Yale Professor wins 2021 MAAH Stone Book Award for her history of Black, feminist sound
Professor Daphne Brooks wins an award for her radical work on retelling musical criticism through the long unappreciated lens of Black women in music.
Courtesy of Dr. Van Truong
From Bessie Smith to Béyonce, Black feminine sound has significantly contributed to the foundation of American music. According to Daphne Brooks — an award-winning author and University professor — the names of many of these musicians, critics and artists have been either lost to the ages or overshadowed by their male and white counterparts.
Brooks — who is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of African American studies, American studies, women’s, gender and sexuality studies and music — explores and rebuilds the history of the Black women lost in music criticism. Her book, “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound,” was recently awarded the 2021 Museum of African American History Stone Book Award.
“I started thinking about what the history of music would sound like if it were told from the viewpoint of women of color,” Brooks said. “Who might we value and who might we want in the room for those conversations?”
Brooks, who hails from California’s Bay Area, explained that her inspiration for the book truly began during her youth spent in record stores. Her household was filled with an amalgamation of sound, from her father’s love of Duke Ellington to her mother’s affinity for the Spinners. She “developed a real kind of passion” for rock criticism, yet it struck her that most of the popular critics in rock magazines like Rolling Stone were white, male and primarily paid attention to music by artists similar to them.
“I wanted to write a book to honor the intellectual conversations and ideas about Black women, musicians and revolutionary artists, and to think about why it’s been such a problem for mainstream music criticism to pay attention to their contributions,” Brooks said.
Brooks applied for the award at the recommendation of Jacqueline Goldsby, chair of the African American Studies Department. The MAAH Stone Book Award, according to its website, aims to inspire, nurture and “recognize new literary work in the field of African American history and culture.”
In its field, the award is also unique due to the large monetary sum attached to it. Brooks said she was incredibly “grateful” to the award committee for their recognition. She also said that the large sum of money is culturally significant, since capitalism often associates cultural value with its monetary equivalent.
Brooks also noted that the prize recognizes an author’s ability to write in a way that makes academic writing accessible to all audiences.
“I think there’s real power in this award,” Brooks said. “[It is] an incentive for scholars to think about producing projects that reach out to all sorts of readers and touch them in a variety of different ways.”
Charles McKinney, a member of the Stone Book Award Jury and the chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes College, said that the award is crucial in its centering of African American history in the literary field. He said the study of African American history offers insights in “race, democracy, the perpetual search for meaning and value.”
Brooks’ book, which is broken up into sides A and B — like a vinyl record — transcends the spaces of academia and popular culture. The first half is a more traditional intellectual history, while the second half “breaks the fourth wall” and questions historiography itself. The second half is also more radical, featuring interviews from Brooks’ own mother. Brooks noted that she wanted her book’s unique style to be a “model” for younger readers and scholars in considering narratives and research outside of traditional academia.
“We may want to pay attention to the people in our own communities and our families as geniuses and as knowledge bearers of histories that have not been accounted for,” Brooks said.
Brooks’ novel holds especially profound significance within the Yale community. Pia Baldwin Edwards ’25 said that reading Brooks’ novel felt like “a revelation.” Baldwin Edwards said that Brooks writes with “beautifully musical prose” that she had never encountered in her other classes.
“The novel caused me to challenge my assumptions about the role of music,” Baldwin Edwards said. “I now see music as a way Black women have celebrated their complexities and persisted through the denials imposed on them by the music industry.”
Brooks’ award-winning and distinctively musical prose comes from a unique writing process called “critical karaoke,” developed by her colleague Joshua Clover, a professor of English at the University of California Davis. In an article featured in the journal Popular Music, Clover described his process. It includes a three minute meditation on a musical piece, followed by writing while listening to the music to help writers extract “lasting worth or cultural importance.”
Brooks said this process frees her from the constraints that come from “teaching in a buttoned-up and intellectually conservative space,” found in prestigious universities. She added that it aids her ability to “write about music in conversation with the music itself.”
McKinney described Brooks’ book as “monumental” and said it was one of the best books he has ever read.
“By expanding our understanding of a musical archive, Brooks takes us on a vast and fascinating intellectual odyssey that significantly reshapes almost everything we’ve come to believe about the role Black women have played in the shaping of the nation’s sonic and intellectual landscapes,” said McKinney.
The Stone Book Award ceremony will be held virtually on Oct. 14 at 6:30 p.m.