For much of her musical career and indeed her life, Lalah Hathaway's legendary last name likely mattered most to the people who encountered her. There was a novelty to Hathaway's debut recording in 1990—the daughter of a legendary soul singer makes good—though 18 years and four recordings later—Hathaway is a fully-grown woman who can stand on her own musically. Self Portrait, marks Hathaway first recording since Outrun the Sky (2004) and also her first recording from the newly-revamped Stax recording label.
Given Stax's singular position as a great—if not the greatest—soul label, it is only fitting that the daughter of the late Donny Hathaway, whose music trafficked in a range of musical genres including gospel and blues, would find a recording home there. "It's really cool," Hathaway says of her relationship with the new Stax, "I'm excited just being mentioned in the same breath of such an iconic legendary label that is just synonymous with the concept of soul music all over the world."
On the new record, Hathaway pairs with producer Rex Rideout on most of the tracks. Rideout also produced Hathaway's earlier version of Luther Vandross' "Forever, For Always, For Love" which appeared on Outrun the Sky and the Forever, For Always, For Luther smooth jazz tribute to the late Vandross. Hathaway is quite happy with the work she did with Rideout noting that, "Right now for me, he's the cat." According to the singer, Rideout was able to "get things out of me that I did not know were there yet. And it's not by forcing or prodding—there was an ease working with him that I hadn't felt with a producer before."
Additionally as the recording's title suggest, Self Portrait, is the first recording that Hathaway has done in which she could control every aspect of the process. In that sense, the recording offers more of a glimpse into the woman, who as a little girl had access to one of the true geniuses of black music. "Absolutely," she responds when asked about the personal touch of Self Portrait, "more than any other record, just because of my involvement and that is at every level like choosing the producers and the musicians and the rooms that we mix in and the arrangements and writing and producing…and that's not to claim it and have it, but it's really a way to get it like I want it."
Such level of control is critical, particularly for black women performers, who in recent years have so often had to sex up in order to get spins at urban radio or on cable networks. In an earlier interview, Hathaway complained about "trying to make a record where I'm not like necessarily out there shaking my ass on TV, and I'm not trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator…it is hard trying to find a place for that." As such Hathaway has strong words for the state of contemporary media, particularly radio: "Every major city you go into, where Negroes live, really you have got two choices if you want to hear black music: You can listen to the Power station, which is hip-hop or you can listen to the oldies and dusties. And [oldies and dusties] are cool 'cause sometimes they play records, but a lot of times you would get the impression that there's no new black music being created."
When Hathaway isn't touring in support of her own music or with the Daughters of Soul tour, which brings together the real and artistic daughters of soul legends including Indira Khan (daughter of Chaka), Simone (daughter of Nina), Nona Hendrix, Sandra St. Victor (of The Family Stand) and Joyce Kennedy (of Mother's Finest), she finds time for what she calls her "grown-up job." Currently, Hathaway is a national ambassador for Circle of Promise which charges her with talking with women, particularly black women, about breast cancer. For Hathaway, the work with Circle of Promise is important because it helps create a dialogue that so many women are afraid to have.
One thing that has changed since Hathaway began her career is the power that the Internet has given some performers. According to Hathaway "it's a great time for independent artists, to be able to reach out to 30,000 people real quick. It's a strange place particularly for soul music in America and culture in America, period. I think we're at the tail-end of an era."
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor at Duke University.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.