13 Questions for Singer/Songwriter Dr. E

Drawing from the soulful voices and styles of Betty Wright, Patti LaBelle, and Jamaican musicians, singer/songwriter Dr. E (a.k.a Dr. Elaine Richardson) melodically intertwines activism with art in her song lyrics. After starting her musical career as a child in her Baptist church, Dr. E recognized her love for music and her distinct voice. As a teenager, she was able to escape teen sex trafficking, and used music to recover from her trauma. Her latest album, Dr. E Presents: Songs of the Struggle, drops this May.

A percentage of her sales will go to Education Foundation for Freedom.

Where did you attend school and what was your major/focus?

I attended Cleveland State University. I earned an undergraduate degree in English (1991) and an MA in English and Composition Studies (1993). I earned my doctorate in English and Applied Linguistics from Michigan State University (1996). My research focus is African American language and literacy studies.

What is your musical process when it comes to writing, producing, and promoting work?

It isn’t the same all the time. But mostly, I hear something in my head, and I keep working it out with lyrics, melodies and mood. Then I sing it to a producer, and we work out what I hear and feel and create the musical landscape. I think of it like the producer is helping me paint a picture I want to see and feel. As far as promotion—I try to keep my immediate community of support informed on my projects and let them know that I need them! I strive to be supportive of other people because we all need support to succeed. I also try to constantly widen my circle of supporters. Like with Flawless Brown—I consider myself now a part of the Flawless family!

Have you ever brought your music into your classroom?

I did share my new single Mutha Werk with my Hiphop Literacies class this semester. They were very supportive and thought I was the coolest professah! LOL. Their love of my work was really encouraging.

Who did you grow up listening to the most? And would you say your Jamaican heritage/gospel upbringing has a heavy influence on your work?

I was in the Sunshine Band (little kids choir in the Baptist church), school choir, and a violinist in the orchestra up until high school. My dad was a trumpet player. In our apartment, he played the recordings of Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstein. My mom (Jamaican) played the Kingston Trio, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick and Mario Lanza. Jamaicans of my mom’s generation have a wide musical appreciation. In my Cleveland, Ohio 1960s neighborhood, people blasted their console stereos with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five. In high school, I sang with my best friends in a girl group. We were the “Shades of Love.” We did a lot of tight harmonies and dance steps. We did a lot of songs by the Emotions and the Pointer Sisters. I would definitely say all of this has shaped my musical aptitude.

On your website, Pattie LaBelle and Betty Wright are used to describe your unique sound, would you also say they have inspired your musical career?

I love both of those women endlessly. I would say that they have inspired me. Also, I would add artists such as Sharon Jones (of the Dap Kings who recently passed away), Macy Gray, Angie Stone, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou. They are distinct and they had to be strong in knowing who they were to be successful since none of them fit into a stereotype of what is seen as cookie cutter pop stars. They were their own selves and as far as Maya Angelou—she is really a kindred spirit and ancestor to me. She also was involved in sex trafficking in her earlier life, and she was not afraid to follow her dream and work for the beloved community. She danced, sang, acted, wrote, taught, organized, and loved people and left a powerful legacy for women like me to feel encouraged that we must use every talent and gift that we have to live a fulfilled life and leave our mark on the world.

Can you explain what your journey was like from being a teenaged sex worker to professor/musician? Specifically, how education and music helped to heal and motivate you?

I went from hiding in the academy, seeking to gain a new identity, to becoming more and more ok with who I am becoming, knowing that none of it was in vain. The education I was learning in the university caused me to interrogate my experiences and the experiences of people in my community. It was definitely a struggle of growing in knowledge of myself. I realized that many things that happened to me weren’t my fault. There are a lot of socially sanctioned ways of devaluing poor Black people and some that affect women and girls disproportionately. For example, when I was an undergraduate I read a book called Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America by Geneva Smitherman. That book woke me up to the miseducation of Black America and all Americans about language--how precious it is, no matter if it was borne of slavery and oppression or whatever the history of its coming into being. All human languages evolve out of human contact. Human language is informed by who we talk to, the conditions we are in etc. So, Geneva Smitherman’s book led me on a path to respecting my ancestors for the enormous thing that they did when they carried the West and Central African background with them and survived the middle passage, enslavement, and every other roadblock thrown at Black people and created their own versions of language. Within those language practices our history, resilience, culture, humor, spirits are encoded, and they are continually evolving into today’s manifestations of Black language. Black language matters, because Black lives matter. You cannot love Black people and hate Black language. When I hear a Black women speak, it soothes me and lets me know we share something special. Language is bigger than syntax, grammar, and sound and must be taken together in context of the fuller picture. So, learning from scholars like Geneva Smitherman has helped me to become who I am becoming. I am continuing to learn so many things about the struggle for Black lives and Black women and girls’ lives and the knowledge that we must learn to navigate this place called the world. People are reading our bodies and everything about us and we must know who we are, fight for our futures, and not be slaves to anyone’s evaluation of us.

What is your favorite track on your upcoming album?

Now I Know (What love’s about)

Which have been your favorites to perform?

Mutha Werk, The Whole 9, Deaky

What do you think is the biggest hindrance to the fight for justice and equality for people of color/women of color today?

I think we have all been duped into thinking that capitalism is the only way to go. It drives us to be selfish, individualistic, exploitative, and not care about the greater good for humanity. Capitalism is the best friend of racism and social hierarchy, attaching differential value to human beings and bodies. People are criminalized for being poor. Those who benefit from this system have done a good job of making us see each other as enemies and fighting against each other. This diverts our attention away from creating collective efforts to invest in community that cares for everyone. We need all righteous people on deck, working in organization, making their contribution with their gifts and energy.

What is the biggest attribute/benefit?

Knowing that there are people out here who have devoted their lives to saving lives, creating a better future, dismantling oppressive systems, bringing about the beloved community.

On your website you make the statement, "I don’t want to be a slave to norms or forget what I’ve been through. I think my music reflects that there is beauty and value even in the things we think we have to throw away." Can you expand on this or specifically what you think it means to be a slave to norms in modern society?

I am a good example of this. I am in my fifth decade of life. I am a professor and an artist still striving to use all of my gifts and not allow others’ definitions of who I am or what they think I should be doing control me and what God gave me to do.

Also, what type of things do you believe that we sometimes think we need to throw away?

Our dreams. Our gifts. We give up on those things that God gave us to bring joy and salvation to earth because someone told us we weren't good enough.

Where do you see your career as an activist and artist going next?

Becoming more and more established and being able to work at a greater scale. Building more spaces and infrastructure for Black women and girls to work together and support each other.