Crystal Wilkinson’s Playlist for Her Collection “Perfect Black”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Crystal Wilkinson’s moving and surprising collection Perfect Black is deeply rooted in its sense of place and identity.

Kiki Petrosino wrote of the book:

“Crystal Wilkinson’s Perfect Black is powerful witch-work. In these cascading lyrics, Wilkinson casts her glittering net of protection over the bodies and hearts of every Black girl. The poet’s past self, ‘a girl, not yet trouble,’ is a dreamer whose desires―for love and intellectual play, for spiritual radiance and sexual empowerment―still carry sweet potency. Here, Black Rapunzel lets down her miraculous ladders of wisdom and vision, while Black grandmothers and church ladies transform into sailboats, safe harbors. Read this book and swerve, in Wilkinson’s ‘perfect cursive,’ along paths ancestral and deliciously strange.”

In her own words, here is Crystal Wilkinson’s Book Notes music playlist for her collection Perfect Black:

Each poem, lyric or essay in this collection is imbued with music in a direct or indirect way. Gospel, spiritual, funk, blues, rock, neo-soul—these songs are the soundtrack to Perfect Black.

Ache—“Eleggua”

Eleggua is an Orisha who is usually seen as the deity of roads, entrances and paths, the perfect song for beginnings. The first section in Perfect Black centers on my own Black girlhood and how religious and cultural rituals shaped my early life. We went to church often though church wasn’t a safe place for me and my grandfather was a water witch. Religious, cultural and imaginative rituals persist in my life and through this collection.

Bobbi Humphrey—“Blacks and Blues”

Bobbi Humphrey’s music is inspiring to me. She is one of the greatest jazz musicians and singers of our time. You can’t really listen to her music and not feel it. This song reminds me of summer. I was too young to enjoy jazz when this song was having its heyday, but listening takes me back down gravel roads and long drives with heat coming through the windows, even though she was making music in New York and I grew up in Kentucky, I’m still there riding every note.

Bobby Hutcherson—“Goin’ Down South”

Another bit of jazz fusion that travels. This is made for a writer who is writing memoir. Also recorded in the ’70s this is a timeless song that crosses decades and for me invites collaboration and infusion and makes my imagination buzz with possibilities. If you muse on the title alone you think of what southern means to us as Americans. I think of what it means to me in Kentucky, but also there is a sound that travels further south here. It’s a mellow bop that pairs perfectly with some of the intent in Perfect Black. In that the poems and short essays are in conversation with the art and a musing on what it means to be a Black woman, a Black girl, a Black person in America, a country Black person and how do I have a conversation about all of this within the community and outside the community.

Angie Stone—“No More Rain (in This Cloud)”

This is a hurt woman’s blues anthem! I remember when the Black Diamond album hit and I spent so much time rocking and crying through whatever pain I was going through. When she belts out “hold on it gets a little better” I lose it every single time. This is the ultimate break up song but it’s also a great song for purging hurt from the past and moving forward. Of course, in part that is what I’m trying to do in this book is purge some hurt to make way for healing and growth, not only for myself, but for every woman, particularly Black woman who reads it. This song reminds me that no pain is singular that someone else , somewhere is experiencing a deep wound too. *Hand up toward heaven swaying every damn time.

Aretha Franklin—“I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You)”

Every time Aretha sings it’s like going to church. The high and low notes of this song and the scales she climbs takes you with her through your gut and heart. These are the songs that I sing at the top of my lungs for self-care (if there is such a thing). The exact music I needed after going to an especially dark place on days of writing and working through the themes of this book.

Big Mama Thornton—“Since I Fell for You”

There are several poems in the collection devoted to my partner, the talented Ron Davis whose illustrations are in conversation with the work in this book. In my opinion, this is the sexiest version of this song though many musicians have covered it. Most of the time when I listen to Thornton I want to just throw my head back and vibe, but this version makes me want to slow drag with the one I love every single time.

The Black Keys—“Give Your Heart Away”

Remember Ally McBeal’s theme songs? This and “B.O.B.” by Outcast have been my theme songs for decades. These songs motivate me. My musical tastes are varied but most people are surprised that The Black Keys are high on my long list of favorites. I’m especially drawn to the Magic Potion album, though I realize some people would beg to differ.

Junior Kimbrough—“I’m in Love”

Well you can’t talk about The Black Keys without bowing down and paying homage to Junior Kimbrough. This is music from the heart and the gut straight out of Mississippi. I’ve never been to an authentic juke joint though here in Kentucky we had weekend parties in a club called The Barn that was a barn. We danced and sweated with tobacco hanging in the rafters above our heads. Kimbrough’s unique guitar play and that voice—pure talent—he plays and sings as if he’s not trying—like eating or walking, but you know he’s a virtuoso.

Maxwell—”Whenever Wherever”

So many of these songs are songs that soothe my anxiety. This song is big medicine. I don’t know why listening to Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite makes me think I can reach his height of cool just by listening and that if I try hard I can hit these high notes while I’m driving or in the shower but I’m sure of it when this song is playing.

Mike Jones—“Back Then”

So many of the songs I go back to again and again are anthems for particular periods. This song reminds me of all the people who were dissed in high school and college who butterflied into themselves and surprised everyone. “Back Then” is (of course) very man-centered, but I’ve always liked it because it is so real. As a writer I continue to be intrigued with how someone can become someone else within a short span of time. A strange choice for this list, maybe, but it’s one of my favorites. It’s a revenge song and so many much of Perfect Black is about the body, so I also love that it’s a song of revenge from one of the chubby kids. Yes! I throw my hands in the air with him every single time.

Prince—“I Wanna Be Your Lover”

I wrote a flash essay about my love for Prince’s music during my teenaged years which first appeared in Oxford American Magazine and also appears in Perfect Black. I’m still deeply affected when I think about how his music literally saved my life during my youth while I was dealing with sexual trauma. It was Prince who gave me permission to love myself and to save myself. I’m forever grateful that his music touched me so deeply.

Prince—“Sexy Dancer”

I was a shy church girl and kept Prince’s albums hidden in my bedroom and played them on my record player with a swirling psychedelic paisley design on the lid. The more Prince, the better. In addition, to just loving his music, his artistry has always fascinated. He was 19 years old when he became popular, was shy, and played 27 instruments. I think I also bonded with him knowing that he was from a religious family and was only a few years older than me when we were both coming of age. He found his art. I found mine in writing.

Ibeyi—“River”

I write so much about the ancestors and their importance to my characters and to myself that it’s fitting that a song honoring the ancestors opens and closes this list. There is a poem in Perfect Black that speaks to my own baptism but this song is about washing the spirit and making room for healing. I love how this Afro-French-Cuban duo explains their music as “Negro spirituals but in a contemporary” way. This song is also a worship song in honor of the Yoruba deity Oshun, who is the Orisha of fertility and the rivers.

Crystal Wilkinson is the Poet Laureate of Kentucky. She is the author of The Birds of Opulence, winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award; Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature; and Water Street, a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The winner of a 2020 USA Artist Fellowship, she serves as associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky.

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