Daphne A. Brooks on Writing Liner Notes and What She Would Like to See in Solange’s Archive

Daphne A. Brooks (Photo: Mara Lavitt)

“Sometimes, it feels like I’ve been writing this book all my life,” says Daphne A. Brooks, author of the recently released Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. Brooks, a Yale professor who previously wrote Bodies in Dissent and the 33 1/3 book on Jeff Buckley’s album Grace, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s and 1980s, where she developed an affinity for both rock music criticism and Black feminist literature. “I’m a Black Gen Xer who was bequeathed this landscape of post Civil Rights integrationist culture, at least, on the one hand,” she explains, “even if that’s accompanied by racial retrenchment politics of the Reagan/Bush era and beyond.”

In Liner Notes, Brooks, who herself has penned liner notes for releases of music by Aretha Franklin, Tammi Terrell and Prince, fuses her intellectual passions to take readers deep into library vaults on an exploration of the legacy and impact of Black women in music. This isn’t a traditional music history book, although, at one point, Brooks had considered writing “a long, sweeping history of Black women and popular music culture.” Instead, she says, “the book that I ended up writing is really about the story of why we’ve never had a book like that before.”

Divided into two sections (fittingly, “Side A” and “Side B”), Liner Notes crisscrosses through time as Brooks connects writer and singer Pauline Hopkins, who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with Janelle Monáe; looks at famed author Zora Neale Hurston’s work as a singer; and digs into the the quest for music and information surrounding 1930s blues musicians Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. 

Esther Mae Scott (Photo: Paddy B. Bowman)

It’s a book that’s as much about the music as it is about the efforts to uncover and preserve the legacies of the artists. “I’m an archive freak,” says Brooks. She spent years traveling to and digging through material at Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. “I love spending time in archives, because of the ways in which you can really handle the materials of other individuals rooted in history and see what they left behind for us,” she explains.

One of the archives she visited early in the course of this project was that of late journalist Ellen Willis, who was The New Yorker‘s first pop music critic. Here, she made an interesting discovery. “What I found in [Willis’] archives is that, when she was an undergrad at Barnard, she had interviewed Lorraine Hansberry as being someone who was influential to her,” says Brooks, “which was intriguing because Ellen Willis was this badass radical feminist but she didn’t write very much about race and about Black music once she became a music critic.”

Brooks also delved into the archives of Rosetta Reitz – 67 boxes of notes and writings in the care of Duke University – in her research as well. Like Willis, Reitz was a Jewish feminist based in New York. She launched Rosetta Records in the late 1970s to reissue hard-to-find recordings from women jazz and blues musicians. “She also wrote her own liner notes, her own kind of critical essays, to accompany these recordings, in which she just laid down this hardcore radical feminist second wave prose that was absolutely gorgeous about why we needed to really regard the blues women as being these absolute pathbreaking sonic innovators,” Brooks explains. 

Zora Neale Hurston (Photo: Library of Congress LC-USZ62-108549)

Liner Notes highlights the intellectual labor involved in making music, as well as the labor attached to preserving the art and artists’ life stories for future generations. In reading the book, you might wonder, how important is it for artists and thinkers to maintain archives of their work? “I think it’s crucial with regards to being able to care for the historical work that they’re doing, in part because we are given access to the richness and the depths of their creative life-worlds and their intellectual life-worlds,” says Brooks. If an artist does leave behind an archive, she says, “those materials allow us then to continue to extrapolate the different kinds of stories we might tell about why they matter to us.” 

However, not all artists leave archives and that can be for a number of reasons. “That is also an ethical kind of phenomenon in and of itself as well, if they choose not to or if they don’t have access to doing that,” says Brooks, “which we know is true of all sorts of marginalized women. Women of color, African American women and Jim Crow American culture didn’t have the kinds of formal ways of documenting the historicity of their own importance.” But, there were informal methods and that leads to various ways that future generations might engage with the work, which is also part of Brooks’ book. 

As to whether or not contemporary artists are considering future archives, Brooks says that’s a complex subject. “It’s been complicated with pop musicians, especially African American ones too,” she says. “Historically, we have been so deeply disenfranchised, not only in the context of this country but also the recording industry and the kinds of reparations that have yet to be paid to them. So it means that you have generations of Black artists who have been wary of where and how their material archival life-worlds are handled.”

Meanwhile, though, she says she would love to know if someone like Solange, who Brooks interviewed as part of a David Bowie and Prince conference that she organized at Yale in 2017, is considering archiving her work. Brooks describes Solange as a “robust intellectual force” whose reading informs her art. An example that Brooks mentions is the influence that Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book Citizen had on Solange’s widely acclaimed 2016 album, A Seat at the Table. “You want to have her archive all the notes,” says Brooks. “You want to see her copy of Citizen and how it’s marked up and what are the drafts of different tracks, from ‘Cranes in the Sky’ to ‘Don’t Touch My Hair,’ that have some kind of a through line between Rankine’s poetry and the songs that end up on the album.”

Says Brooks, “That’s partly what I’m talking about, what’s important about the archives, but also what I dream of what a Solange archive might look like.”

The Decade’s Best Books by Women in Music

If I hadn’t read Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, I wouldn’t be a rock writer. It was 2013. I had recently graduated art school and was dividing my time between three retail jobs: a liquor store, a grocery store, and a clothing store. One of my friends had recommended it to me, and even though I didn’t think of music as a big part of my identity anymore — something I’d felt pushed out of because I didn’t have the right taste or the correct opinions or the appropriate body of knowledge — I suddenly found myself reading about music a lot.

Maybe it’s because I was hanging out with female DJs. Or I wanted to ably push back when men told me everything that was wrong with what I listened to in break rooms. After four years of honing how my eyes took in information, it’s possible I was trying to improve my ears, too. But when I read Marcus’ 2010 release on long bus rides between cash registers, something in me changed.

Girls to the Front blends passion with criticism, betraying Marcus’ clear love for and intimate experience with riot grrrl while carefully laying out its many skeletons. Male critics love to trot out the feminist punk phenomenon as evidence they remember women play music, too: “I’m not sexist; I’ve heard of Bikini Kill!” But Marcus declares the movement as an important part of music history worthy of critical scrutiny — and hardly a beginning or end point for women in rock. Reading her book turned on a light in me I didn’t realize existed, and made me want to build on her work.

I don’t think I was the only one to react that way, either. In many respects, Girls to the Front anticipated the next 10 years of music books. 2010 to 2019 was a banner time for publishing women writing about rock. And I’m not just saying this as someone who was so inspired by a book about ladies’ sweat-stained expressions of rebellion that I made a slow professional shift; I have the receipts. Not only did this decade give us more women’s stories, but we also witnessed small but meaningful strides in the kinds of stories prioritized (memoirs from the likes of Kim Gordon, Liz Phair, Carrie Brownstein, et al became so ubiquitous they didn’t even fit into this list). What follows is a roving, incomplete list of books — one from each year — that marked small but powerful shifts in the rock ’n’ roll landscape.

2010: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

The 2010 debut from ’70s punk-poet icon set a new standard for memoirs well beyond the rock pantheon. In lyrical prose, Patti Smith describes her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — its evolution from friendship to romance to creative wellspring. Even more than a eulogy for one of her most formative friendships, though, it’s a love letter to her influences: Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud, William Burroughs, and so on. She gives longform life to Rainer Maira Rilke’s romantic ideas of art as a calling. And because of this title’s wild success — it was a bestseller that garnered numerous awards including the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction — Just Kids opened the memoir floodgates for everyone from Kim Gordon to Ani DiFranco.

2011: Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

Ellen Willis is probably best remembered as a feminist cultural critic who touched on everything from decriminalizing drugs to antisemitism on the Left. Somewhat lesser known is that she began her career as a music writer. In 1968, Ellen Willis became the first pop music critic at The New Yorker — the first ever music critic to write for a national audience. Despite influencing writers such as Griel Marcus and Ann Powers, Willis died in 2006 never seeing her music criticism get its due. In this tome, her daughter, Nona Willis Arnowitz, brings together writing that, while very of its time, was a hugely important landmark for music coverage.

2012: Alice Bag’s Violence Girl

Before she was releasing Christmas tracks about punching nazis or clacking away on typewriters alongside Allison Wolfe and Kathleen Hanna, Alice Bag was screaming with The Bags. She first cemented her punk legacy with a cameo in Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization, but Bag has long proven her stay power. In her book, she describes growing up Latinx in L.A.; unlearning the violence she grew up surrounded by; going hip-to-hip and lip-to-lip with both men and women; and how these experiences shaped her life’s work as an activist, educator, and musician. Early L.A. punk was queer and brown, and it had so many women — and Alice Bag will not let you forget.

2013: Evelyn McDonnell’s Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways

I do a women’s rock history podcast, and my first season is on the Runaways; there may be some heavy bias in this choice. But I’m letting it stand because Evelyn McDonnell has long written about the varied and important ways women have contributed to popular culture, and to me, this is her magnum opus. Queens of Noise provides cultural context while separating fact from fiction for one of rock history’s most storied, undervalued bands. In 2015, the Runaways’ bassist Jackie Fox revealed she was raped by the band’s manager and producer, Kim Fowley. While McDonnell’s book hints at this, she resists outing Fox or even letting Fowley’s predatory, abusive behavior define the band’s legacy. The book is not about what was done to these women; it’s about what these women did for themselves.

2014: Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

While Viv Albertine’s memoir tells the story of being an influential musician at the center of 1970s British punk, it’s also an account of everything that comes after that: marriage, motherhood, cancer, divorce — even relearning how to play the guitar. Among other things, Albertine reveals shrinking her musical past to emotionally accommodate her husband and fighting with her publisher to forego a ghostwriter. Thank the stars she won that fight, because her voice is strong, insightful, and intimate. One of the simple elegances of Albertine’s autobiography is how she marks time in a way familiar to so many women and femme music lovers: what she was wearing in that moment, what she was listening to, and who she was dating.

2015: Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

When I initially saw this in a bookstore, I actually scoffed. At the time, I was regularly reading so much excellent music criticism from women that my brain couldn’t yet wrap itself around the bold and unfortunate fact of the title. Highlights include Jessica Hopper’s essay on emo (“Where the Girls Aren’t”); Hole fact-checking Wikipedia during an oral history of Live Through This; and an interview with journalist Jim DeRogatis where Hopper unpacks her initial instinct to separate R. Kelly’s art from his abuses and admits that was a mistake.


2016: Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny

Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace uses diaries entries dating back to the third grade to open up about transitioning, which makes it a landmark trans memoir. But beyond what the book means for transgender visibility, Grace also talks about what led her to punk and anarchism; being part of one of the most celebrated punk bands of the aughts; and reconciling her DIY punk past with finding commercial success — and what it meant when early audiences rejected Against Me! for “selling out.”


2017: Jenn Pelly’s The Raincoats – The Raincoats (33 1/3)

Stories of ’70s heroines really came of age this decade, but so did the critics raised on them. If contributing Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly’s articles are like singles, here was her first LP. Drawing on glimpses into the Raincoats’ personal archives and using interviews from bands such as Sleater-Kinney and Gang of Four, Pelly provides a tender, collage-like account of the Raincoats’ self-titled debut and how its influence lives on. But perhaps as important as the book was its New York launch party, which bridged multiple generations of music. In attendance was a veritable who’s-who of women in rock, and it led to Bikini Kill’s reunion tour.

2018: Michelle Tea’s Against Memoir

Against Memoir is exactly what the title suggests: it’s not a memoir, but it’s not NOT a memoir, either. Which also to say, it’s not a music book, but it’s not NOT a music book. Some writers observe things like how music is made or who it’s made with; Tea chronicles what happens after it’s heard, sandwiching it between myriad other cultural observations and self reflections. The result is a piecemeal queer history of music that resists historicization. Highlights include her “Transmissions from Camp Trans” — Camp Trans being the trans-inclusive music festival that sprung up across the road from trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival — and her history of HAGS, a ’90s San Francisco dyke gang orbited by Tribe 8 who kept bands like L7, Lunachicks, and 7 Year Bitch on heavy rotation.

2019: Shawna Potter’s Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot

Drawing on over 20 years of experience fronting the hardcore band War on Women, Shawna Potter has been an active voice for improving physical and psychological safety for marginalized people in music spaces. She’s led trainings at large clubs and tiny DIY venues alike, and now she has a book of actionable advice for minimizing and responding to harassment. Potter takes the conversation beyond acknowledging the aggression targeted at so many people in music, especially women and gender-nonconforming people, and declares, “Here’s some things we can do about it.” This, like so many other titles on the list, gives us a glimpse into what the next decade (hopefully) holds: a more inclusive future for women in rock – musicians, fans, and writers alike.