Nearly a month after Lady A the band sued Lady A the blues singer over the right to share the name, the two parties are no closer to a solution. And to hear the Seattle-based solo artist Anita White, 62, who has been using that stage handle for more than two decades tell it, they won’t be until she’s the last Lady A left standing or she is compensated to rebrand.
“We thought about it in the beginning when we first started talking about it,” White tells Billboard about the attempt to come to an agreement about sharing the name. “That’s a way to bring people together, to bring the artists together, to bring country music and blues and soul [together] and I would have done it, but they still were not willing to give up anything.”
Lady A says she had gotten on the phone several times with the country trio and their legal representatives, who she says offered to help her rebrand, with band member Charles Kelley suggesting they all record a song together and both sides discussing documenting that process before negotiations fell apart. So far, she says she doesn’t see what the group is giving up in the bargain. [Editor’s note: the rebranding idea was floated by Lady A’s longtime producer, John Oliver III, not Lady Antebellum’s team, as suggested above.]
“I’m not going to do this song and dance for you to make you woke, then when the smoke clears I still have nothing,” White says. “Because that is what happens to us and that wasn’t going to happen. Everybody needs to be forgiven, they need to change their name. Everybody makes mistakes, I am not perfect. If they can do that? Sure, I would love… I don’t hold any animosity towards them, I am just going to hold their feet to the fire of their statement.”
When Lady Antebellum dropped the second half of their name June 11 to remove a sullied Civil War association in response to the national racial reckoning in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, they bumped up against the artist who had long been using that name — though, as she tells Billboard, had admittedly never trademarked it for commercial purposes. Lady Antebellum, however, had used Lady A as a nickname going back to their early career, applying for a trademark on the foreshortened name back in 2010; it was granted in 2011.
Lady A objected to the name change on June 12 after Lady A the band went public about the moniker update, charging that the trio was trying to “erase” her by taking on the same stage handle; a pending lawsuit in Nashville filed by the band July 8 seeks to have a court affirm its right to continue to use the name based on the Lady A trademark it has held for almost a decade. That isn’t an option, according to the singer Lady A, who says she’d never heard the band’s music before the legal skirmish. White, who says she’s about to retire from her job in the social justice space after nearly a quarter century while also mentoring Seattle youth, teaching gospel music to intellectually disabled people and working on racial and social justice through The Truth is Loud, explained to Billboard why she’s still not ready to make nice. (A spokesperson for the band Lady A had no comment for this story.)
On why she never applied for a trademark on her name
“They trademarked Lady A on June 9th, they made the announcement on June 11th. I have six CDs dating back to 2006 as Lady A. They knew I was there, they did not bother… people have said, ‘well you never made a big deal about it before.’ They go by Lady Antebellum! If Lady A is the nickname… it’s a nickname! They didn’t put out any CDs as Lady A. So why would I say anything?” [Editor’s note: according to the band’s suit and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the band formally applied to register Lady A with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in May 2010, which was granted, without dissent, a year later; the June 9 filing was an addendum to cover additional trademark usage for an online store.]
On why she did not contest the band’s trademark application previously
“Why would I? That’s their nickname! Not the name they put out CDs as! Why would I be concerned about them… Shame on me for not filing a trademark. I don’t have big business behind me. I don’t have big money behind me. I started out like any other artists starts out: I started singing in three-four bands, I was doing karaoke, when I started Lady A and the Baby Blues Funk Band we were just a party band doing our thing.
I was grabbing gigs here and there, working a day job, I was doing what people do, I was hustling and doing what I needed to do to be an artist. So no, I don’t have lawyers telling me, ‘you need to trademark that.’ I never once thought about it. I saw there was a gospel singer named Lady A. I did do that when I thought about the name. I was already Lady A because I didn’t want people to know my real name.”
As far as Lady A is concerned, dropping the “Antebellum” isn’t enough
“No. A four-year-old can know that. Because I work in race and social justice in my day job, if that’s true, then be true to the statement that you made publicly. I didn’t care before that, I knew that they were there, Lady Antebellum, I didn’t question their name. I know some people from the South did, but I’m up here in the Pacific Northwest. And I asked my friends in the South, ‘what is that?’ and I looked it up… to make that decision and to say you’re shortening to Lady A, before you even get to me, to shorten it to Lady A is an insult to our intelligence, so stop that. Don’t do that. That’s not allyship, that’s you pulling a PR stunt or being lazy about being woke.”
What she intends to do with the $10 million she reportedly asked for in settlement talks
“We were going back and forth and for one thing that was supposed to be a negotiation!… All they had to do was say, ‘Ms. White we don’t want to do the $5 million, we’re going to do $5 and then let’s still share the name.’ They could have said that, but they didn’t. They thought they would shame me in the public eye by saying I tried to extort money from them. Really? I have a life, I have money of my own, I work a day job that I’m about to retire from, so I don’t need their money. [Editor’s Note: The band did not use the word “extort.” In the lawsuit, they say White’s counsel “delivered a draft settlement agreement that included an exorbitant monetary demand,” and in a letter accompanying the lawsuit, the band wrote that she “demanded a $10 million payment.”]
But I thought to myself, ‘If I can get through this and get back to my life, help my community, rebrand myself…’ because remember I’ve got six CDs as Lady A, so all those CDs would have to be changed. I don’t know how much that costs, but as an ally you need to be willing to give us something. And I’m still bending over backwards for you and then you’re going to take that other $5 million and you’re going to give it to three charities in my name: Black Lives Matter, because Lady Antebellum says that they matter. Then to the seniors and youth I’ve worked with here in Seattle and another portion would go to artists around the country who run into legal problems.”
Why the history of Black artists being exploited or pushed aside is part of why White says she will not be moved
“When they came to us I kept asking, ‘well, what does ‘coexistence’ look like?’… and it was the same old song and dance: they dismissed me. Their lawyers, their management team, even the artist themselves dismissed my request to have my question answered. When I couldn’t get that after a while I said… even still, here I am, bending over backwards yet again. ‘Why don’t you take us under your management company?’ [My producer] John [Oliver III] made that suggestion. ‘You take Lady A under your management company, you rebrand her and then maybe we can do the song together.’
They didn’t take any suggestions even then the agreements came back they said, ‘we will do our best effort.’ Well what does ‘best efforts’ mean? They were disrespectful and did not answer the question: ‘what does coexistence look like?’ They weren’t coming with any suggestions, they came with one thing in mind: we were going to coexist.” [Editor’s note: “best efforts” is a legal standard applied to contract negotiations in reference to the promising party’s requirement to do “everything in its power to accomplish the goal.”]
Is there any upside to the recognition she’s getting now thanks to the coverage of the lawsuit?
“I was already internationally known, so I want people to stop getting confused. I traveled nationally and internationally, before Lady Antebellum. Is it a blessing that I got free press? That is the will of God and I thank God for it every day. I’m in this position for a reason, this is not by chance or circumstance. Anybody else would just change their name. They made those statement [and] I guess I am the person who is going to hold them accountable. If this were anybody else they would have run roughshod over them.”
Any advice for young artists who might find themselves in a similar situation?
“I’ve been doing this for long time, so all the things that are available now were not available when I was coming up. When you’re first starting out you can’t afford no attorney, so I’ve been interviewing with some amazing people who actually help young artists when they’re coming up, so I would say to reach out to some of these folks. I’m going to put [their information] up on my website when I get five minutes to myself. I mentor artists and young people and part of that is telling them the business side, so start finding some people who can help you maneuver though this business side of it. Because when you’re an artist all you want to do is sing.
I had to learn the business side, but that took years! How to do contracts. Before it was, ‘oh, well come play and you’ll pay me cash’ and that was it. Did I get burned a few times? Of course I did because I didn’t know any better. Everything today was not how it was when I was coming up. It’s not an excuse, but it’s true. And we don’t get those opportunities that white artists get, let’s be honest about it. So most of the time we’re scrapping and scraping and learning as we go and building our brand, which is what I have done. Lady A, well Lady Antebellum wants to say that that they have the Lady A logo on their shirts. Well, I have Lady A t-shirts, dresses, hats and fans. Just because you don’t know it does not mean that I am not relevant.”
How she feels about a gospel singer named Lady A and a lesser-known pop singer with her same name on Spotify
“Never had a problem. I think she [the gospel singer] was there from years ago, so I’ve never had a problem. No, I never talked to her. I intend to though [laughs].”