Leslie Kwan is a highly accomplished virtuoso, harpsichordist and multi-instrumentalist—and a highly accomplished, high-achieving arts executive. Now, she’s about to get a new title: acclaimed children’s book author. Kwan was looking for a book about the kind of female artists of color who inspired her, a Guyanese-American, to make it big in the world of classical music. But that book didn’t exist. So now, she’s written it.

“A is for Aretha” is out now and features 26 trailblazing Black women who changed music. Kwan joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath in-studio to discuss her new book. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: You’ve mentioned that the moment of inspiration for writing this book came from the words of Toni Morrison.

Leslie Kwan: Oh, yes. That came up literally on the heels of when she passed away in August of 2019. There’s a quote of hers that says, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it doesn’t exist, then you must write it.”

So I took that really to heart, you know? How am I going to write something so powerful for children to understand and appreciate, and maybe their parents or the adults in their family, but really to be a beacon of light for young girls to see that they can make their way in music regardless of what they felt about it.

Rath: Well, we have it now for real. It’s a beautiful book with these 26 portraits. I want to mention the name of the artist, Rachelle Baker.

Kwan: Yes, that’s correct. She’s brilliant.

Rath: Let’s talk about the criteria here for the women you included, because it’s more than just being a great musician.

Kwan: It definitely is. You know, in essence, I basically came to the realization that it needed to be about women who had a legacy of music and activism, who had either passed on or were currently performing and working now. So that was pretty much how I got to the place where the 26 women that are in the book here. That’s how I made that decision.

Rath: I’m going to start talking about some of these women, because they’re awesome. There are some amazing women performers that I had never, ever heard of. I feel, like, embarrassed. Well, it’s sort of the book, right? The point is that we should know who these women are. So let me start with the top of my list—that’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

[Sister Rosetta Tharpe in her song, Rock Me: “Now, what you hear me singin’? / Hear the words that I’m saying. / Wash my soul with water from on high / Why the world loves, love is around me / Even forced to buy me / But oh, if you leave me / I will die.”]

Rath: I’m not sure what to call this—I mean, it’s clearly gospel, but there’s some blues, and it even feels a little bit like early rock and roll. Tell us about this woman. She’s singing and playing guitar.

Kwan: Absolutely. What I love about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in some ways, is kind of tied to my experience at going to church with my grandmother. For me, she kind of feels like a really good grandmother who has a big heart and we break out into song at any given point. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, though, when she was up against all of the racist tropes — first of all, the guitar itself is an instrument. A lot of women, particularly Black women, didn’t have access to playing that, much less an electric guitar. So to have access to an electric guitar and use that as a form of worship in church, I thought that was incredibly powerful.

From a fashion perspective, I love the fact that she was in her best, you know, Sunday best and pearls. The hair was done, the hat, the heels.

Rath: We see this in the portrait.

Kwan: Yeah. And then she’s just rocking away on this amazing Gibson guitar, and I just thought like—well, maybe not a Gibson—but she way, you know, playing this incredible little guitar and singing so authentically. That’s what really resonated for me about her, and I just thought, “Why didn’t I learn about her in school? Why did it take for me to be an adult—a professional halfway through my career—to figure out who’s this Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Why am I only learning about her now?”

Now, of course, people in the rock industry or people who are playing rock music now might know about her, just because historically, but it’s still not—her presence isn’t given the kind of respect that it should be given. So I felt it was really important for children, because how many kids—you know air guitar—how many kids is that the first thing they start to do, you know?

So I thought this would be a fun, funny example but also a powerful example of what women could do back then. But, you know, they were hidden, so how do you bring them to light? That’s what I wanted to do.

Rath: And her music’s just incredible. Original. Speaking of music pioneers and a bit of rock and roll, another amazing woman who clearly does not get the credit she’s due. Tell us about Tina Belle.

Kwan: Oh, man. Tina Belle was out in Seattle, a predominantly white city, as a woman in music, trying to make her way on the scene. She played with a predominantly white band, and one of the members was her husband, Mr. Martin. And I just thought, I know what that feels like, to be the only Black woman in a room, in a space, in a sector that’s trying to make her career go forward.

Tina’s situation was a bit more extreme; I mean, she had neo-Nazis showing up at her gigs.

Rath: In the northwest, in the eighties. Wow.

Kwan: The reason why I decided to go with her story was the detail about the fact that music managers did not want to promote the group because she was a Black woman fronting for a white band.

Rath: And a white rock and roll band.

Kwan: And a white rock and roll band.

Rath: And kick-ass—uncompromising.

Kwan: Uncompromising. But basically, the sound that we now associate with grunge started essentially with her group, except they didn’t call it that. But if you think of all the big names in grunge now—Kurt Cobain, all those guys—that’s her. They came to see her.