On The String: Adia Victoria's Challenge
More than ever, it’s imperative to reinforce the truth that the blues, a creation of African-Americans, is the foundation upon which our popular music was built, with infinitely more appropriation than compensation. We’d make a mistake though to think of the blues, a genre of genres with 19th century roots, as atavistic and arcane, a music for recycling and mere preservation. Adia Victoria’s vision of the blues is as defiant as the music ever was, and not here for the comfort or consolation of those who’ve institutionalized the commerce that supports the art.
“For me the blues is the original punk music. It’s the original means of transmitting dangerous ideas,” Victoria says in the new episode of The String. The 34-year-old artist and songwriter, a South Carolinian who found her sound and earned international acclaim working out of Nashville, performs in the light of pioneers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey and Alberta Hunter. Not in sound, but in spirit.
“I look at those women as my foremothers. Like, if you can do that in Jim Crow Mississippi, I can stare down the machine in Nashville. I can challenge people on the way they view Black Southern Womanhood. So the blues is my inheritance. It’s the way I experience my Blackness, my Southern-ness my American-ness. . . .The blues is forward thinking. It’s Afro-futurism. It’s not what’s being blared on Americana radio.”
And therein lies part of the intrigue and insight we may take from Victoria’s story and indeed the tale of how she got on my radar in 2016. About the same time she was being praised in the rock press and made the cover of an Oxford American issue dedicated to the blues, Victoria wrote an open letter to the Americana Music Association in reply to an essay of mine (which AMA posted) defending the ongoing effort to include more Black artists and art in the format and its festival. She wrote: “There is an arrogance in assuming that your community can claim an artist because she represents the things you would like to see yourself representing.”
And while it didn’t feel great at the time to be charged with “claiming,” her full, nuanced argument and her thoughts in our conversation with a few years of perspective prove a worthy antidote to the complacency or self-satisfaction that comes from “opening up” an organization built without Black input from its inception.
“I’m used to the racial blind spots of well-meaning white people,” Victoria says in our talk. “You can say this is an egalitarian experiment of free-flowing ideas. But it’s like – to you, for you. But for an outsider it’s funny how this democracy of ideas always ends up with the same white people getting the same kind of recognition and careers.”
Victoria has praise for the talents of the Black artists who do work in Americana space. But she says they tend to fall into “a white-approved trope, category and style. The thing that troubles for me as a black artist who is anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti hetro-normative, I can see the ways Black art and Black brilliance is deemed safe for white consumption. . . .So I’ve always been very wary of accepting a seat at the table for black Americana artists, because it seems kind of corny to me. It seems like we’ve done this. I don’t want to sound like a cover artist. I’m like, my mind is crazy and I want you to hear what this sounds like.”
Besides this food for thought (and there is much more), we cover Victoria’s remarkable stretch of talent development, writing song in Atlanta and then bringing her thing to Music City’s stages. She was approached by the iconoclastic and highly independent Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Paula Cole), who gave her recording time and ultimately produced her 2016 debut Beyond The Bloodhounds. After touring the world and hitting marquee stages from Pitchfork Paris to Newport Folk Festival, Victoria teamed with the National’s Aaron Desner to make her follow-up Silences. There’s nothing quite like her two albums in recent roots rock and roll, and its blues energy and spectral soundscapes do indeed read as a reality check for Americana, a challenge to both politically and artistically try harder.