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Black Artists And Promoters Push Past Simplistic Inclusion Formulas In Americana

Clockwise from left: Jason Galaz, Lilli Lewis, Rev. Sekou, Adia Victoria, Kamara Thomas and moderator Marcus K. Dowling

Americana music was born with a contradiction at its core – one that was bound to surface in ways that would be both uncomfortable and fulfilling. As a mid 1990s initiative by an independent music sector centered in traditional country, roots rock, bluegrass and folk music, Americana inherited a century of cultural hybridizing and marginalizing that treated Black American music as a kind of open source software whose inventors had been given no options for ownership of their inventions. The blues was built on and reprogrammed into genre after genre, which emerged, with few exceptions, as music by white artists for white audiences. So as Americana grew to be seen as a commercial format that embodies and represents “American roots music,” debts inevitably came due, gradually and then urgently in a historic year of seeing called 2020.

On Thursday afternoon, the Americana Music Association lent its Facebook page (though notably not its leaders or representatives) to a panel of artists and promoters who addressed Black Equity In Americana for an online audience of about 250 people. Moderator Marcus K. Dowling, a DC-based journalist, reiterated the advertised goal: “honest and restorative dialogue…aimed at advocating for a more significant presence for Black artists and industry leaders as stakeholders more broadly represented in Americana’s present and future.” Or as he succinctly put it in a January review of a show pairing folk singer Amythyst Kiah and country soul standout Yola, “At present, there’s a movement by Black people in folk music to reclaim Blackness in the genre’s heritage.”

Within the Americana establishment, aspects of that movement and new artists’ voices have been welcomed and programmed over the past several years, though it is clear from this and other conversations that the prevailing conceptions of inclusion, diversity, representation and cultural appropriation are still incomplete. The concepts appear loaded with nuance about which the business community and the fan universe have more to learn.

The most pointed and perhaps actionable aspects of the talk challenged the Americana format on the issue of gatekeepers. “It’s a question about whiteness as power, to invite or exclude,” said Nashville-based gothic blues artist Adia Victoria. “When I first got started, the management I was working with at the time tried to tailor me to appeal to the tastemakers, a bunch of white men. It’s the radio station DJs, the bookers, the promoters. So you literally have to get past a wall of whiteness before anybody can see you on any kind of scale. The question becomes: are they willing to give that up.” She then illustrated that point with a story about playing the Newport Folk Festival in 2019. What should have been a career highlight was tarnished when the emcee pronounced her name wrong introducing her and later an artist she did not name approached her black drummer, she said, as if he was a stage hand. “The whole power structure is off. This is white people’s work.”

Lilli Lewis, a songwriter/artist and also general manager and head of A&R for Louisiana Red Hot Records in New Orleans, observed that she watches black artists win awards all the time, but when it comes to business awards or events, “I’ll be the only one in the room.” Meanwhile at her label, she’s worked to undo a history of discrimination in how record deals were structured. “I notice that the white artists that we sign walk in with an entirely different sense of entitlement than the black artists,” she said. “Before I was in charge, that discrepancy was overlooked. In fact, it was exploited.”

“Your relevance,” she continued, addressing black artists, “is based on what you have to say and willingness and ability to say it. And I think if we become doggedly committed to that and work with the full understand that the power is in our body and our inheritance and in the money, that means we have to build businesses. We have to build press outlets and radio shows that don’t discriminate. There are so few black music supervisors for TV and film placement. Or the Grammys. We don’t join in numbers. There are not as many black members except in certain pockets. Occupy any space you feel you’re not represented.”

From Durham, NC, songwriter and multi-disciplinary storyteller Kamara Thomas also keyed off of Victoria’s power comments by saying, “What’s difficult for me is the feeling that until this gets fixed, I can’t move forward. I’ve dealt with this continuous wall. (I said) you know what? I’m just going to do this myself and create the community that I need to see – that is supportive and will allow me to thrive. Otherwise I’m going to go crazy.” The music world’s forced retreat to the online space for music performance may present a window to reach a lot more people, she said. “Because there’s no gatekeeper. If you found out about the show you can come to the show. This is an opportunity where the power can get flipped from the top to the ground, where it’s about the community making decisions and putting things in that space that change the conversation.”

Also on the panel was artist Rev. Sekou, who has played AmericanaFest and who has been ubiquitous as an activist and theologian in the years since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO. He’s outspoken about Black politics and Christian faith on stage in ways that are rare for white performers but that are inherent in his iteration of Black musical tradition. He spoke of promoters who have been wary of his approach. And he built on a point made several times Thursday that Black musical roots are so central to the music that’s possible in Americana but that they so often only casually inform the white stories and white voices that occupy the spotlight on the prestige stages.

Restoration, he says, will depend on Black assertion and white artists who live authentically within the community of Black American music. He said: “If the industry would get out of the way and artists would commit themselves to (integrity) and not performing the way somebody, the management, told them – that they fundamentally believe in the gift of Rosetta Tharpe and Louis Jordan and Ma Rainey and Robert Johnson – if they believe in that genius, we all gonna get free,” he said. “Black people ain’t got a monopoly on it. Pretty close, but you’ve got the North Mississippi All-Stars. Luther and Cody (Dickinson) respect the tradition. They were raised in it. They played in juke joints. Those are my brothers because they love and respect the tradition.”

At the same time, Muddy Roots Music Festivalcreator Jason Galaz, the only Latino member of the panel, emphasized assumptions and possibilities behind the Americana format’s loaded label: “For me, first, it’s about identifying the name itself – the root word American. So, if you confront the concept of what is American, which generally most people consider that to be Anglo/European descent. When they think of American, they usually think of white. So, if we call out that hey ‘I’m Mexican. I’m Black. I’m also American. So my music is American/Americana as well. In my daily conversations, that’s what I address.”

There is much more. The full panel can be streamed here and a follow-up panel with the same title has been scheduled for the Americana Music Association’s Thriving Roots Conference September 16-18, 2020.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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