz-singer tag: “I have always resented the label because jazz is not what I play or how I live. I recall reading the comparisons of myself to [Billie] Holiday and thinking a comparison to Maria Callas was more apt.”
“I was saddened [to hear the comparison] because it was very clear to me that Simone was intimating that race had placed a ceiling on her performance career in America,” says Barnett. “The comparison was Simone’s attempt to elevate her own stature. Callas worked in a long-standing tradition, [but] Simone was a trailblazer. She was an innovator.”
What Barnett has uncovered with I Got Thunder is a chronicle of shared experience – nearly all of the profiled songwriters come from a gospel background, discovered their talent before they hit double digits and possess a deep sense of purpose – but disparate lessons from the journey. What is beyond all dispute, however, is that these are voices that demand to be heard no matter how they’re expressed, from Miriam Makeba’s Swazi pleas for peace to Odetta’s blues-folk social protest.
“I think it’s important to look at the similarities,” says Barnett, “because they might tell us something about the ways in which black women use art to negotiate an identity premised on intellectual and spiritual freedom.”[email protected]