Awards

'Black Like Me' Singer Mickey Guyton Wants to 'Open Doors' for Black and Brown Girls in Country

Mickey Guyton
Helen Green

Mickey Guyton

Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me” took off amid last year’s reckoning with systemic racism. But its success is bittersweet.

If country music is three chords and the truth, it wasn’t quite ready for Mickey Guyton’s. After writing “Black Like Me” at a writers’ retreat in 2019, the Capitol Nashville artist says she felt like the stirring ballad fell on deaf ears. But when she released the song amid 2020’s protests against racial injustice, it found plenty of champions — and later scored a nod for best country solo performance, marking the first nomination for a Black female solo artist in the category. Guyton, 37, recalls the song’s unlikely journey in her own words.

The Origin

Singing on a major tour, singing in front of Confederate flags, being called the N-word after a show by country music fans — that absolutely inspired “Black Like Me.” [That last incident] was in front of a bunch of people, and nobody stood up for me in that moment. That really, really hurt.

I had the song for a long time. And not only did I send it to people at my label, I sent it to friends that are freelance writers. I got the same reaction: “Wow, this is so powerful. I need a minute to sit with it.” Like, OK. I never thought the song would see the light of day.

The Moment of Clarity

I was trying to release all of this music that I had been writing. At the Universal Music Group Grammy afterparty [in 2020], I went over to a streaming executive to talk about “Black Like Me,” and I’ll never forget it. My manager’s white, this executive was white, and I went into artist mode and batted my eyelashes and tried to look like a star in the moment [to advocate] for a song that meant so much to me on a personal level. I felt completely ashamed that I went into that mode to try to get an opportunity because just being myself wouldn’t be enough. I was like, “I’m not going to do this anymore.”

The Release

I was just really coping with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. And then seeing that awful, awful murder [of George Floyd]. So many people in my country music community weren’t even talking about this awful moment in our history.

I just put this song on my socials. I didn’t have a plan for it, didn’t ask my label for permission. This isn’t one of those moments to think strategically about how to release a song that is so important, that is so serious, that represents so many people. You can’t make a profitable decision off something like that. And then Spotify hit up my label and my management and wanted to feature it on Blackout Tuesday. Everything started blowing up from there.

The Response

Honestly, when I wrote the song, I felt it was Grammy-worthy. The reaction is when I thought that it could win a Grammy. I tried not to get my hopes up too much because this is a country category — the song did make a lot of people mad. But it also made a lot of people reach out and have a greater understanding of what I’ve gone through.

[When I got nominated], I just crumbled. It was unbelievable and surreal. And I felt like God had something to do with that. Because there’s no way — like, nobody believed in me. Nobody saw me. I hate to say this, but I felt like sometimes I was a reason for people not to feel racist: They had the Black girl country singer, you know? But that was the first time they saw me.

The Mission

It’s not like country radio is jumping at the chance to support women. A white friend of mine signed to a major label was told by a radio promo person that country radio will not play Black people. So I realized I’m not going to get on any kind of country station. And I’m certainly not going to do that by falling in line and shutting up and singing. I’ve made peace with that. I may not ever have some massive career, but I’m going to use the influence I have to open those doors for the future generation. And for young Black and Brown girls who have dreams that people will never consider, I’ll consider them. I’ll see them. And I will use the connections that I have to help them.

This article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.