Q&A: Leslie Kwan

Hattie Fisk
Sunday, January 1, 2023

The American harpsichordist, orchestra and creative wellness media company founder has now also turned author with A for Aretha, an ABC board book featuring 26 Black female musicians whose artistry and activism have made history. Hattie Fisk catches up with her to find out more.

 Leslie Kwan
Leslie Kwan


HF: Congratulations on publishing your book A for Aretha. How did this come about?

LK: Thank you, I am very proud of the book. It began in quite a natural way when I was with my youngest niece, who was four years old (and very sassy). She was being disrespectful to her brother, and I was telling her to respect him by singing Aretha's Respect. That put the idea of a children's book on Black female composers into my mind, so I combed the internet and there was nothing out there. It seemed horrendous that a gap like that existed, so I put pen to paper and that is how A for Aretha was born.

HF: How did you choose each artist for each letter?

LK: It was so hard, Hattie. I thought, ‘I am going to get into a lot of trouble with a lot of people – especially those in the music industry.’ I initially had three musicians per letter, but my agent persuaded me to include only one so that it didn’t confuse the children reading it. When you think of the letter B, you think of Beyoncé, but there wouldn’t be Beyoncé without Billie Holiday. I decided then that the women I featured in the book had to be the ones that either made the genre what it was, or those that completely changed the game.

HF: What was it like to investigate the lives of these women?

LK: It was a very emotional process. Racism is the vilest thing ever, and I have had my own personal experience with it, which even forced me to move from the United States to Paris, France in 2017. When I started writing the book, I thought I had made my peace with that experience but reading the stories of what these women went through – some of whom were living in a country that was heavily segregated – was very difficult. I didn’t want to just teach young students about who these musicians were, I also wanted to share their stories and some of the darker things they had to endure. For example, the copy for the letter ‘B’ says: ‘Billie Holiday is known for her soulful voice and her rendition of the song Strange Fruit, which directly addressed lynchings – a violent act of American racism. She is celebrated as having been one of the first artists to use popular music to speak out against injustice.’

HF: Are all the musicians well known, or are there some that would surprise music teachers too?

LK: I learnt so much in making the book that I am sure there is some new information in there for anyone. People might know Whitney Houston because they have heard her songs or have parents who listened to music in the 1990s, but they might not have heard about Odetta. She was a folk singer who started out in opera and became the voice of the civil rights movement. Another musician is Tina Bell, who led the way for grunge music in the 1980's with her band Bam Bam, but has sadly been completely written out of the genre's history. When it came to Bell, I got in touch with her son to ask for permission to include her story on behalf of so many Black women who have been eased out of music history, and he was extremely supportive.

HF: Why do you think books like yours are so important for young musicians?

LK: There are countless Black women who have made lasting impacts on music across the world, and we should celebrate them just as much as we celebrate the white men we have on so many curricula. There is an assumption that if you are a Black woman in music then you must be a gospel singer – I can’t tell you the number of times I have been approached in the world of classical music and people have assumed I must sing jazz really well. I don’t want my niece, or any other young Black female, to experience that and I think the way to change things is to demonstrate in the classroom or in the library. We need to reach all children to make sure change is made in the future. I want this book to be about empowerment, sharing history, and celebrating the fabulous women: their fashion, their hair and their voices. They all have strong political voices, and that should never be forgotten.