Danyel Smith at a Vibe Magazine party in New York City in 2008. (Joe Corrigan/Getty Images)
Danyel Smith, one of the premier writers on American culture over the past three decades, tells me the goal of her new podcast series Black Girl Songbook is best exemplified by something that happened in a recent episode.
Last week's chapter, "The Diss-Education of Lauryn Hill," took listeners into the world of diss tracks through Smith's appreciation of Lauryn Hill’s classic “Lost Ones." As a bit of an aside, Smith asks one of her guests, legendary lyricist MC Lyte, if her speaking voice is the same as her regular voice.
MC Lyte tells Smith no—that she only uses her real voice when she’s at home, in the company of family. Lyte, the voice of so many big-name events, commercials, and classic songs, says no one had ever asked her that before.
“No one ever asks Black women questions,” says Smith, who boasts a resume showing she knows a thing or two about asking questions. She's served as editor-at-large at Time Inc., editor at Billboard, and twice as the editor-in-chief of Vibe, where she was both the first African-American and first woman to hold that position.
Smith has made a career out of asking athletes, entertainers and specifically Black women in hip-hop and R&B the questions no one else asks them. And with her latest endeavor, as well as her forthcoming book Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop, she’s looking to ask more questions and share some of her own stories.
Smith's story, like most good stories, begins in Oakland.
Smith attended Bella Vista Elementary School, and took summer school classes at my own alma mater, Edna M. Brewer Middle School (formerly McChesney Junior High). And though she moved to Los Angeles for high school, she says, the lessons she learned in the Town stayed with her to this day.
Growing up, Smith lived across the street from Highland Hospital, on Vallecito Place. Smith also spent time on 31st Street, 13th Avenue and East 24th Street in a neighborhood alternately known as the Twomps, Rollin' Twenties or Murder Dubbs. That's the same neighborhood that brought the world longtime journalist and MTV host Sway Calloway.
“First of all," Smith says to me in that tone that's both joyous and serious, "Sway’s mom and my mom knew each other at Fremont High School.”
Smith sincerely values her Oakland roots. On one episode of Black Girl Songbook she mentions picking blackberries in her great-grandparents' backyard on 83rd Avenue near East 14th Street. She remembers complaining, “But gram, there’s wasps!"—and getting the advice from her elder, "Well, move quickly.”
In addition to family, she soaked up culture from the community. "SoulBeat was a lifeline," Smith says, audibly clapping against a hard surface in the background as she references the old music videos and small-business commercials the Black-owned television station used to air. "It was A. Life. Line."
A music fanatic since the time she saw the Jackson Five perform at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos as a kid, Smith eventually gravitated toward hip-hop, which was coming of age just as she was.
While San Francisco's KMEL was pivoting from being an “album oriented rock” radio station to an “urban” station, Smith found culture in the margins: on late-night pirate radio stations and at clubs like the Stargaze in Fremont.
During her first stint in college at UC Berkeley, Smith tells me, she'd sweat out the entirety of her hairdo while dancing at parties where a guy named DJ Davey D was on the ones and twos. "All of (Davey D's) community work over the years is legendary," says Smith of KPFA's Hard Knock Radio host Davey D. "But let’s not forget that he really did have a reputation in the '80s for DJing the best parties in all of the Bay Area."
Smith knows about partying. "Back then, I was running around with Digital Underground... I was in these streets," says Smith, laughing after stressing streets and bringing back that joyous-yet-serious tone. "People are always like, 'You were friends with 2Pac?' I’m like, 'I was actually friends with Tupac Shakur.'"
As a self-described creative Black girl with hustle, Smith worked at a copy store on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue when she was younger, and later at a more posh position at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco. But writing was calling her.
"I got into journalism because of the murder rate in Oakland," says Smith, speaking candidly about what was happening around her in 1992—the drugs and violence—and how that year became known for the highest number of homicides Oakland has ever tallied. "I was so tired of the local news counting murders like people were animals," says Smith.
With the assistance of former San Francisco Bay Guardian Arts Editor Tommy Tompkins and former SF Weekly Music Editor Ann K. Powers, she got into the game. "This was when the alternative weeklies of the Bay Area were very helpful," says Smith, also shouting out LA Weekly and New York's Village Voice. "In many cases, they extended a hand to people of color to get them started writing. I miss those days."
Smith's call up to the major leagues came through Bill Adler, founding member of Def Jam, longtime journalist and namesake of the Adler Hip-Hop Archive at Cornell University. He informed Smith of an opening for the R&B Editor at Billboard. Smith says she went to Oakland's MacArthur-Broadway Mall (where Kaiser now stands) and got a suit that couldn't have cost more than $40. "I made up my mind that I was going to get that job," Smith recalls. "And that’s all she wrote."
In all actuality, she was just getting started writing.
Smith landed big-name interviews with figures like Wesley Snipes, and was one of the earliest reporters to investigate what eventually proved to be sex crimes committed by R. Kelly.
While Smith held her own, she admits she was "unpolished." She took notes on how other women carried themselves and dressed, while at the same time, "I brought Oakland with me to every meeting. Good, bad, or otherwise."
Smith tells me about a time an unnamed male boss told her he'd thought she was going to be too hood for the job. "But it seems like you’re doing OK," Smith recalls him saying. It motivated Smith to dive deeper into her work. She credits a number of women, mentors, who took her under their wing and told her "not to drink out of the finger bowl at Mr. Chow’s."
Because I'm looking clueless while hearing the story, Smith tells me a "finger bowl" is a little fancy container full of warm water for washing your hands at the table. Cassandra Mills, the highly regarded manager, higher-up at Giant Records and force behind the success of the New Jack City soundtrack, had to give Smith a gentle touch on the wrist to tell her not to drink it. "It had a lemon in it," says Smith. "I was like, ‘Oh, lemon tea for me!’"
Years later, she's not embarrassed about the interaction. "There’s no shame in not coming up around stuff like that," says Smith, who knows others who've had to acclimate to the different world of Manhattan. "I married a guy, Ell, he's from the projects in Queens. We’ll get through this together."
Ell—or Elliott Wilson, often referred to as the "GOAT" of hip-hop journalism—is the founder of Rap Radar and Chief Content Officer at Tidal.
Smith is transparent about their relationship: Wilson is her second husband, and their bond is a product of her taking time to heal from past relationships, Smith says, as well her being intentional about the things she truly wanted in life.
In her mid-30s, Smith took time away from work, went back to school and earned her undergraduate and masters degrees and also published a novel, More Like Wrestling, which is set in Oakland. She says one day she was at a friend's birthday party and saw someone she'd known for a while, but had never looked at in that way.
Smith and Wilson have now been married for 16 years.
Through my conversation with Smith, and in listening to her podcast, it's become pretty clear just how important relationships are to the stories she tells.
So far this season, she's covered her relationship to Whitney Houston as a fan, Whitney's romantic relationship with Bobby Brown, the sisterhood-esque relationship between Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston, and the familial relationship of Natalie Cole and her father, Nat King Cole.
"The definition of love in a relationship," Smith says, "is contributing to the other person’s growth."
Of course, she says, taking care of the other person and staying romantic are in the mix, but "if you’re going to be with a person a long time, you have to be into that person growing into who they’re going to be," says Smith, "and they have to be into you growing into who you are going to be."
The same philosophy on relationships continually shows up in her work: as the culture has grown, so has she.
"I’ve always felt that hip-hop, when I got into it, it was still a subculture," Smith says. "It wasn’t getting the credit that it deserved for changing culture and changing the world."
And as hip-hop, and for that matter Black American entertainment as a whole, continues to get its due credit for changing the world, so too should its key purveyors.
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