By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
As a high school student, Dawn Weber was told by her white choir teacher not to “corrupt the integrity of great American music,” or her classical compositions, with Motown “soul crap.”
The ninth-grader, who had been taking vocal lessons since the tender age of 2, signed up for the school talent show. She sang an operatic version of Dionne Warwick’s hit “Walk on By” and the audience laughed. They weren’t ready.
The world would have to get ready because the singer wasn’t going anywhere – but to the top. She went on to become Dawn Silva, funk queen. The Sacramento native, who performed on global stages with some of the genre’s brightest stars, has written a new book chronicling her life and career.
“The Funk Queen” book is quite substantial and, at 524 pages, it’s the queen of coffee table books. Much like its author, it commands one’s attention. It easily could have been broken into several books, and perhaps should have been, but that Silva gives it to you all at once feels special. It seems fitting that her larger-than-life career and experiences get large treatment.
Silva had a front seat to music history – the good, bad and ugly – and with her book, brings readers into those experiences. Silva writes about growing up in Sacramento, racism that the civil rights movement didn’t exempt Blacks from, performing with George Clinton and the Brides of Funkenstein, living with friend Sly Stone, and being in an abusive relationship with Charlie Wilson of the Gap Band.
The book is also bolstered by some 300 stunning photos that offer a priceless look into a golden age for Black music. Veteran concert photographer Steve LaBelle gifted her many of the photos upon his death, knowing she’d know what to do with the treasure he’d entrusted her with. Sly Stone. Bootsy Collins. Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Maceo Parker. Chaka Khan. Lynn Mabry. Jeanette Washington. They’re all there.
The OBSERVER sat down with Silva recently to discuss the book, her storied career and her efforts to save the music that made her a star. She also spoke about releasing new music, a single titled, “As Long as It’s on the One,” on Nov. 3 in Africa, India, Europe and Asia. Her first solo CD, “All My Funky Friends,” was released 23 years ago.
“It was at a time when they were basically saying funk music was no longer a viable entity, that it was a dead market. I knew that that wasn’t true,” she said. “I became an independent record company, my own label, when they told me that funk was dead and I knew that I had an underground following of about 2 million funk fans worldwide. I sold a quarter of a million copies right out of my kitchen. Then they started calling me ‘the funk queen,’ telling me that I was brave and courageous because I was putting out music that had long since been eliminated or they were trying to repackage.”
Silva likes female artists such as Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, and H.E.R. and is hesitant to criticize the young ladies dominating much of today’s music, many of whom started as strippers and are often accused of degrading themselves and women as a whole with sexually explicit lyrics and behavior.
“I’m happy that they’re still out there and they’re still working to [make music], but personally, I just think that the heart of the music is missing in a lot of those songs,” Silva said. “There’s no message in terms of what’s going on in the world. There’s no serious feminine leadership in terms of guiding these women in the right direction.”
The funk singer says she wrote the book to keep funk alive and as a way to pass the torch to new generations of entertainers.
“This book, they’re calling it the ‘funk bible,’ so I guess it’s something they can read and actually prepare themselves for the next journeys that are coming up,” Silva said.
Just like Silva learned the ins and outs of the music business, she is learning the business of books, having landed a world publishing and distribution deal.
The author wants readers to walk away feeling like they’ve been elevated as well.
“I want them to understand that if they decide they want to go into the music industry that they need to learn about the highest of the highs and the lows of the lows,” Silva said.
“I want them to be better prepared than I was when I went into the music industry. Because I went in there blind. I had no idea what the trials and the tribulations and the struggles of this industry were and I didn’t know anything about contracts. I didn’t know my worth.
“I didn’t know that if someone told you to go into the recording studio and sing whatever you feel like singing – they can give you a track, it’s their music track. If you go in there and you write the lyrics and the melodies then you’re entitled to 50% of that song. I had no idea about that. I was just happy to be doing a recording session and singing with some of the greatest groups in the business. I didn’t have any idea until later on down the line that I should have gotten riders on those songs and especially on songs they were selling millions and millions of copies, and you have people out in the audience singing the lyrics that you wrote, but you weren’t credited.”
Black women, she said, especially, need to understand that it’s even harder for them in the industry.
“It is still a boys club. It always will be, so [women] have to be prepared,” Silva said. “They have to know their worth. That’s what I want people to get from this book. I want them to understand that this true story is no longer funk’s best kept secret. It is a story of survival and persistence.”
“The Funk Queen” has been available locally at Underground Books since April “and it’s one of the top best sellers over there, I’m proud to say,” Silva said.
It’s also available at Marcus Books in Oakland, Malik’s Books in Los Angeles and in libraries throughout the state. Being on the shelves at university libraries also has created opportunities to lecture on those campuses. Silva has lined up speaking engagements at UC Irvine in March. This month she traveled to Loyola University in New Orleans. The Big Easy has a deep, rich Black music history and Silva also participated in the One Book One New Orleans festival while there. For more, visit dawnsliva.com.