#BlackMusicMonth: Blair E. Smith Talks Black Feminist Poetry and Hip-Hop
June 26, 2015 at 6:30 am
Days after George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges, I was sitting on a blow-up mattress in my friend’s studio apartment when Blair E. Smith, otherwise known as DJ Be, sat down across from me. There were about ten of us there, and we’d all met at a Richmond, Virginia rally in response to Zimmerman’s acquittal. This was the first of a series of meetings about organizing within our community.
After all but two of us had left, Smith plugged her iPhone up to the amp and played one of her mixes that features June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights,” and rested her copy of Some of Us Did Not Die in a chair next to the speaker.
Much of her work features Black women poets, some of which identify as Black feminists, with June Jordan being the most prominent.
Smith is a doctoral student at Syracuse University who’s studying Cultural Foundations of Education with a concentration in Women and Gender Studies. She first read Jordan’s “A Poem About My Rights” in a Black Feminist Theories class. “Jordan’s way with words and relaying emotions, particularly on the nuanced reality of global rape and violence against women and Black people, coupled with her self-determination to live and move in her Black woman body as she pleases — struck a good nerve with my budding feminist self.”After finding and listening to Jordan recite the poem on YouTube,” Smith explains, “I started to think about the ways in which I ‘write’ and ‘create’ as a Black
“After finding and listening to Jordan recite the poem on YouTube, I started to think about the ways in which I ‘write’ and ‘create’ as a Black writer [and ]artist, an identity that I am really just coming to terms with thanks to ancestors and creators such as June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara, and Nikky Finney to be exact,” Smith explains.
The official DJ for We Levitate, Smith DJ’d for the inaugural Black Girl Genius Week (BGGW) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she produced a track featuring Nikky Finney, the 2011 National Book Award Winner who was mentored by June Jordan.
On the last day of BGGW, following a week of teach-ins and organizing at a local middle school alongside Finney, Smith and We Levitate went to Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown’s office in the basement of the Women and Gender Studies Center on campus to the “purple curtain.”
The “purple curtain”, Smith says, is a microphone with a bed comforter to block sound.
“Between myself and Rynea Soul, we had a few beats to choose from with themes that organizers chose before the week began,” Smith says, “The theme for the track with Nikky Finney was any and everything having to do with Black girl genius. We took a good 5-10 minutes as a group to listen to the beat while writing.”
After the writing session, Nikky Finney and members of We Levitate prepared to record. Finney was first and “had everybody feeling like they were the next up to jump after the reigning double-dutch champion,” Smith recalls.
For the instrument samples, Smith used “Dolphin Dance,” from side one of her father’s Grover Washington, Jr. record A Secret Place, as well as a drum sample from A Tribe Called Quest.
“I chopped up the Finney acapella on my SP404 into pieces, which I felt captured the feeling of the process at BGGW,” she continues “From there, with the Finney samples, I just sampled and recorded what I felt live, no edits.”
At the core of Blair’s work is one question — “How might Black artists/scholars hold ourselves accountable in the 21st century, where neo-liberal anti-Black color-blindness has an eerie hold on our world and Black art?”
To answer the question, Smith says, “hasn’t been easy in a discipline where publication sets the precedence instead of introspection, community organization and creativity.” Smith’s dissertation resists such precedence by exploring Black girls’ creativity as viable knowledge production and feminist thought, including an autoethnographic narrative that manipulates music as data.
“Some of us did not die,” Smith urges “so let’s get on with it.”
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