The song “Vital Transformation” is solemn yet expansive, austere yet hopeful. It floats along, kickdrum and handclap accents punctuating the lyrics instead of marking four-on-the-floor. The song itself a swirl, it begins with the swirling, layered incantation, “transforming changing higher spiraling higher”, repeated three times, along with the insistence, “it’s vital”. The lyrics read like stanzas of poetry on the page, but take on a warm, relatable quality when their author, Georgia Anne Muldrow, sings them.
In the first verse, Muldrow reminds us that although she’s gone through a change of mind and attitude, she hasn’t lost her mind but instead has found it: “I’ve changed rearranged for good / I’m sane / I can make it plain / like you know I would”. In the second verse, her focus expands from the personal to the global, all while retaining its intimate, conversational quality:
now it ain’t hard to tell this world is crazy now
crazier than it’s ever been
people feel more cozy with the internet
don’t even have no real friends
life is too short to have alternate selves
that you can pretend
other folk’s characters won’t fit you as well
as what’s within
just rise and realize
you’re a prize so keep it live
and see it thru
you gotta grow forever
It is but one affecting moment on her 2018 album Overload (Brainfeeder), a change of sonic direction but not thematic intention for the singer/ lyricist/ musician. If her lyrics have the free-flowing, conscious poetics of ’70s spiritual jazz and its offshoots, that’s to be expected, since her parents were both jazz musicians of that era. Where previous efforts like the Madlib-produced Seeds (Some Otha Ship Connect, 2012) had beats more tethered to the ground, the music here is airier, again influenced by ’70s jazz as well as modern production (fitting it right in with much of the Brainfeeder catalog). And while Muldrow has her eye on the state of the world, Overload is mostly an album about love, although not one you’ll ever hear on late-night quiet storm radio. After all, the title track announces, “I see you in everything I do / And even in the clouds it’s true / I put my faith in you / Cause no one can do the things that you do for me”.
Perhaps it’s ironic, given the many perils black women face in their personal and professional lives — or perhaps not, given the same — but Overload is only one of a number of albums from 2018 in which black women used black pop music to articulate their own fiercely personal visions about life and love in their own fiercely independent musical terms, which didn’t always conform with mainstream black pop norms. Most famous among them is Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer (Bad Boy), the coming-together moment of her entire career and an immediate entrant onto many album-of-the-year shortlists upon its release. But there was also Noname, the Chicago rapper whose self-released Room 25 cemented her status as one of the most distinctive voices in hip-hop.
It’s awfully tempting to proclaim this moment in black pop as something akin to 2018’s political Year of the Woman — Year of the Sista, if you will. But what’s been happening traces back longer than a year — at least as far back as Beyonce’s Lemonade, which seems like an eternity ago even though it’s now only three years old, and taking in the disparate likes of SZA, Syd (both with the Internet and solo), Kelela, Jamila Woods, H.E.R., Sudan Archives, Moor Mother, Jlin — and if I’ve left off your fave, that’s why the comments box is there.
If Dawn Richard’s new, wide-ranging album New Breed (Local Action) is any indication, this moment will continue on for at least a little while longer. Moreover, as there have been various other political Years of the Woman (post-Anita Hill 1994, for example), there have been other periods when black women took to the black pop vanguard, artistically and politically. In retrospect, we witnessed such an era 20 years ago, and it went on for considerably longer than a year.
It might be hard to think of the ’90s and early ’00s as a progressive era in black pop, what with the East Coast-West Coast rap beef and the morphing of street-level rap into a corporate ATM that took over the pop charts. But the industry was so flush with cash that several forward-leaning female voices broke into the marketplace, and some of them demonstrated enough hustle and moxie to stick around a while, finding their way once the major-label money started drying up.
The first such ’90s voice I can recall was Dionne Farris, best known for the soaring outro on Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” (1992). That star turn helped earn her a solo album, Wild Seed – Wild Flower (Columbia, 1994). She’s pictured on the cover looking far from what one would expect a black female singer to look like on her major label debut: sitting pensively in a rocking chair, in a flannel shirt, jeans and boots, with close-cropped hair.
The rustic feel of that image echoed in the massive guitar-driven hit “I Know”, which fit in closer to pop hits by white women like Alanis Morrisette than to R&B hits by black women like Mary J. Blige. The rest of that album drew more upon modern R&B and hip-hop, but not wholly in those camps — like many albums of the era, there was massive eclecticism and experimentation going on, including a cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”. In the midst of all that was the spare, beat-driven track “Human”:
Before I am black
Before I am a woman
Before I am short
Before I am young
Before I am African
I am Human
(The second verse merely swaps out “before” for “because”.)
Actually, Me’shell Ndegeocello hit the marketplace just before Wild Seed – Wild Flower, debuting with Plantation Lullabies on Madonna’s Maverick imprint in 1993 to mass critical raves. It pretty much set the tone for her career: fluid bass playing, funk-driven tracks with jazz flavorings, a deep, expressive voice, and lyrics that range from the tenderly personal to the bitterly global. Add a fair amount of sass as well, courtesy of lead single “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)”.
The year 1994 also saw the debut of Joi Gilliam, the daughter of a black NFL quarterback from the ’70s (a time when there were hardly any of those). The Pendulum Vibe (EMI), produced by the then-blazing-hot Dallas Austin, presented a cross between Betty Davis’ funky frankness and LaBelle’s funky outer-mindedness. An audacious combination to be sure, perhaps a little too audacious for the era.
But it was Erykah Badu who seemed to be the flag-waver of something new, or at least a new-sounding spin on something timeless, or a new-sounding spin that actually sold a lot of units. Badu-ism (Motown, 1997), the first salvo in what would quickly be dubbed “neo-soul” by people who need movements to have a name, sounded really different in a landscape populated by radio-ready flagwavers. The album is introspective, jazz-inflected, and more suited for coffee houses than dance floors. It stood apart from the crowd but just close enough to it for mass swatches to appreciate it, just as Badu herself has done pretty much ever since.
Jill Scott tapped into that mini-zeitgeist, co-writing “You Got Me” with her Philly homies the Roots (ironically, Badu sang the hook on that track) and dazzling on their live album. Her own debut, Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach, 2000), brought the long lineage of soulful nightclub jazz singing into the hip-hop era, quickly becoming a staple of both quiet storm and smooth jazz playlists behind “A Long Walk”.
Then there was Macy UIKeyInputDownArrow, whose rascally, raspy voice became ubiquitous after the massive 1999 hit “I Try”. Her debut album, On How Life Is (Sony), betrayed a sly lyrical wit, even as it was as musically distant from mainstream black pop as was Farris’ big hit.
But all was not really well for black women in black pop. For women who didn’t choose to reject the sexist tropes and colorism image makers traded in, options were few. A cursory review of black pop videos of the era shows a preponderance of lighter-skinned women with straightened hair and buxom builds, seeming to exist only for the pleasure of thugging-out black men. India Arie, working from the folksinger tradition updated by Tracy Chapman in the late ’80s (an important black female musician all but invisible within black pop), took that head-on with “Video”, the conversation starter from her first album, Acoustic Soul (Motown, 2001). She was nominated for seven Grammy Awards as a result, but famously didn’t receive any of them.
As for rap itself, the options were even more restricted. While TLC brought hip-hop swagger to the girl group archetype (and vice versa), major labels seemed to be far less receptive to a diverse range of female rappers. In other words, good luck getting on board back then if you weren’t trading on your sexual prowess like Lil’ Kim or Foxy Brown (their beef back then, seemingly over who indeed was the baddest bitch of the day, would echo 20 years later between Cardi B and Nicki Minaj; then as now, limited options and opportunities for black women in pop led to tragic, infuriating fights over who had the rights to the most crumbs, instead of arguing for more pie for all to share.)
But some women working against the grain managed to get into the mix. Two of them just so happened to represent East Coast tradition while West Coast G-funk reigned supreme on the charts: Bahamadia, whose Kollage (Chrysalis, 1996) tapped the likes of DJ Premier and Guru for its sturdy boom-bap (on the cover, in case you need a hint as to where she’s coming from, she rocks a full-size ‘fro, hoop earrings and a leather jacket); and Jean Grae, dense flow and all, emerged from the mid-’90s underground New York scene, self-releasing her first solo album Attack of the Attacking Things in 2002. While aficianados respected their work, that respect didn’t translate to widespread pop visibility.
However, there was also Missy Elliott, who has never had much of a problem with widespread pop visibility. She achieved hers by being totally unique, both aurally and visually. She wasn’t making explicit empowerment anthems, but was a living, breathing example of empowerment by unapologetically letting her plus-size freak flag fly. The conventional-sounding hip-hop/R&B records she’d previously written and produced for others in tandem with Timbaland in no way, shape, or form prepared the world for the virtuosic weirdness of “The Rain” (1997), a slice of simply-for-the-fuck-of-it hip-hop that she and Tims would only expand upon for the next several years.
On the other end of the spectrum was another of the Roots’ Philly cohort, poet Ursula Rucker. Her spoken-word pieces were the finales of several Roots albums, and eventually resulted in her own solo career. On albums like Supa Sista (2001) and Ma’at Mama (2006), she told stories of women’s self-realization and determination with an edge informed as much by Black Arts Movement-era writers like Sonia Sanchez as by contemporary hip-hop and the spoken-word scene. But tellingly, her work was released on !K7, a European label better known for beat-driven music of all stripes than for mainstream black pop.
Black women also rocked it from time to time back then — sometimes, literally. Res’ debut cd, How I Do (MCA, 2001), did exactly that, with some punchy tunes written by Santi White, a black woman who would go on to front the punk band Stiffed, and later be known worldwide as Santigold.
And there were many others, from the mysterious Jazz Lee Alston’s stark, eponymous, 1994 release on American Recordings (its six songs covered everything from domestic abuse to drug addiction to masturbation); to Amel Larrieux’s Infinite Possibilities, a dreamy solo record after leaving the duo Groove Theory (Epic/550 Music, 1999); to Lina‘s kitchy flapper girl-meets-hip-hop mashup Stranger on Earth (Atlantic, 2001) – and if I’ve left off your fave, that’s why the comments box is there. But lest you think that diverse vanguard heralded a change in how the industry would behave, think again.
Ndegocello, Badu and Elliott have gone on to richly prolific careers largely within the major label structure. Grae has been prolific too, with numerous cameos, singles and albums to her credit, but she hasn’t and doesn’t mess with big-time corporate labels, and she’s been able to make it work. Gray has expanded into singing with jazz ensembles; in fact, 2018’s Ruby came out on an imprint of indie jazz label Mack Avenue. Scott has done well for herself, with a fairly extensive discography and several prominent film and TV roles (including the HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). Likewise, Arie has remained busy making music and acting, with her music retaining a focus on uplifting girls and women; her new album, Worthy, is due in February 2019.
But many of that cohort never made a second record of note — in those days, it was either the label’s way or the highway. Columbia wouldn’t release Farris’ follow-up album, which languished in the netherworld until 2011. Aside from a couple of soundtrack contributions and minor jazz albums, she’s become a classic one-hit wonder (two if you count “Tennessee”). Joi Gilliam attempted to follow up her debut with the Fishbone-backed Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome (1997), which would have been a black pop game-changer had EMI seen fit to release it. But it didn’t, deeming it not radio-friendly enough, even though it went as far as pressing promo copies (and good luck finding one now). Like many of the others, Gilliam has since gone the indie route, working with small labels or self-releasing projects. That’s what Res did, with the aptly-titled 2009 digital release, Black.Girls.Rock!
The voice that looms over all others from that era, however, belongs to Lauren Hill and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse, 1998). It was a sound and a vision no one saw coming, even after the multi-platinum success of the Fugees’ The Score. More than others, her coming-of-age-after-a-breakup album (a mini-genre of its own, headed up by that and Joni Mitchell’s Blue) spoke to a generation of black women caught up in a world of voices that did not acknowledge their possibilities, and at times their very existence. Besides its sheer tunefulness, its message of self-creation has resonated so soundly for so long, it’s become a touchstone of girl-to-womanhood, an avatar of what we’d come to call black girl magic.
We saw in 2018 three signs of how strong an avatar it has become. First, Drake looped “Ex-Factor” into his mash note of a single “Nice for What”. Second, Hill toured with a re-creation of the album, including the headline slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago (and covered “Nice for What” on tour for good measure). And in the fall, Joan Morgan wrote of the album’s enduring effect in She Begat This: 20 Years of the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Atria/37 Ink). That Morgan, of all critics moved by that album, would write a book about it is more than a little significant: prior to that, her best known work was When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost (Simon & Schuster), a 1999 meditation on hip-hop’s already-tenuous cultural climate for its female fans and practitioners.
We all know that Hill, for whatever reasons, has not put out a studio album since Miseducation. In one sense, she doesn’t really need to, her place in recent black pop cultural history being fairly secure. And were she to do so now, it might well become the most highly-picked-apart work since Lemonade, and unfairly so. It would be expected to shoulder the weight of the entire black girl magic world, and not be allowed to simply be a collection of nice tunes and beats.
But not to worry, really: Hill has had something to say recently. On 2015’s Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone (Sony Legacy), she and her band took on six songs from the vast oeuvre of Nina Simone, the legendary musician-activist who burned so fiercely in the ’60s and ’70s. In recent years, her life and music have been recast for a new generation, with Liz Garbus’s 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? being a catalyst for the re-discovery. Beyond the various reissues and remixes of Simone’s work, Nina Revisited brings contemporary artists into conversation with virtually all eras and phases of Simone’s vast catalogue.
Having Hill do the lioness’ share of the interpretations on the tribute disc (along with Blige, Alice Smith, Common & Lalah Hathaway, and others) was a masterstroke, and not just because she knocked her tunes out of the park. Simone has become a potent symbol of black girl activist magic for this generation (to the point of being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2017), taking her place next to her old friend James Baldwin among urgent voices from the past being heard again (and for some, anew) today. Hill’s contribution linked generations, one newly-minted avatar paying tribute to another, in a cultural and political moment when black women can’t have too many of them.
Muldrow’s Overload taps into both Simone’s outer-driven focus on injustice towards black and brown people (and making us feel the personal in the political), and Hill’s inner-driven journeys through personal relationships (and making us feel the political in the personal). In their own ways, so does the work of the other independent black female voices (most famously, of course, the Knowles sisters) making forward-thinking, progressively minded black pop from their own images and experiences nowadays. Whether they’re working through mainstream channels like SZA, going the non-corporate route like Muldrow, or doing for self like Grae and Noname, they are building upon the example set by the bold soul sistas of the ’90s by weaving together a community of voices — artists, activists, audiences — eager to hear what each other has to say.
Back then, no one much stopped to notice all the unapolgetically free-thinking black women making music in their midst; the dots were hiding in plain sight, but we didn’t have the right tools to connect them. Twenty years ago, black girls did indeed rock and have magic, but those notions weren’t spoken of quite like that. Ironically, artists like Arie helped set the stage for this moment, by being living examples of self-affirmation (in fact, she’s done a bit of motivational speaking over the years since her signature hit). Musical foremothers such as Nona Hendryx and Betty Davis are much more appreciated now. And going the full independent route is much more viable, or at least possible, nowadays, especially for artists of any gender identification who don’t conform to pop music industry expectations.
That, and the endless racial and gender issues that plague black women even more than the rest of us, has created the foundation for this moment, when we not only see progressive black female artists thinking their own thoughts and singing their own songs, but are increasingly conscious that this work isn’t happening in a bunch of individual bubbles as it seemed back then, but it’s part of a larger conversation. Hopefully, that conversation will go on for more — and farther — than just a moment.