Many evenings in her family’s living room, she would sit by the stereo waiting for her song to come on, being very careful not to pick up the disc jockey’s commentary between tracks. The word she uses is meticulous: meticulous about sequencing, about including only the best bits, about taking her taste to the next level. Every song she chose felt like it was hers, and by making these mix tapes, it could be.

These are some of the moments Smith captures in her upcoming book, “Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop.” Due out April 19, the book is part memoir, part critique, and all history lesson about how black women have influenced our musical canon. It grew out of Smith’s life as a music fan and nearly three decades as a journalist, including stints as editor of Vibe and Billboard magazines and now as podcast host ” Black Girl Songbook”. Above all, it’s a manifesto of Smith’s mission: “To ensure that black women in music receive their due credit,” she said.

With that in mind, we asked Smith to curate a Women’s History Month playlist of black women musicians who inspire and energize her.

As with those mixtapes she curated as a tween, she was meticulous about this one, she said. First, the sequencing is deliberate, though she emphasizes that you can listen in whatever order suits you. And she wanted it to sound good “at both volumes”: “There’s no middle volume for me,” she said. “It’s either low or extremely high.”

Smith also narrates the playlist with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and a deep love line for the black women who shape it. In the metaphorical black girl songbook that’s been overlooked and underappreciated for decades, each of those songs would take up pages and pages, she said.

“I’m saying here: listen to black women,” Smith said. “That’s what the playlist is: listen to black women. They will tell you.

Listen here and read along with his commentary, slightly edited for clarity, below.


“Fool for You” by Alice Smith

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It’s a song that was originally recorded by CeeLo Green with Melanie Fiona, who really does the song. It won two Grammys in 2012. But a few years later, Alice Smith, who is a soul-funk R&B singer from DC and Georgia, redid the record. And for me, there is something in this version. You know that thing where you’re ecstatic about a person, but you’re also kind of crazy for being ecstatic about that person? He captures that. There’s such attention to, you can see, the vocal arrangement, but you can also tell that she decided that part of the vocal arrangement was just letting go. That’s why I love the record.


“Hrs and Hrs” by Muni Long

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What I like about this record is the detail of the narration. There’s so much specificity in the song about what a romantic escape looks like and feels like; what are the smells, what are the textures. And there are so many things to want to give your partner. She spent a lot of time as a songwriter behind the scenes and now Muni is front and on the mic. And thank God.


“Whatta Man” by Salt-N-Pepa, feat. Fashionable

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It’s one of the best rap/R&B fusions in history. This is Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue at the height of their powers, and it reminds me that collaboration can be so inspiring. These two bands got together and really just work together to do something amazing. Also, the way they talk about the men on this record is very affectionate, but mostly from a woman’s perspective. It captures the feminine look on a man, and I love that part of it.


“Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters

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It’s a fundamental record in soul. For me, we are in a time where things seem more unpredictable than usual. And especially if you are part of a marginalized community, you are constantly confronted with violence. This song is from a time in the early 1970s when things also felt that way. It inspires me to hold my head up high, to quote Tupac. The idea of ​​“I know we can do this, I know very well we can do this”, I need that energy in my life right now.

The Pointer Sisters are also from my hometown of Oakland, and the producer is from New Orleans, where my family is from. I feel like it brings all those sounds together, and that’s a big comfort to me. And comfort is currently paramount in this world.


“Yu-Ma / Go Away Little Boy” by Marlena Shaw

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I always try to include Marlena Shaw in almost every playlist because her voice is so perfect. She is so underrated. I’m a storyteller, so I love songs that tell a story, and this one tells the story of a woman who is sad about her husband wanting to try to fend for himself as an entrepreneur. It doesn’t sound very romantic, but if you listen to the song, it is. There’s this whole monologue at the start where she sets up this great voice afterwards, and there’s so much detail. There’s a line I remember hearing when I was a little girl. It was so crazy to me that she said something like, “Please don’t kiss my earlobes like that.” And I remember thinking, “Are people here kissing each other’s earlobes?!”


“Guess Who I Saw Today” door Nancy Wilson

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This track delves into the theme of perfect vocals and storytelling amidst the playlist. It’s a jazz standard that’s been sung by everyone and their mothers in every decade of its existence, starting in the 1950s. The story never gets old: it’s about a woman singing to her lover that she went out into town to do her shopping. She says she saw this couple who were very much in love. At first it looks like it’s a nice record on her just seeing a nice couple. And I’ll just drop the spoiler: who she saw that day was her boyfriend with her other lover.

It was one of my grandmother’s favorite records, so listening to it as a kid taught me to tell a story but save something for impact. And Nancy Wilson does it not just with the lyrics, but with her voice. His tone and pacing are so disciplined, it’s almost religious: “I’m just telling you the basic story, a great story. But my heart is completely breaking.


“Ain’t Nobody Like You” by Miki Howard

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Back in the ’90s, when there was so much competition between Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child — everyone was making records — Miki Howard kind of slipped into that and made a name for herself. The chorus of this song inspires me when I feel down and can’t do my job the way I want. In the chorus, she basically says: I did everything! I’ve been around the world, I’ve dated different types of guys, but I’m still here, and there’s no one like you.

And something about her energy isn’t just about how she feels or who she’s in love with. That’s saying a lot: I’m a whole person. Whatever my situation, I will make myself and be me. I love the record of this energy.


“Honey” by Erykah Badu

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It’s the same energy – the same spicy midtempo, the same feminine look. It’s so romantic when she says, “So tell me, Slim, what do you want to do?” It’s like, who calls a guy “Slim” like that?! Well, you know, it’s Badu! I aspire to Badu’s trust in all things. Everything about her inspires me.


“Higher Love” by Whitney Houston

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I’m not here to make playlists without Whitney Houston. I don’t know what playlist I could do where I would say no, Whitney is not appropriate. So for this one, I picked his version of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” He appeared on a Japanese version of her third album, “I’m Your Baby Tonight”. Steve has already sung it with a bit of gospel flair, but Whitney goes all the way. To me, it’s super interesting when she brings her gospel roots to pop records, and it’s inspiring for that reason. It’s also inspiring because it brings that fervor of joy, faith and belief, no matter what you believe in. It’s contagious.


Rihanna’s “Diamonds”

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There are many reasons why my book is called “Shine Bright”. One is the old spiritual song “This Little Light of Mine”, a song that meant so much to me as a child and still does. And Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is another. This is such a big order for us from him. You want to think it’s a request, but it’s not. She orders us to shine with a thousand lights.