If you ever get to speak with Danyel Smith, you’ll immediately notice she’s warm and welcoming. With a bright smile matched with sharp wit and knowledge…it’s hard to catch this music veteran off guard. Like her team will tell you, she remembers everything and in such a vivid way. Smith can make moments that happened 20, 30 years ago feel as though they occurred yesterday. That’s her personal niche. She loves evoking feelings in her storytelling.
During VIBE’s early days, the Oakland native joined the team as a young 20-something journalist who just wanted to document the budding genre of Hip-Hop. “I was writing in its third issue as a freelancer. I think I came on board as Music Editor in its fifth issue. I did that for two years. I left, went back to school, came back, was promoted to editor-in-chief for 26 issues then left again for years and came back again. [Doing] another, I think 22 issues. VIBE is in my actual bloodstream and I am in VIBE’s actual bloodstream,” she explained.
Ahead of the season finale of her esteemed and notable podcast, Black Girl Songbook, with special guest Jennifer Hudson, we caught up with our former Editor-In-Chief to discuss her podcast which gives Black women in music their long-overdue flowers. We discussed the episodes she holds closest to her heart, her relationship to music, VIBE, and more.
VIBE: On the “Blue-Eyed Soul” episode of Black Girl Songbook, you mentioned that you consider yourself a sometimes rap expert. So where would you say your musical history comes from?
Danyel Smith: I feel like I’m a lifelong music fan. I went to concerts at the earliest of ages. I think my first show was eight years old. I always had a very deep curiosity about music, about records, and radio. I had a deep curiosity about the clothes people were wearing and the way people act in crowds. That stuff fascinated me. In high school, I was writing reports about all that. Like whenever there was an assignment and you could choose a topic—For me, it was always about music. It was very difficult to picture all of mainstream media hating on Hip-Hop and acting like Hip-Hop was terrible. Meanwhile, it’s my life. I wanted to defend it. I wanted to explain it. So I had to learn and learn and learn and learn.
When the podcast was ranked number one by Entertainment Weekly, what was your first reaction?
Okay. Can I just tell you something? Screaming, seriously. If I was able to do a real cartwheel, it would’ve been done. I would’ve gone outside and just done like 10 cartwheels in a row. Do you know how that makes us feel? We know that we’re doing a good thing. We know that we work hard and we’re doing good work. But just like Brandy said on a recent episode, she said, “It’s wonderful to get the accolades, but it’s also wonderful to not need them.” I’m definitely at a place in my life where I don’t need them, but it’s still nice though. It’s still very nice. Because Black women need to receive the credit that they are due. And that moment in Entertainment Weekly—I used to work for Time Inc. and those are not easy lists to get on. And so to make it and to make it to number one and [get] it an illustration of our show, please, it is so exciting. I feel like I’ve got my Oscar. My Grammy.
I love that.
It’s too exciting.
What has been your favorite episode of Black Girl Songbook thus far?
My favorite thus far? I have too many. I’ll say the ones that are near to my heart so much because of the audience response. And it’s always the ones that just surprise you. When we did Natalie Cole—
You love Natalie Cole. You’ve said that so many times, that you love Natalie Cole.
Seriously, I love her. She grew me up and the response to that was huge. Then in season two when we did Angela Bofill, that was a great episode. So it’s a message to me. That, to me, when I’m talking about and doing work around people that I’m passionate about the most, I feel like those are shows that people really respond to. Obviously, I couldn’t speak to Natalie Cole. She’s gone and God bless her soul. But Angela Bofill is very much amongst the living and suffered from two strokes. I had her on the phone and she said she could not remember her songs that she herself wrote. And my thought was, “And you want to get on the phone with me? Because if I was you, I just feel like I would be in bed sad,” right? And she was very like, “No, I’m fine.” When she said, “I know all the words to ‘Happy Birthday’ and I sing it to my grandchildren and I’m happy.” And this is when I say nobody tells Black women stories. Nobody asks Black women creatives anything about their true lives and creativity. And that is why Black Girl Songbook is here. That’s what it is. People didn’t even know that Natalie Cole was Nat King Cole’s daughter.
Which is crazy. It’s just crazy.
But maybe that’s why I’m here. Because the thing is, I don’t look down on people that don’t know that. There was a time when I was new to the game and somebody would be talking to me about Bob Dylan or, oh my God, Jimmy Hendrix, playing the national anthem. And I would just be blinking my eyes. Like, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. And I felt that I was condescended to, especially by male critics. Male writers. And that was something for me to get past. So what I do refuse to do is look down on people who don’t know that Nat King Cole is Natalie’s dad. I really do find it fun. I find it like, oh, that’s why I’m invited to the party maybe. So that I can tell you guys some stories about just who this lady was.
Tell us a little bit about your upcoming episode with Jennifer Hudson for the finale of season two?
You have all the information. I am so excited to talk about it. I just want to say something about Black Girl Songbook. We are closing season one and season two with Oscar winners. We had H.E.R. at the end of season one and now we have Jennifer Hudson at the end of season two. And my conversation with [Hudson] was epic. We don’t know her. We don’t. She is the girl from [American] Idol. She is Effie. Now she’s Aretha. She’s the woman who now is called upon when people die to sing us through it—which is a whole lot of emotional labor—but she’s a whole person. Tragedy in her life, joys in her life. But also—I’m very obsessed this season with talking to Black women about how their voices sound to them. Very obsessed with that. What are you as a singer? Alto, soprano, bass? What are you? What do you hear when you’re singing? I’m just obsessed with that right now. And to talk to Jennifer Hudson about that.
It’s just ridiculous. Her range is obscene. And the way she does it, which all the greats do in such a way that it doesn’t seem like it’s work. It’s so much work. They can just make it seem like it’s not. The care that they put into maintaining their voices, the practice that they do. Just to talk to Jennifer Hudson about acting and talk about her relationship with Aretha Franklin. It’s too much. It’s, oh man. I just had a time with her and she’s not a woman that I have interviewed before, which is always fun for me because now I’m just nosy. I just want to know. “So girl, what lipstick color is that?” Because nobody asks Black women enough questions about their work.
That’s what I think people respond to when they’re guests on the show. The women, of course, and men too, is that they’re like, “She brought me on here to talk about my actual work.” She wants to know how I felt when I sang this song. Danyel wants to know what the weather was like when you recorded that record. She wants to know how you felt the first time you stepped on stage and the president was there. She wants to know what is the tea that keeps your voice right? Because these things are important.
If you go back and read all the profiles of all the rock stars of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, all the white males and the white women vocalists of those eras, those details are well documented. Deeply documented and documented many, many times over. Again, I say, if it was not for VIBE, EBONY, Essence, so many media organizations that speak to very specific cultures. If it weren’t for those media organizations, I don’t know how much we would know about the genius of Black people or people of color. And so I’m here for Black women receiving the credit that we are due, but there’s a lot of work to be done. And people have done so much great work before me, but I feel like Black Girl Songbook is the right thing for right now.
As the first Black female Editor-In-Chief at VIBE, detail that experience.
So, I can’t detail it for you all. What was I wearing? Trying to be cute. Was I scared at the beginning? Terrified. I didn’t really have any other model for Black woman editor-in-chief, really. For me, it was Susan [L.] Taylor of Essence and Cynthia Horner of Right On!. I didn’t even know them at the time, but if I didn’t have [their Editor’s Note] photos, I wouldn’t know that I was supposed to have a photo on mine. So I love VIBE. If it was not for VIBE, if it was not for Quincy Jones launching VIBE, I would not be sitting right here talking to you right now. VIBE is—I always say this—more important than anybody realizes as a publication and as an influential, cultural force. If we didn’t have VIBE and for that matter, if we didn’t have EBONY, Essence, Latina, all these types of cultural publications, we would barely have a history, honestly of what Black people have done in this country, culturally. So it’s an honor and a privilege to be affiliated with the great VIBE Magazine.
It’s not going anywhere because it’s necessary. It’s needed. It’s food for the culture. It’s water for the culture. You think you don’t need it, and then you do. You think it’s doing the most, but it’s really not even doing as much as it can. It’s so beautiful. It was before I got there. It is and ever shall it be. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s too important. It’s where we are understood. And I don’t take that for granted at all.
Did you set out to be the foundation for young, Black female journalists?
Picture me at 25. Here I am broke as six jokes and I think I’m going to set the tone and be the foundation for Black women. Let me tell you about me. All I wanted to do was write about rap. I wanted to write about Black people singing art. I used to read Rolling Stone. I used to read SPIN magazine. I used to read the New York Times and I said, “Why is the writing and the design and everything about white artists? Does it seem so much more detailed and in-depth than it is for Black artists in other places or even in those places?”
I took that personally. I found it quite hurtful. And what I began to realize is that, of course, there’s a million reasons for it. A lot of the reasons are because people don’t put the kind of money into Black media that they put into mainstream media. All I wanted to do was change that. I didn’t feel like I was going to be the foundation of anything. I just wanted to tell stories. And then once I got good at that, it wasn’t enough for me to write. I was tired of pitching. I wanted to be pitched to, I wanted to be in the rooms where decisions were being made about who was going to take the photos, who was going to be the creative director, what people are we going to cover? What groups are we going to cover? It was well for me to be that person. That was very important to me. More important than I realized at the time to set the direction of a media organization. I treasure my years at VIBE, treasure.
Black Girl Songbook can be streamed exclusively on Spotify. Listen to the Season 2 finale with Jennifer Hudson below.