“This is the oldest trick in the white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, everything phobic playbook — to divide and conquer,” said Allison Russell at Oct. 5’s “Once & Future Sounds: Black Women’s Voices in Music” panel.
The panel, hosted by BMI Nashville executive director/creative and Nashville Music Equality president Shannon Sanders and MNRK Music senior vice president/general manager and Nashville Music Equality vice president Gina Miller, also featured recording artists Rissi Palmer, Amythyst Kiah, and Yola. The singer-songwriters shared their journeys of overcoming obstacles as Black female artists in a predominantly white Nashville music industry, and using their stories, talents and platforms to affect change within the music industry.
The panel’s name was inspired by Russell’s curation of the Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution set at the Newport Folk Festival earlier this year, a set that celebrated the rich array of musical talents from several Black female artists — including Yola, Kiah, Joy Oladokun, Adia Victoria, and surprise guest Chaka Khan.
Russell also spoke against falling into “the false belief of this scarcity, that there’s only a certain number of Black women that anyone wants to hear from…it’s nonsense. We are completely different artists. You can’t just have one of us, because everything is impoverished. We have Neil Young, that’s wonderful. Does that mean we don’t need Bob Dylan? No, we need him, too, and we need Tracy Chapman and we need Joan Armatrading, and we need Rissi and we need Amythyst and we need Yola and we need me. There’s not a limited amount of interest or time or audience for any Black woman. That’s a manufactured scarcity, and that’s a manufactured competition.”
The Russell-curated Newport Folk Festival set celebrated not only musical talent, but the strong community among artists of color — something fellow artist and panelist Rissi Palmer also achieves through her Color Me Country radio show, which launched last year on Apple Music Country. She has welcomed artists including Brittney Spencer, Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton and Violet Bell, all sharing their experiences as artists of color working within a predominantly white Nashville music industry. “Yola has said before, ‘We are not a monolith,’” Palmer quoted her co-panelist. “There is no one way to be Black. That’s one of the great things about the show and that’s what the platform is.”
Palmer released her self-titled debut country album in 2007, including songs such as “Country Girl.” In 2008, the album was re-released with the single “No Air,” and Palmer’s music has since evolved into what she calls “Southern Soul,” through the releases of 2013’s Best Day Ever and 2019’s Revival.
“I had no idea what it was going to be,” she said of Color Me Country. “I didn’t realize — at least for me — how validating it was going to be, as far as hearing other stories. Hearing Allison, hearing Yola, hearing Amythyst and hearing Mickey [Guyton], and realizing my situation was not just me. I wasn’t the only Black girl that was listening to Nirvana. I was not the only Black girl wanting to write songs for Reba McEntire. And it also wasn’t just me that was having people hit them with microaggressions on a regular basis. That’s a lot of people’s experiences in this business, especially when you are in a genre where most of the people don’t look like you.”
For Yola — who has released three powerful albums including this year’s Stand For Myself, and earned four Grammy nominations — finding her voice ultimately came through a battle with vocal nodules in 2007, and finding the courage to both showcase and take ownership of her full range of creative capabilities.
“So much of my life… was just serving people, even in my apparent leadership — or my apparent fronting, shall I say –and this false, strong Black woman paradigm,” Yola said. “All I was doing was giving power to my own domination, by not allowing my vulnerability to come to the fore. I found my voice in the love of people, being seen for the first time. In that being seen, I was able to actually start doing things that I was terrified to do, like playing guitar, like coming up with ideas on my own instead of just being a topline writer. I didn’t feel like my thing was so co-dependent anymore.”
‘Songs of Our Native Daughters’ Proves a Pivotal Moment
After spending years as part of the group Birds of Chicago, Russell formed the collective Our Native Daughters alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Kiah and Leyla McCalla, and released Songs of Our Native Daughters in 2019. The album’s songs addressed racism, slavery, sexism, as well as the role and history of the banjo in American music. That album proved to be a turning point for both Russell and Kiah — this year, Russell issued her debut solo album Outside Child, while Kiah released her Rounder Records debut Wary+Strange.
“That project, and being able to work with Allison and Rhiannon and Leyla, gave me the courage to finally speak on things that I have thought about, that I’ve spoken about with other people, but that I’ve never put in my songs. I had never put it on social media,” Kiah said. “For years I was playing for a mostly white, conservative audience, because that was a huge chunk of the old-time music community at that time. It’s definitely changed over the years, but I had the ‘shut up and sing’ policy for a really long time.”
“It makes me so proud to be a small part of your journey with Our Native Daughters,” Russell told Kiah. “It was pivotal for me, too. I found my voice through community.”
Russell shared of the Songs of Our Native Daughters project, “I went into that project having been through an almost three-year writer’s block that began after I became a mother for the first time, when I gave birth to my daughter Ida. I just fell silent. I think I really understood on a deep level how urgent it all is, and that what I chose to say had to mean something — and that she would hear it, and future generations would potentially hear it. The intensity of understanding that I was stepping into the stream of ancestors, and I want to be a good one… I got overwhelmed by it all and I stopped writing. I really thought that maybe my time as a writer was done.”
That changed, she said, when she (along with Kiah) got the call to do the songs for the Songs of Our Native Daughters project. “I wrote or co-wrote seven songs on that record and I wasn’t able to stop,” she recalled. “There was just this sort of dammed up impetus of so many things I needed to say.”
The Next Chapter
Russell noted that her curation of the Newport Folk Festival set earlier this year was inspired by folk heroine Odetta, who played in the earliest days of the Newport Folk Festival — at one moment during the panel, she paused to point to a photo of Odetta on the wall behind her. This year’s set proved that as the Americana genre as a whole continues taking steps toward greater inclusivity, a new generation of Black female artists stand ready to continue Odetta’s legacy. Russell says she hopes to have Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution presented in different cities, with different curators and collaborators in each city. She hopes to stage it next year at Nashville, Tenn.’s Ryman Auditorium and make it into a film.
“I would love to film it and make a The Last Waltz-style film,” Russell says. “So whoever is listening, let’s talk. Let’s work on this together. I think about how our industry is intertwined with film and TV and about mindfully choosing who we’re working with. I want to make sure we’re not falling into the danger of a single narrative centered around white men — frankly, which is where we’ve been for too long. It’s going to take intentional redressing and reparation of that bias to even out the playing field and to encourage other people to see what is possible for them.”
Palmer is working on a new album, which she hopes to release in spring of 2022. She is also expanding Color Me Country. “I can’t make the big announcement yet, but there will be Color Me Country next year in Europe,” she said, adding that she hopes to add a tour component to the growing Color Me Country brand.
Over the past year, Kiah has been working on a followup to Wary+Strange, and looks forward to finally being in a place where she can devote her full energy to music. “Going into October, November, and December, I’ll take the time to just work on music,” she explained. “I’m finally going to be leaving my part-time job at Target that I’ve had for 15 years.”
On Challenging Institutions, Increasing Equity and Table-Building
As the panel drew to a close, the group discussed how the music industry can be more intentional about inclusivity and equity. Yola stated that when opportunities have come her way, she has pushed back in order to help open doors for other artists of color. “I said ‘no’ a lot,” she said. “People would be like, ‘Hey do you want to do this?’ and I would say, ‘Go ask three other Black people and then go…’ I throw down like that all day. That sends reverberations around.”
“Pushing back against tokenism — and I know Brandi Carlile is doing the same thing in representation of women, representation of Black folks, BIPOC folks, LGBTQIA+. A lot of us are at a lot of those intersections,” Russell added. She commended organizations including the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Americana Music Association for their steps toward greater inclusion and equality — but also encouraged all institutions to look at their hiring practices. “Is there someone in a position of power that is allocating funds, who is Black, who is a woman, who is LGBTQIA+, anyone standing in an intersection,” she asked, “or is everybody in an executive position white and male?”
Russell also noted the importance of equal pay for all performers. She noted that for the Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution set she curated for the Newport Folk Festival this summer, she initiated fundraising to make certain that every woman who took the stage for the set was paid for their time.
“I did not want to ask Black women, and Black and queer women, to come and play for free. That’s the last thing I wanted to do,” Russell said. “We were able to form coalitions around that set, and it wasn’t just the Newport Folk Festival’s foundation, it was also Brandi’s Looking Out Foundation, and it was Nathaniel Rateliff’s The Marigold Project. Brandi herself contributed money to make sure every single woman on that stage could get paid for being there.”
Russell noted, “We leave out equity too often in these conversations, and really, when we are talking about the disparity in say Black women’s experiences in music compared to white men’s experiences in music, so much of it comes down to a deeply entrenched economic disparity and that’s a much bigger conversation about the false construct of race and the ongoing harm that racially-based bigotry has done and continues to do in this country and abroad. We know that women and Black women get consistently paid less for the same work and that has to stop. We need transparency about finances, and for Black women to be paid equally.”
“The other piece to that is table-building,” Palmer added. “Creating your own situation where it doesn’t exist. I’m always inspired by the work of Frankie Staton and Cleve Francis and those in the ‘90s that came along with the Black Country Music Association. I’ll be real with you, everything that I do on my show, with the fund and all these other things, is building on the work that they already did. There was no Black country community until Frankie and Cleve, and quite frankly, there hasn’t been since, until most recently. While a lot of us are in the system, or working in the system, you don’t necessarily have to be of the system. There is power in creating another system.
“There’s a lot of good stuff happening [now],” she continued, referencing the work currently being made towards greater inclusivity and representation by CMT, the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. “But we have to remember that outside of this moment, there wasn’t this. When you don’t see yourself reflected, then you create it. I think that’s the move. When we create our own platforms, then what does everybody do? When you start the cool party, the word gets out, so then everybody starts coming to your house, because they see it’s poppin’ over there. They’re making money, they’re doing something that people care about. That, to me, is how you change the game, because then the game comes to you.”
Palmer concluded: “Also, pay Black women.”