Politics

How Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms Channels Her Family's Musical Legacy as a Political Force

Mayor Bottoms
City of Atlanta / Mayor’s Office of Communications

Mayor Bottoms

The daughter of ’60s hit R&B singer Major Lance gained national attention during the recent Black Lives Matter protests and is speaking Thursday at the Democratic National Convention.

The first time most Americans ever saw Keisha Lance Bottoms was in late May, after peaceful demonstrations gave way to violence in Atlanta, where she is mayor. Invoking her four African-American children, she demanded that looters and rioters stop laying waste to her city -- in a way that honored and gave credibility to Black Lives Matter. "You are disgracing our city, you are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country," she declared that night. "We are better than this. We are better than this as a city. We are better than this as a country. Go home. Go home."

But the mayor, whom Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reportedly considered as a running mate, and who speaks Thursday night (Aug. 20) at the Democratic National Convention, doesn't remember saying any of that -- her speech was almost an out-of-body experience. "My mother tells me I have a lot of ways like my dad," she says, referring to the late R&B singer Major Lance, whose Billboard top 10 Hot 100 hits were 1963's "The Monkey Time" and 1964's "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um." "I have an ability to turn it on publicly, but I'd much rather be at home reading a book."

Bottoms spoke by phone from Atlanta about her father, who went to prison for cocaine possession when she was 8 years old, the DNC, Black Lives Matter and other topics.

What do you remember about your father's relationship with the music business when you were growing up? 

He very much believed in us being a part of what he did, so we would go to the studio with him. We would go to his shows. My earliest memories are of living in England. He moved there because the Northern Soul craze was big in Europe at that time, so he performed in Europe a lot. It was nothing, growing up, to come home from school [and] there would be bags at the door and we'd be off to someplace fun and exciting. He very much made that a part of our lives.

You mentioned the Northern Soul craze, of British fans collecting obscure American soul records and helping lesser-known singers extend their careers come back -- how interested are you in that phenomenon?

I was born in 1970, so [Major Lance] was really popular almost a decade before. This running joke with my dad, whenever I would meet somebody who knew him or heard of him, I would say, "Dad, I met somebody and they knew you." I remember him saying, one day, "I know you don't believe this, but I was a very popular man." I always knew that Elton John got his professional start playing piano in my dad's band. When Elton John was getting really famous, he used to thank my dad on the awards shows.

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Are there similarities about being successful in music and being successful in politics? 

It's probably in the performance of it all, being an elected official. The team working around me sees it more than I do, but they call it out. When I'm really tired and don't think I'm up to snuff, and I walk on the stage and am able to deliver, they always say that it must be my dad in me. I have no musical talent, I can't sing and I can't dance. I say I'm a freak of nature, [because] my dad had such a beautiful voice and was so rhythmic. When he got on stage, you would never know that he was so introverted.

For the record, your mother's name is Sylvia Robinson, and it's been reported that she's the Sylvia Robinson who founded New York hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records -- but that's not true, right?

No, that's not true. [Laughs.] That's absolutely not true. She's Sylvia Robinson from Atlanta. My dad came to Atlanta to perform at the Royal Peacock, which was a big part of the chitlin' circuit, and that's where he met my mom.

What does your mom do?

After she and my dad were married, she ended up opening up a hair salon, but while they were married she was a stay-at-home mom, for the most part. She taught school for a while. She's reinvented herself many times.

That first night of the Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta, you invited rappers Killer Mike and T.I. to the press conference. What led you to that decision?

I think it was because my 18-year-old was with me, and top of mind, when I was looking at the screen and I saw all of the young people out. Immediately, my point of reference is usually my kid. I know there are things that I can say a million times and if my 18-year-old doesn't want to hear it, he's not going to listen -- but if it comes from Killer Mike or T.I., he's more open to receiving it.

You said recently you didn't remember what you said that night. Can you recall how you were feeling during your own remarks?

In so many ways, it's a blur. We were in the joint operations center, so we couldn't be in this cave and act like it wasn't happening. We had to acknowledge it and say something. I asked my team to get some cameras there, and I walked out and I literally didn't know what I was going to say and it came out. Even when I was done, when I stepped back and I looked at Killer Mike and T.I., like, "Well, aren't y'all gonna say something?," I just remember the looks on their faces. I remember thinking, "This went really right or it went really wrong." When I got back that night and saw it on television, I went, "My goodness!" I couldn't remember I said all that, and I realized why Killer Mike and T.I. looked at me that way, like, "Well, what do you want us to say?" I really was in full momma mode at that point, I think.

What do you feel like the city of Atlanta has learned since the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations?

I love Audre Lorde and there's a quote from her, one of my favorites: "Silence will not protect you." When you live in Atlanta, especially as African-Americans, in so many ways, it's a cocoon, because we traditionally don't have many challenges on the scale that other cities have as it relates to African-Americans. This was this moment of reckoning, that our issues and challenges may not be as prevalent, but they're still there, and there's an equally important responsibility for us to acknowledge them and to confront them and to address them.

What did you think of the first night of the Democratic National Convention? And how would you respond to the president, who said Michelle Obama was "in over her head" and "extremely divisive"?

What else could that simple man muster up to say? Not much. Michelle, as far as I'm concerned, could have spoken, dropped the mic and we could've waited for Joe Biden's acceptance -- that's how impactful and moving and concise her speech was. It really wasn't a speech, it was a conversation.... At times, it was so somber, but 2020 has been somber. For anybody else, including myself, who will speak after her, it is going to be a tough act to follow. But I think we're all OK if we fall a bit short.

Do you prepare differently for a speech in a livestream format than you would at a big convention hall or stadium?

Yes, and I was very grateful I'm going on Thursday night and not Tuesday night. I obviously watch the convention for the content but also to determine how I should improve my delivery. When you give a speech, you're normally talking to a crowd and you can feed off of their energy and you can get visual cues -- are people with you, are you boring them to death? It goes back to what Michelle Obama said and how she said it. It wasn't this "let the church stand up and say Amen" kind of speech like we often see at conventions, but it was equally impactful.

Your dad died in 1994, when he was just 53. Anything else you'd like to say about him?

Yeah. My dad was a wonderful man. He was a human being with his share of flaws, but everybody I've ever talked to who worked with my dad speaks of his heart. When I had the pleasure of meeting Elton John last year, who was in Atlanta doing some work with his AIDS foundation, he sang one of my dad's songs to me: "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um." He told me the story of how he came to play behind my dad, and at the end of the tour, my dad took off his tie and gave it to him -- and he described the tie. I'm proud to be his daughter. He always told me, "What's the worst that can happen? Somebody can tell you 'no.'" That's the other part of that performer in him.