- I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on their Craft
With the passing of South African jazz artist Miriam Makeba and African American folksinger Odetta in late fall 2008, the activist community lost two of its most steadfast voices for social justice. The significance of this loss is evident in I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters and Their Craft, a collection of twenty interviews edited by Sarah Lawrence College professor LaShonda Katrice Barnett. Barnett's interviews of Makeba and Odetta, as well as U.S. civil rights icon Nina Simone, who died in 2003, make a strong argument for the contribution that oral history has made in documenting twentieth-century social movements. At the same time, they suggest the void created by the passing of a generation of anticolonial activist leaders. The bittersweet joy of this volume is tracing the global influence that legendary figures interviewed here have had on such younger artists as Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjom, who observes of role models like Makeba, "These women not only had great voices, they had power" (27). The disappointment of this noteworthy book is a number of missed opportunities to learn more about the power these women created through the intersection of art and politics.
A professor of History and Africana Studies, Barnett explains in her introduction that the goal of I Got Thunder—the title taken from the lyric of an Abbey Lincoln song—is not "to highlight the common qualities that drive the music and particularly the lyrics written by these women, but rather to ascertain what [End Page 89] impels the creative act and what practices maintain this commitment" (xv). It is a narrow focus on practice that sometimes leads Barnett to redirect discussion of political activism into conversation about the "mechanics" of the creative process in her interviewing. This strategy has sometimes interesting results, as when Makeba offers a deeply felt accounting of the pain that government-imposed exile from her native South Africa created due to her antiapartheid activism. The singer concludes her recollection with, "I was not able to come home when my mother died, you know?" to which Barnett replies, "You have enjoyed a five-decade-long singing career, and I am curious about some of the things you do to care for your instrument?" Possibly taken aback by the inquiry, Makeba asks, "Do you mean what do I do if I lose my voice?" and explains the benefits of gargling with Jamaican ginger (126-27). This interview was not the first time that Makeba had commented on the personal costs of her antiapartheid activism, as a reading of her autobiography will attest. Still, one wonders if in her redirection of this conversation Barnett missed an important opportunity to gain greater insight into the global cost accounting of white supremacy in the mid- to late twentieth century.
Barnett's choice to focus on creative process is not without merit and does reap rewards. It is quickly evident that she is serious about her "hope of making younger listeners aware of the contribution of these singers" and especially of the history of black women's artistic legacy to global culture (xvi). Yet despite her desire to discuss "the global reach and profound impact of music created by black women," (xix) readers may wish that she were more directly focused on placing the artistic expression of these gifted singers into the framework of diaspora studies. This is especially true of Barnett's brief treatment of the personal and professional relationships of a cohort of activists that includes Makeba, Simone, and Abbey Lincoln. In the short biographies that precede each of these interviews, Barnett suggests the significance of their alliance but fails to comment on the ways that such relationships may have nourished the "thunder" created by these women. This omission is possibly the result of a well-intentioned refusal to categorize and label in reductionist terms, as the recording industry too often has, the work of black women artists. Barnett is admirably sensitive to this concern, which...