Danielle Ponder, and the roots of Black feminism
It was the closing hours of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Six stages of music, and singer Marcus Mumford was cashing in a few chips.
Rhiannon Giddens, get up here. Elvis Costello, get up here, play the organ. Giddens, Costello and Mumford had played together on the 2014 album “The New Basement Tapes,” a collection of songs from long-lost lyrics written six decades ago by Bob Dylan. Blake Mills, who has played guitar with Dylan and many others over the years, was called to the stage as well.
Mumford was surrounding himself with a supergroup to close his set. To perform “When I Get My Hands on You,” a song from that album of misplaced Dylan music.
And Mumford drafted one more musician to the stage, one he had been touring with across the country — Danielle Ponder.
Could Ponder have imagined this, even just a year ago? Onstage with Elvis Costello?
“He killed that organ,” Ponder says of Costello. “I was like, ‘Oh my GOD!’ I was just like, ‘This is Elvis Costello playing organ behind me!’ And afterward, he was saying, ‘I hope I wasn’t overplaying.’
“I was just, like, ‘Uh, no, you’re Elvis Costello, you can do whatever you want.’”
And Ponder seemingly can do no wrong.
Each stop on her current tour — she returns home to play Water Street Music Hall on Friday — is followed by fans raving on social media about her performance. She’s been featured on television: “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and “CBS Sunday Morning.” She’s toured in support of highly regarded acts; besides Mumford, she’s opened for Amos Lee, Leon Bridges, and St. Paul and The Broken Bones, and George Clinton in Europe.
The latest news — although Ponder news seems to erupt daily — is she’ll be singing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Nov 11.
All of this coincides with last month’s release of Ponder’s debut album, “Some of Us Are Brave.”
Anyone here remember when Ponder used to sing at Java’s Café on Gibbs Street?
“Some of Us Are Brave” seems to be virtually everything. Powerful vocals. Songs about her broken heart. And songs drawn from her experience as an assistant public defender in the Rochester city courts.
There’s a high degree of social awareness in this music, going back to Ponder’s law-school days. She wrote a paper on welfare rights and what used to be called “the myth of the welfare queen.” The mythical welfare queen was a part of Reaganomics, as Ponder reminds us.
Social media is a curious barometer of cultural relevance. Under Ponder’s name on Twitter, you’ll find raves for “Some of Us Are Brave” by Julianne Phillips, the model, actor and one-time spouse of Bruce Springsteen.
And there you’ll also find Barbara Smith. An activist on many fronts, including as a Black feminist, lesbian spokesperson, author, and publisher of books by women of color. Smith was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She served two terms on the Common Council in Albany, where she lives today.
Smith loves Ponder and recognizes why Ponder drew the title of her album from a 1982 anthology that Smith co-edited: “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies.”
The book, Smith says, addresses a vacuum that she’d felt while attending college in the mid- to late-1960s.
“I never had a course in Black studies, or in women’s studies,” Smith says. “And needless to say, I never had a course in Black women’s studies.”
So she created one.
“We were making an effort to define a field that nobody thought had any value,” she says.
Originally from Cleveland, Smith’s identity has been an evolution. “When I was born,” the 75-year-old Smith says, “I was actually a Negro. And that was a nice word they used for us.” Over time, she was “colored,” and then Afro-American, “not African-American at that time.”
“I’ve been through those changes.”
Changes that over time embraced Black feminism. And a word she uses frequently, “intersectionality,” the overlapping of social definitions of race, class, and gender.
“Recognizing there are things that Black women experience,” Smith says, “that are not covered by the feminist movement.”
Smith recalls an image she saw at the 2014 Video Music Awards: pop star Beyoncé standing in front of giant glittering letters that read: “FEMINIST.”
“She can do that now,” Smith says. “And the reason she can do that is because of people like me who, back in the ’70s and the early ’80s, and even back in the ’60s, were saying, ‘Wait a minute, Black women actually have something to say, stories to tell, and issues to deal with that cannot be fully addressed by a racial agenda. Nor can they fully be addressed by a gender agenda. That is, an agenda that is focused on so-called women’s issues. We have specific issues we have to address and want to address and need to address that are not addressed by either of those separate approaches.’
“And that’s really the roots of Black feminism.”
In Ponder’s music, Smith hears romance and a longing for love. “The African-American musical tradition has all of that,” she says, “plus a strong, strong, strong social consciousness. So she’s in a great tradition.”
Smith points out that with his classic album, “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye covered all of this, in an era of strife surrounding the Vietnam War. “It was totally, totally commenting about what was going on in the Black community, and in Black political life at that time,” she says.
In two respects, Smith says Ponder goes beyond soul singer.
First, the sound.
“I read that she is considered to be a soul singer,” Smith says. “But when I heard her, I said I’m getting Nina Simone here, and I’m getting jazz. Because I am described as a jazz head. That’s my favorite genre of music. And I’m very serious about it, to the degree that I know a lot about it. And I’ve seen a lot of the now-departed greats before. I’ve seen Nina Simone. I’ve seen Ella Fitzgerald, I’ve seen Sarah Vaughan, I’ve seen Carmen McRae. And on and on like that. I’ve seen some of the younger people, like Dee Dee Bridgewater.”
And Ponder is “right in that tradition,” Smith says. “I love it.”
As with Simone, Ponder takes the music further. Music that now must address an America that, as far as women in society, Smith says, is rolling backward. “To put it mildly,” she says, due to who she calls “a nameless individual.”
“And then, horror of horrors, he became president.”
Ponder agrees. From the electoral college to the Supreme Court, “What’s sad is, it doesn’t feel so democratic anymore,” she says. “Because it feels like a small group of people are controlling the lives of the majority.”
Ponder responds to most of the messages sent to her on Twitter. Even one of the few negative comments. That cranky old man view of: Leave the politics out of the music.
Music addresses politics, and social issues?
“How could it not?” Ponder says.
As Gaye said, it’s all about, “What’s Going On.”
“It’s all from the same vein of life experience, and writing about life experiences,” Ponder says.
And her own life experiences play into her songs.
“I’m just talking about, like, when I talk about my brother going to jail, that was my brother. Am I not supposed to write about that, or write about the criminal justice system that impacts my family? When I talk about being pro-choice, or the right to abortion, I’m a woman, that impacts me.”
Ponder says the moment that the message is not shared by society’s majority, or the dominant culture, it becomes political. Even in 2022, Black people in America have different experiences than white people. And so their words, and their songs, are heard as “political, and dangerous, and controversial.”
“I’m a writer, and I write about the things that impact me,” Ponder says. “Racism impacts me. I write about the things that hurt me. Racism hurts me. And so who is anyone to tell me I can’t calm myself, heal myself, offer myself the antidote to pain, which is my songwriting.”
Ponder thinks of Nina Simone, and how racism affected her mental health. “Because she felt at some point she had to run away to Europe, that she couldn’t speak up.
“They won’t do that to me, that’s for damn sure.”
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