The mask requirement could not hide the excitement in anyone’s eyes when MC Lyte took the stage to kick off I Am Woman: A Celebration of Women in Hip Hop at the Kennedy Center a couple of weeks ago. The lineup was spectacular–OGs like MC Lyte, Yo Yo, Monie Love and Da Brat sharing the stage with Remy Ma, Trina, Mama Sol, Tierra Whack, and Mumu Fresh. Ra Brown treated us to some fire poetry in the middle of the show, and many, many hip hop royalty including Queen Latifah, Grandmaster Flash, Common, Missy Elliott, and others recorded tributes honoring womens’ unique and indelible contributions to the music that women had to kick down some heavy doors to make. It was a great night, and I danced in my jumpsuit and four-inch heels from beginning to end.
Music inspires me to move and create. Part of the process in writing Moonrise Over New Jessup was the significant amount of research necessary to capture the years in which Alice’s story takes place. Research certainly means dusty books and stuffy archives and internet rabbit holes. As I lawyer, I learned that getting things right requires looking at the work from many angles.
But I am also fortunate to have folks willing to share stories. People who still have memories of the music from the era of Alice’s young womanhood. And just like I find memories and inspiration from certain songs, my folks’ smiles routinely twist in grown folks’ reverie about that show with Sam Cooke or Smokey Robinson or Aretha Franklin or Etta James on the marquee. That smile tells me they continue to wonder if I will ever be old enough to hear the story on their heart. Often, after an auntie or uncle reads me, the answer to that wondering is “no.”
Music played a vital role in writing Alice’s story. Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free was playing in my ears when Alice stepped foot off the bus and into New Jessup. Billie Holiday sprinkled Moonglow as I wrote about two young lovers during their first date. Ray Charles was Talkin’ Bout That River during a crucial car ride and the entirety of One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club moved Alice throughout the book. And when I mentioned these, and other songs, to my folks, eyes often glazed in memory and deemed me “too young” for some of their steamier anecdotes. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the opportunity to share an afternoon or an evening with my people as they relived many other parts of their youth, and became young again.
The only time I cut the music is when I am reading Alice’s words aloud. There is something lyrical about southern storytelling cadence, and listening to the rhythm of her words was crucial to finishing my book. Just as I sat and enjoyed the way my folks talked about the shows they attended and the artists they loved, I hope readers will read, and hear, Alice telling her story for true.
I’m linking One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club here in hopes that y’all will sit down with your folks–parents, aunts and uncles, grands and great-grands–to see if you have some luck breaking into their reveries. Or whether you, too, earn that grown folks’ secret-hiding smile. And let this be your content warning: Sam Cooke made some babymaking music on this album. *If* your folks open up to you…be forewarned. But remember…our parents, aunts and uncles, grands and great-grands, were human before we were a thought in any of their heads