What To Read: Harmony Holiday is reimagining the American Songbook

This week, we interviewed Harmony Holiday, a poet and choreographer who writes Black Music and Black Muses, a publication about black sound and black songs.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Black Music and Black Muses is about black sound and black songs, and demonstrating what a reimagined “American Songbook” might contain if it considered more aspects of these traditions.

What motivated you to create a publication about music and muses?

Amiri Baraka wrote a book of criticism called Black Music circa 1967, making him one of the only black critics of his time who was defining the music that provided the soundtrack for his life. Since then, nothing like it has been attempted. I wanted to pick up where he left off and keep the conversation going – about how this music makes us feel and what it divulges about our lives.

The title of my Substack, which calls upon the assonance and resonance between music and muses, is a reminder that we find inspiration on our own terms and are not meant to be at the mercy of other people’s perceptions of what we create or how and why we create it. 

Part of the purpose of writing this publication is to resist becoming didactic and unfeeling in a society that wants blackness to always reflect upset or impossible strength, with no nuance in between. In an effort to avoid making work that is endlessly reactionary and at the mercy of society’s political opportunism around black life, this affirmation is all the more important. 

I read every musician’s biography I can find.

You've written about figures from Malcolm X to Kanye West, Charles Mingus to Sade. What do you look for in the people you revisit? 

Yes, no style left behind. I look for artists and songs that are guideposts and help me map a genealogy of sound while piecing together a neglected narrative about how we leap from one phase of black sounding to the next.

Black life is collaborative. There’s lots of whispering back and forth and responding to one another, lots of collective improvisation going on informally, all the time. By pivoting from someone like Mingus, a jazz bassist, to someone like Sade, an understated R&B diva who is deeply inspired by jazz and her father’s large record collection, I can connect dots and show how fractal and interdependent black music is, and how much of a network of unspoken alliances it is at its best. 

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Your research shares remarkable anecdotes, such as how Malcolm X used a Paris Metrocard to mark the pages of his favorite book. What attracts you to these anecdotes, and where do you find them?

Besides writing, I do a lot of archival work. I keep an archive of poetry recorded by jazz musicians that will soon be available for listening at a venue I’m opening with some friends in LA this fall. And I read every musician’s biography I can find.

Between literature and oral history, there are troves of information about the real daily lives of our greatest musicians that just go unacknowledged. Many people skip over these anecdotes, but I feel it my duty to make them part of my writing and weave them into the process of telling truer stories about how the music we love is conceived, and what musicians go through privately to perform publicly and make it look easy. We love objectifying these people and asking that every myth about them serves our need to see them in one specific way – for example, portraying Malcolm X as an angry militant and not a tender-hearted lover of music. My favorite writing dispels clichés and refuses to return to them. I use these hidden-in-plain-sight archival details to help me do that. 

What is one piece of music that you've rediscovered through writing this publication that we should all know about?

Definitely Moodymann’s “I’d Rather be Lonely” (2007), which samples Betty Carter’s “This Time” (1997). Both are gorgeous, but the fact that they exist in union and real time call-and-response is part of the magic that inspired me to start Black Music and Black Muses – to look at all the ways we casually become one another’s muses. 

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

I love Sasha Frere-Jones’s writing on Substack, and elsewhere. He's a fellow music lover who is unabashedly detailed and enthusiastic about the music he loves. 

Subscribe to Harmony’s newsletter, Black Music and Black Muses, purchase her upcoming book, or find her on Twitter.