For the Record: Black voices in music and literature

Audrey Morrison and Eva Williams

record player
In For The Record, Audrey Morrison talks albums, concerts, and more. (Graphic by Ellen Chadwick)

Although Black History Month ended this past February, the amplification of Black voices and art should continue throughout the year. We’ve put together five novels and five albums by Black artists in honor of BHM. If there’s anything you think we should add or a review, please let us know. Or better yet – submit a feature of your own!

The Vanishing Half & MAGDALENE

The Vanishing Half: Brit Bennet. The Vanishing Half made waves this year, claiming the number one spot on the New York Times fiction bestseller list. Barack Obama called it one of his favorites of the year as well. It follows identical twin sisters growing up in a southern town in the 1950s. When the girls leave home, one decides to pass as white. The story, like Red at the Bone, flashes between time periods — in this case, the 50s and the 90s. It deals with important issues and asks important questions about how the past shapes the future, and how society shapes a person. Read it before it’s adapted by HBO as a limited series! 

MAGDALENE: FKA twigs. 2019 was hardly a year of rest and relaxation for FKA twigs, but what came from her heartbreak was a masterpiece. While referencing figures in the Bible, this album tells the story of twigs’ own crucifixion. The title MAGDALENE references Mary Magdalene: a disciple of Jesus who was often portrayed as the embodiment of sin and lust. However, despite the religious context, the album is grounded and painfully honest. Told in nine parts, this mournful sojourn chronicles twigs’ insecurity, loss of love, and search for salvation. So much of her story was shaped by her relationship with actor Robert Pattison, the press, and social media outlets. We finally hear her narrative: plainspoke and sombre. 

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Killing Me Softly by Roberta Flack. (Photo via Spotify)

Red at the Bone & Killing Me Softly

Red at the Bone: Jaqueline Woodson. You might recognize Jacqueline Woodson’s name from the cover of an elementary school staple – Brown Girl Dreaming. Red at the Bone brings the same rhythmic beauty and detail to the pages. The story follows a young girl’s pregnancy and the impact the pregnancy has on the different generations of her family. It flashes back and forth between modern times and her days as a young mother. It’s a short read, but a touching one that explores how familial relationships truly shape who we are. 

Killing Me Softly: Roberta Flack. Short and sweet like Red at the Bone, Killing Me Softly by Roberta Flack is one woman’s lonely odyssey. Chock-full of Ella Fitzgerald-esque vocals and theatrical drama, this 1973 release is an instant classic. The album begins with a laid-back version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” by the Fugees, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and Wyclef Jean. Despite these many allusions to the vocal powerhouses of blues and soul, Roberta Flack is truly one of a kind. The sorrow and control she evokes in songs like “Jesse” and “I’m the Girl” (my favorite – a true belting song) is unbelievable. If you read and listen to these two stories simultaneously, they’ll start to sound the same. 

Such a Fun Age & Blood

Such a Fun Age: Kiley Reid. A young African-American woman is a nanny to a white family in Pennsylvania. When she is involuntarily recorded after being berated by a grocery store worker, she becomes a media sensation. But who leaked the video to the press? She spends the story wondering who and what the person’s motives were. She also starts dating her boss’s ex, and things get complicated. It’s an interesting read, with fresh commentary and an emphasis on learning through uncomfortable moments. 

Blood: Kelsey Lu. 29 year old pop singer and cellist released the transcendent album Blood in 2019. There’s soul, there’s chaos, there’s undeniable talent. The sheer variety and scope of Lu’s technical and musical ability is supernatural. Despite the record’s ambiguity, there’s a very clear touch of sensitivity and youthfulness. Everything feels young and new. Blood is abundant in curiosity and mystique similar to Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age.

Queenie & True

Queenie: Candice Carty-Williams. As a young Black woman living in London, Queenie has never felt comfortable in her own skin. As she struggles to coexist with her battling polarities (her desire to be seen and her fear of judgement, her race and colorism, her fierce independence and her desire to be loved), she finds a way to coexist with herself and the world around her. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of traumatic sequences, but Carty-Williams engages with grief in such a way that you can’t help but laugh nevertheless. Warning: there is a ton of millennial humor, but once you get past it you’ll find a quick-paced, often revealing, and amusing read.

“True”: Solange. An obvious pairing for this modern tale of heartbreak and loss.  Queenie even mentions listening to the song “Losing You” after breaking up with her boyfriend (it’s not a spoiler I swear). The album has just the right amount of kick to it to simulate Queenie’s spunk and sensibility. “True” is a real beat-heavy record, and while holding its own with cocksure vocals and plenty of 80’s synth and base – it still feels like only one half of a story. Without saying too much, “Queenie” leaves the reader wanting more. She’s gotten through the worst of it, but there’s still that heavy, looming cloud of unrest. Solange’s sound in “True” is retro – it’s got pop and percussion – but there’s really no end quality. There’s no final peace or clarity. She has risen from the ashes and is stronger than ever – but what now?

Charming as a Verb & Coastal Grooves 

Charming as a Verb: Ben Phillipe. A teenage dog walker living in New York City with his Haitian immigrant parents is working to be accepted to Columbia University. When he starts dating the daughter of one of his dog walking clients, he learns that maybe Columbia isn’t his only path. But then he finds out his girlfriend’s mom is an admissions officer, and realizes how to get what he’s always dreamed of. It’s a witty and fun read that any high school student thinking about college can relate to. 

Coastal Grooves: Blood Orange. The hurried, anxious energy which exudes from Blood Orange’s first album Coastal Grooves is the perfect pair for Ben Philippe’s story of young love. In fact, many know the singer from his soundtrack feature in the breakout indie film “Palo Alto”. He perfectly channels the feverish restlessness and dread of forbidden romance. While the album is markedly dark and ironic, there are also moments of warmth and intimacy. Listen to “Champagne Coast,” “S’Cooled,” and “Forget It.”