June is African American Music Appreciation Month

Collage of black and white photos of musicians and color blocks in red, green, blue, and yellow with "Summer of Soul" overlaid.

by Jean B.

Count Basie. Billie Holliday. Duke Ellington. I am an enthusiastic jazz fan, and I appreciate that sliver of African American music all year long, not just in June. But the musical expression of Black experience and artistry certainly isn’t limited to jazz or any other single genre. Gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, hip hop, rap, classical, rock and roll, techno, musicals – African American Music Appreciation Month provides a great opportunity to acknowledge and explore the tremendous breadth of African American musicians, composers, styles, and music entrepreneurs. Established in 1979 as National Black Music Month, it has been proclaimed by every U.S. President from Jimmy Carter to Joe Biden. So for this 43rd annual celebration, use HCLS as a portal to enjoy more of what you already like or discover something entirely new.

Expand Your Playlist
If you’re looking for new tunes, HCLS offers thousands of CDs across all genres to borrow. Using your library card and PIN, you also can stream music from Freegal. Not only can you search for favorite artists or songs, but you can find already curated Black Music Month playlists – like the one created by the Central Arkansas Library System with ten hours of music, ranging from Jimi Hendrix, to Sister Rosetta Tharpe; from Kendrick Lamar to Miles Davis. That’s a lot to appreciate!

Experience Live Concerts
Do you want to imagine you’re there, in concert? Documentary DVDs can bring the live concert experience right into your home. Check out Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary, Summer of Soul, about the epic 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that features performances by artists like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, and more. Or watch Eminem, Nas, and other hip-hop artists perform on Something From Nothing: the Art of Rap. From our Kanopy service, stream films like Rejoice and Shout: Gospel Music and African-American Christianity, which features legends of gospel like The Staple Singers and The Dixie Hummingbirds, to trace the 200-year evolution and contribution of gospel music in American pop culture.

The cover of I'm Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream features the outline illustration of a red figure playing a black tuba, framed by text.

Explore the Lives of African American Creators
If you’re curious about the life experiences that produced the music you hear, check out some great nonfiction. Be blown away by the memoir of Baltimore native Richard Antoine White, whose dream of classical tuba performance took him from a homeless childhood to a prestigious symphony orchestra career, an extraordinary story he tells in I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, A Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream. Or be swept up in the incredible combination of poetry, art, biography, and music history in Jazz A-B-Z: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits, where Wynton Marsalis writes wordplay jazz. I love his ode to Ellington, “a most elegant man” who sought “to educate, to elevate, to urge the earthbound ear and heart alike to soar,” just like the resources at HCLS!

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

The bright blue cover shows the sliced up illustration of white woman with short dark bobbed hair with eyes and mouth wide in suprise. The portrait is only halfway on the right side of the book and the sliced strips are disjointed.

by Kristen B.

Oona Out of Order is a slightly different sort of time travel novel … Oona’s mind jumps randomly from year to year into her chronologically aging body, always on her birthday, which happens to be January 1.

Imagine never being quite sure what year you’re in, although you’re always you. What would your touchstones be? For Oona, it’s her mom and, for later years, her personal assistant.

As the novel begins, Oona enjoys a rocking New Years Eve party with her boyfriend, the band they are in, and most of her friends, and she’s about to turn 19. De rigueur teen drama plays out all around, but there are some real decisions that Oona has to make soon, decisions that set the stage for the rest of the book. She can either skip out on college and go on a European tour with the beloved boyfriend and the band (opening for other, larger acts) or she can do a year abroad in London with her bestie from childhood.

Only when the clock strikes midnight, Oona finds herself completely disoriented at age 51. That turns out to be a quiet year, taking stock and figuring out what’s what. In subsequent years, Oona jumps around from party-hard years in the New York club scene, to a brief foray into married life, to traveling the world.

Montimore was smart about creating the structure of her impressive debut. She never explains or solves the time-traveling issue; it’s just a given. She also sets up Oona as being independently wealthy after some good bets and smart stock trading given her knowledge of future years. Managing her portfolio (literally a set of folders) is her only job, leaving her free to absorb each year as it comes. Being based largely in New York helps a lot, too, as she can always find another facet of life to become immersed in.

There’s also Oona’s mom, who helps her (mostly) to bridge the years and explain what’s going on. In fact, Madeleine may be my favorite character, who is trying her best to live her own life as well as take care of her daughter’s chaos. Not always an easy relationship, it rings true in many ways as it’s the only one that Oona manages to sustain for much of the book. Oona’s love for music provides the other constant in her life, to the point that you might be tempted to listen to some Velvet Underground and Blondie as you read.

Monitmore gives us a fun book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but nonetheless asks questions about what it means to live a good, meaningful life. It does also give some closure to the big questions facing Oona at the beginning of the book – which she gets to answer with a lot more maturity and experience than most 19-year-olds have at their disposal. Don’t you wish you could tell your teenage self a few things?

Oona Out of Order is available as a book, an eBook, and an eAudiobook.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and make soup in the winter.

Where Black Music Month and Pride Month Intersect

Shea Diamond, a Black woman, sits by herself at a table covered in a red striped cloth. She's wearing a yellow sundress, hoop earrings, and a bracelet. Her chin rests in her hands as she looks toward the camera from the edge of her eye. The wall behind her is a weathered blue.

by Ash B.

As a passionate lover of music and self-proclaimed band nerd for life, I love analyzing the music I listen to. I enjoy paying attention to all the choices that go into a work of music – the chord structure, time signature, melody, instrumentation, and so on – and I love identifying the possible musical influences that affected those choices.  

Music is fascinating, in part, because so many different styles connect in some way, even if those connections are not immediately obvious. However, innovation doesn’t occur out of thin air; new musical styles have always developed out of existing ones, with artists often blending different cultural influences to create new sounds. I believe that understanding the history of American music is essential to fully appreciating the music of today, and to do so, we must center the musical innovations of Black Americans. 

And now is the perfect time to do so! 

While it may be a coincidence, I find it extremely fitting that June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month as well as Black Music Appreciation Month. While we don’t know how many of them would label themselves with today’s language, many pioneering Black musicians throughout history defied gender norms, had same-gender relationships, or both. Some expressed their sexuality quite openly, such as Gladys Bentley, a 1930s blues singer and pianist who performed in men’s tuxedos while flirting with female audience members. Other musicians were not as public regarding their sexuality, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel-singing, electric-guitar playing “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” who had relationships with both men and women.

Regardless of the labels that would best suit historical figures, it is worth recognizing the personal complexities of artists who lived these intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. A refusal to acknowledge the intersections between Black music history and LGBTQ+ history would be a failing to understand the foundations of American pop culture and music.

Black LGBTQ+ artists continue to have great impact on the American musical landscape: Janelle Monáe, Lil Nas X, Kehlani, and Frank Ocean, just to name a few. However, there are still many incredible artists that don’t get the amount of attention they deserve, and that is why I’d like to shine the spotlight on the singer-songwriter and activist Shea Diamond. 

Shea Diamond singing “Seen It All” in the recording studio and speaking to the It Gets Better Project about her life experiences.

Shea Diamond’s music draws upon her lived experiences as a formerly incarcerated, Black trans woman, speaking to the challenges of navigating a society that has frequently marginalized her, all while remaining confident and determined to create space for herself. 

Her first EP Seen It All was released in 2017 and is definitely among the most mature and masterful debuts I’ve ever heard. Shea’s dynamic, powerhouse voice conveys raw emotion, amplifying the message of her vulnerable and authentic lyrics. From playful to proud, celebratory to somber, reflective to resilient, Shea seamlessly weaves threads of her experience together into a tapestry that portrays the complexities of her life, all in five gorgeous songs that show an impressive musical range.  

While she is predominantly considered a soul and R&B singer, her music has a very strong rock/pop presence that incorporates elements of funk, blues, gospel, and folk. Many artists are skilled in their musical range, but I find Shea to be unique in the particular way that she cohesively brings together the aforementioned genres. Her music is fresh and contemporary while being clearly rooted in these American musical traditions, and the message of her lyrics is amplified by the corresponding musical style and instrumentation of each song. I don’t think there’s any other artist that can get me from dancing to crying and back again as quickly and as powerfully as Shea can!

Ultimately, I find her most inspiring because of the authenticity and passion she brings to her work. She is an artist who knows the power of her voice, and she isn’t afraid to use it – from her emotional vocal techniques to the lyrics she sings. Shea Diamond has a lot to say; will you listen?

Find Shea Diamond’s music on your preferred platform here, or stream Seen It All for free on hoopla through HCLS.

Interested in listening to CDs, too? Check out our current bundle bag options for Black Music Month and Pride in Music.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch. They grew up playing piano and clarinet, and are now slowly learning the ukulele. At any given moment, they might be thinking admirably about Janelle Monáe.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Photo of Kim Gordon in a subway, with duotone wash in red.

By Ben H.

“it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart” – Kim Gordon 

Girl in a Band is a breakup memoir and it’s a good one.  

It is also much more than a breakup memoir. It is a pretty killer Künstlerroman* (Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter is a good comparison); a brilliant memoir of place(s) (like Joan Didion’s “White Album” essay), and a behind the music for music nerds (I don’t have a good comp, but I need to keep the parallelism going). Kim Gordon was the eponymous “girl in a band” with Sonic Youth, a band that made loud noisy rock records. She was married to her bandmate, Thurston Moore, for 29 years until she learned of him having an affair. Neither the couple nor the band survived the affair. My review isn’t necessarily for the Sonic Youth fans out there, because they’ve probably already read this and devoured the middle section where Gordon highlights her favorite tracks and gives them biographical context; my review is for the people who need another reason to read a memoir about a girl in a band. 

Gordon writes beautifully about the places she’s lived. From her childhood in L.A. to her adulthood in New York to her motherhood in Massachusetts, Gordon excels at remembering tiny details and writing gorgeous descriptions of the distinct phases of her life. L.A. is a maze to be escaped and returned to; New York is chaotic and fertile like an overgrown garden; and Massachusetts is suffocating, domestic, and tense.

Gordon’s L.A. is a Janus-faced landscape of “rustic hillsides filled with twisted oak trees, scruffy and steep, with lighter-than-light California sunshine filtering through the tangles,” and flat neighborhoods of “freshly mowed green lawns camouflaging dry desert-scape…everything orderly but with its own kind of unease.” The places Gordon writes about become characters through her tapestry of vivid vignettes. For me, she does her best writing about places. If you still aren’t convinced, the vintage photographs Gordon uses for each chapter, like the one of her standing with her arms around Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, are reason enough to read this book. 

When I think of Sonic Youth, I don’t necessarily think of the awesome sheets of sound they made as a band. I think of the husky and wild vocals of Gordon. Her delivery is one of a kind. She drones. She growls. She talks. She screams. She sings. As an author, she might not possess the same kind of singular voice, but she knows how to tell a story and set a scene. At the risk of sounding adolescent, she is also very cool. Speaking of cool, Gordon references William Gibson’s thriller Pattern Recognition – she named a song after it. His cool-hunting protagonist Cayce Pollard is totally cut from the same cloth as Kim Gordon. Listen to any of the tracks off Gordon’s solo album, No Home Record, and tell me she isn’t very cool.

I won’t review the details of her relationship with Thurston Moore, but I think she does a marvelous job writing about the arc of their relationship. The passages describing them falling in love are lovely. The passages describing Thurston’s increasingly erratic behavior in Massachusetts are heartbreaking.

Kim Gordon, band aside, has led a fascinating life. My wife recommended this book to me and now I’m recommending it to you. Take a trip back in time to when CDs were the only way to listen to music and request Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation while you’re at it! 

*artist’s book about growing into maturity

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).