Written By: Jordannah Elizabeth
I really believe that if Harriet Tubman could come through those tunnels again, she’d beat the shit out of them. Debbi Blackwell-Cook on Beyonce, Rihanna and female R&B Pop stars of today
When you listen to actress and singer/songwriter, Debbi Blackwell-Cook sing, you hear an ease in her voice that denotes a natural confidence and an effortlessness. Blackwell- Cook has sang backup for major artists like Michael Buble and the late, great dancer and entertainer, Gregory Hines.
At the beautiful and wise age of 61 years old, she is experiencing another career peak with a musical collaboration with Phil Collen (guitarist of the larger than life 80s British rock band, Def Leppard) called DELTA DEEP. The band also features a former member of Stone Temple Pilots and India Arie.
As extraordinary as Debbi Blackwell-Cook’s life seems to be on the surface, she wades through life holding the burden of a great loss in her life. She lost her son due to a violent robbery in 2013. This tragedy was a catalyst that brought DELTA DEEP together as songwriters, as Collen, his wife, Helen Simmons and Cook worked to write songs to commemorate the memory of her son and to bring hope to people who survive intensely painful experiences like hers.
I talked to Debbi about her early years, what she thinks about Beyonce, Rihanna and pop stars of today, the Baltimore riots and how music can be used to inspire others.
Let’s begin with learning a bit about your earliest years in music. When did you achieve your first taste of success as a songwriter?
When I was 13, I was in a choir and we entered a contest to compete against several different choirs in Patterson, New Jersey. Two of the songs we performed were songs I had written, and we won the contest! So, we were afforded to record those two song I wrote. That was my first accomplishment, but that didn’t strike me as anything special except that I had the opportunity to write, which was something I loved to do.
My grade school teacher told my mother that she should direct me towards the theater, music or journalism because I wrote poetry and songs and performed them in my school plays, but again, I never looked at what others thought was talent as anything special because it came naturally.
What was your first professional opportunity in the music industry?
I snuck out of the church (laughs), and I entered another contest and I came in second place. A producer named Wayne Bradley asked me if I wanted to sing demos. I worked with writers like Keith Diamond who wrote for Billy Ocean and Chaka Khan and started recording demos professionally. I began to get ads and recorded with Luther (Vandrose) and we would sing together because we were both backup singers and frequented in the same circles. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I ended up singing lead for a group called The Jammers in the early 80s.
You also performed on Broadway?
Yes, I’ve done on Broadway, off Broadway, I’ve performed at the Kennedy Center and travelled all over the world. I did the gospel circuit for 12 years traveling with a group to Germany every year. I got into theater because my kids were in a theater company and to be closer to them, I joined the adult company. I travelled and had a good time.
Have you noticed a change in Black female artists? You’ve been making music for several decades, what’s your take on today’s R&B pop star’s personas and music?
Definitely. I want to be politically correct, but I also want to keep it real – although they are beautiful, I’m a mother and I’m also a Black woman, and I look at artists like Dianne Carol (Black actress whose acting and singing career has spanned six decades), then I look at people like Rihanna, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj and I just don’t think they have to “take it there”. I really believe that if Harriet Tubman could come through those tunnels again, she’d beat the shit out of them. I don’t think you have to take off all your clothes and crawl on the floor and say words like “bitch” and “hoe” and show your female parts to sell a record. We have ridden on the backs of too many people who sang from soul and told their stories to bring people up.
My granddaughter is eight years old and she loves Beyonce. We couldn’t let her listen to Beyonce’s new album or music videos (because they weren’t appropriate for kids) and she was angry with us. Little girls look up to her and she has a daughter of her own now but she’s got to “sit her ass on it” (paraphrasing lyrics from Beynonce’s song “Rocket”). She’s got to remember she’s got little girls who want to be just like her. I hear a lot of people say, “We’re artists, we don’t have to live our lives for other people.” I understand that, but I wish there was something we could let (my granddaughter) look at.
When asking about the lyrics you write in DELTA DEEP, I want to be sensitive because I understand you went through a personal tragedy that affected the lyrical content of your band’s music. What brought your band together?
Any of the songs that are not covers, Phil, Helen and I wrote. In 2013, my son was murdered. He had done sound for Michelle Obama and Tyler Perry and for whatever reason he was robbed and shot in the head twice on while he was on his way to work. It was a devastating time and ironically, when it happened, Def Leppard was at the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas. When I found out about my son, I ran into Helen and Phil’s room and just fell into Phil’s arms. It is ironic how the power of God would have the thing that was closest to me (Phil Collen) embrace me at the hardest moment. He caught me when I fell to my lowest spot on the planet. Then he helped me rise back up through the music, which was healing for me because I spoke to God and my son through every lyric. The song “Whiskey” was in Phil’s head for years, so I’m told. “I found me a place where the whiskey drinks the blues.” Who could have known that that song would be a tribute honoring my son? Who could realize there was a song inside of Phil, the person who caught me at my lowest point had already had a place inside of him for me to heal with that song? “Whiskey” is about his death and Black and Black crime. When Phil plays the guitar at the end of the song, it’s like he’s screaming and crying and it takes me back to when we first got the news. Every song is a part of our lives, whether it’s a fun song or otherwise.
How did DELTA DEEP become an official touring band?
Well, Phil would be playing guitar and I would hum along, and he’d stop me and say, “Wait, do that again” and “hey, let’s try this song”. (Before we officially formed) We went out to perform at a benefit, and people asked us, “Do you guys have an album?” People would ask us that after every show we played, so we said to each other, “Maybe we should work on something.” That’s how it started. Every song comes from the heart and soul and is sang from the heart and soul.
I read that your son was killed in Baltimore City. How did the Baltimore riots affect you?
It hurt and it made me wonder (what really happened) because we still don’t really know
why who killed (my son). It made me wonder if he was a victim of the same circumstance (as Freddie Gray) and if it was covered up. Whenever I hear of a murder, regardless of the person’s color, my spirit cries for the mother because I know what it feels like, so when Baltimore happened, it brought me back, and my heart cried for all the unspoken victim’s names.
(Freddie Gray) wasn’t a criminal and they know his name, but my son was not a criminal either and no one knows his name. My son was jogging, is it a crime to run? He was going to work, is it a crime to go to work? It hurts. I can’t explain it other than it cuts down to the white meat. It’s painful.
Your son and Freddie Gray are men, but do you believe systemic issue of violent crime toward Black Americans can be accredited to both genders?
It used to be Black men, but now I see young Black girls getting targeted. My questions is who’s going to be held accountable? These pop stars are talking about their private parts and are crawling on the floor to keep up with others and appease people…
Yeah, there’s this anger coming from pop stars, particularly Rihanna who tends to show her frustration through her art. It comes out in her latest song and music video, Bitch Better Have My Money.
People get fed up and they want their voices heard but is she saying anything to heal? Is she saying anything to move the situation forward or past that (painful) part? My son was the glue that kept a lot of people together and to give me strength, I want to help somebody else. How do I do that? Through the music.