The Difficult Task of Translating Americana’s Diversity From the Stage to the Crowd

americana-diversity

I remember saying it myself when the Carolina Chocolate Drops first came on the scene. Excellent band, and great to see some diversity represented in country and Americana music in a way that illustrates the role African American’s played in creating the roots music we enjoy today. But there was just something a little bit off about watching a black band playing for a distinctly white, affluent, older, and in many cases advanced-educated audience that the Carolina Chocolate Drops drew.

That’s not a knock on Americana, or the crowds, or the Carolina Chocolate Drops. You cannot criticize the Americana music industry or its fans for not promoting, celebrating, and welcoming diversity, because they’re leading the charge when it comes to making sure all of the elements that go into the roots of American music are represented.

From Mavis Staples and the McCrary Sisters, Keb Mo and The Mavericks, to many great blues artists and William Bell’s latest album This Is Where I Live being nominated for Best Americana Album for the 2017 Grammy Awards, Americana has gone out of its way—maybe even too far out in some respects—to make sure people of color grace its stages, and are well-represented in its accolades.

It’s a common practice for people in the “NPR demographic” (if you will) to want to seek out diversity in their culture. And this is something that is incredibly important in breaking down the walls of perspective, and should be fostered and celebrated. It’s imperative on all of us, especially in the era of social network and political polarization where our reality tunnels continue to constrict, to seek out different perspectives and experiences to inform the way we see the world. Music has always been one of the best catalysts for this exercise, because in a world where it’s hard to agree on much of anything, the beauty of musical expression can still be one of the few mediums of consensus by illustrating how we all hurt, and we all love.

The issue of Americana music and race came up a few weeks ago when MTV’s Charles Aaron broached the subject in a 35-paragraph dissertation about Americana and race, using the example of an artist named Adia Victoria as an example of Americana’s race problem, though also admitting that Adia Victoria didn’t want to be labeled Americana. This and other flawed reasoning by Charles Aaron were taken to task by Craig Havighurst of Music City Roots and WMOT in a proper and respectful rebuttal. Saving Country Music also gave its two cents on the subject, while almost simultaneously, Adia Victoria also responded to the lingering controversy in a Facebook post.

A slightly abbreviated version Adia Victoria’s post is below:

When I was approached to do an interview with MTV for their feature on Americana I initially declined. Having spent the past two years distancing myself from the ever expanding largesse of music that Americana assumes to represent, I was exhausted of the subject. But I accepted, hoping that if I aired my concerns in the open with all that I find problematic about Americana I would finally be left alone to make my art.

The exact opposite happened.

I read Mr Havighurst’s response, and underscoring it is an apparent confusion as to why I have kept my distance and remain critical of a community that has wanted to embrace me from the start of my career. He lists my accomplishments in what is seen as their world. He says I haven’t been shunned due to the color of my skin and had that been the case he would be up in righteous arms.

He’s right. I have not been shunned due to the color of my skin. I have not been denied the opportunity to preform my art at festivals and venues. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have been awed over and placed in the category of ‘Black People We Like!’ by White tastemakers in the industry. I have been treated as a special exotic ornament that they can point to and say ‘see! see! That, too, is Americana!’

The music journalists began to lump me under the Americana label after I self-released my first song back in 2014…

…But here’s the rub: I’m not yours. You do not decide under what genre I create and what community I represent. Americana is laced with a subtle obsession with representing ‘true’ ‘authentic’ American roots music. As the AMA Facebook page loudly proclaims in all caps: THE MISSION OF THE AMERICANA MUSIC ASSOCIATION IS TO ADVOCATE FOR THE AUTHENTIC VOICE OF AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC AROUND THE WORLD.

My question here is who is doing the deciding here? Who decides what is ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ in American music? Given that Americana music is consumed overwhelmingly by White crowds, the music must be marketed and represented in a way that is palatable for white tastes and sensibilities. This presents another problem for the Black Artist creating art in the presence of the White gaze.

Growing up in this country as a Black kid, you are taught as a survival skill to know how to disarm and keep Whiteness appeased and happy. It is too often a matter of life and death for people of color. When I decided to make my art it was in the spirit of defiance of all the lessons given to me in order to survive White Supremacy.

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. Americana thinks of itself as the more ‘enlightened’ arm of the country music machine, yet I look at the artists you laud, and I am met with the same homogenous blanket of White (throw in a few token artists of color to keep the mix right.)

My art is informed by my tumultuous relationship with the South, the beauty and the horror. It is complex and nuanced and cannot be represented by the donning of a Stetson, and the stomping of a boot. This is not how I signify my Southerness. Like many other artists of color, I am still wrestling my humanity from the maw of racism. I am still grappling to live a country that breaks into open terror when we tell them that Black Lives Matter.

For these reasons I am growing increasingly weary of the appropriation and de-fanging of Southern culture to make White consumers more comfortable with their own history.

You have not earned that cool iced tea on a hot summer day. When you attempt to glamorize and brand the American past to make yourself comfortable with your history you are acting dishonestly. There is still darkness left to mine here. We aren’t clear of our past, in fact our present political woes are patterned on it. It is here for us to reflect upon in our music.

Nina Simone said that it is the artist’s duty to represent the times in which we are living.

Until Americana is ready to come clean about where we are, where we’ve been and champion music that represents a reality beyond the infantilized South much needed to keep the White consumer spending, I will not sit down at your table.

I am not your negro.

Warm Regards,
Adia Victoria

Adia Victoria’s logic feels flawed here in many respects. I completely respect her desire to not be labeled something she feels does not represent her, or that even may represent something she is opposed to. And as a Caucasian I will always fall at least one degree short from understanding her perspective. But as many individuals within the Americana community have pointed out, nobody is attempting to label Adia Victoria or anyone else Americana that doesn’t want to be.

If or when someone from the Americana community reaches out to an artist, whether that’s an employee of the Americana Music Association to participate in an official function, or a label or manager that happens to work under the auspices of the greater Americana community, it shouldn’t be taken as a threat, but as an attempt at inclusion, or simply as the offer of an opportunity. If that outreach is met with rejection, then the interaction can cease at that point. Nonetheless, if Adia Victoria’s music is easy to label in the Americana realm, which she herself acknowledges it is, then this labeling may be done just in a matter of convenience to explain the music to someone who is not familiar with it, not as an attempt to pigeon hole, or degrade, or especially to make one their “negro.”

Where would we be in America if Jackie Robinson said he did not want to play for white baseball crowds, or Joe Lewis for white boxing audiences? Tribalism can be a two way street, and if we refuse to interact with someone based on race, whether they be music fans or otherwise, we are refusing to let the racial barriers crumble through the long moral arc that is slowly degrading human racism at its core. If succumbing to being called Americana or playing to predominately white audiences makes a certain performer Americana’s “negro,” then does that mean the Mavis Staples and Keb Mo are Uncle Toms?

Some noticed that Adia Victoria had promoted her post on Americana via social network, making them wonder if her hard line stance against Americana was more about self-promotion, though perhaps any promotional dollars were spent in an effort to equalize the reach of Americana journalists writing in dissent to her opinion. So often the issue of race becomes demonstrative so quickly, it devolves into shouts and accusations with the wisdom individuals are trying to share with each other being lost.

But one point Adia Victoria broaches, and deserves credit for highlighting, is how the problem with the color of Americana is not just about who is on the stage, but who is in the crowd. Americana has made incredible strides to be inclusive to minority performers beyond simple tokenism, and probably more than Adia Victoria is giving them credit for. But the crowds and audiences in Americana—whether they be at an official Americana function or just your average weekend gig for an Americana artist somewhere in America—remain incredibly white, and generally affluent, liberal, and usually a little older. This is the white gaze that doesn’t just make a performer like Adia Victoria perhaps feel uncomfortable on stage, but even a country music journalist who notices the same thing—white audiences starring at black performers—and gets the sense there is just something a little bit unclean in this phenomenon.

Americana has integrated its stages, and that’s a big and very important and difficult step in the process of being inclusive to roots fans of all persuasions. But just because you’re being inclusive, doesn’t mean you’re being inviting.

Once again, this is not a problem that you can lump blame upon Americana as if they’re purposely excluding elements of diversity in their crowds. By being so inclusive to all roots artists, they’re hoping the diversity of the audience follows. The problem however is the same problem all roots elements are experiencing in the proliferation of hip-hip throughout American culture.

As Questlove—the famous frontman for The Roots—said in 2014 in an essay about how hip-hop had failed black America,

Hip-hop has taken over black music. Look at the music charts, or think of as many pop artists as you can, and see how many of the black ones aren’t part of hip-hop…It wasn’t always that way. Back in the late ’80s, when I graduated high school, you could count the number of black musical artists that weren’t in hip-hop on two hands maybe. You had folksingers like Tracy Chapman, rock bands like Living Colour, pop acts like Lionel Richie, many kinds of soul singers and that doesn’t even contend with megastars like Michael Jackson and Prince, who thwarted any easy categorization. Hip-hop was plenty present…but it was just a piece of the pie.

It is hard to attract diverse crowds to roots and Americana shows because hip-hop has monopolized American culture to the point where many people of color, especially young people, just don’t identify with roots music culture anymore. Hip-hop has also infiltrated white America, especially when it comes to younger listeners. This isn’t a criticism of hip-hop necessarily, but its prevalence has created a challenge for roots music in its effort to diversify its audiences. Diversifying the stage is one thing because it comes down to simple roster decisions on the promotional side, but diversifying the crowd takes autonomous participation by demographics that in many cases are looking elsewhere for their musical entertainment.

Perhaps there could be more outreach to schools with roots and Americana music, or programs to expand appreciation of the music to the intercity, or possibly through homages to the Church. Some of these things are already occurring. With the heavy role of Gospel, blues, the Muscle Shoals sound, Motown, and old school rock and roll in the Americana sound, there must be communities that would be open to Americana. But all of this music is under assault from a myriad of forces in culture. That was the whole reason roots performers decided to band together to form Americana in the first place.

This is a very complex problem and it’s going to take dialogue and the sharing of ideas to solve, not exclusionary attitudes and accusations. And even with dialogue, it will be an extremely difficult issue to overcome because Americana is a minority in music itself, even if it has been vastly growing over the last few years. To continue that growth, Americana will have to be more inclusive to a wider demographic, which can present its own challenges when the desire is to grow sustainably instead of trying to be all things to all people like much of mainstream music.

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While at AmericanaFest last September, I attended an event called the Gospel Brunch at Nashville’s City Winery venue. It is the annual, informal end to the AmericanaFest festivities for the week, hosted by independent record label Thirty Tigers. The emcee for the event was Thirty Tigers owner Dave Macias, who actually studied at Nashville’s predominately and historically black college Tennessee State University—a member school of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

This event isn’t just Gospel in name. The artists mostly perform Gospel songs, and the McCrary Sisters were in attendance performing as part of the house band, just as they were for the 2016 Americana Music Awards. Dave Macias of Thirty Tigers used the event to introduce CeCe Winans—the best-selling female Gospel singer of all time—as a new artist on the label who will be releasing her first album in nine years called Let Them Fall in Love on February 3rd.

Attending the Gospel Brunch, along with many other Americana events throughout the week, it was easy to see that the effort at diversity by Americana was not just for show or based on guilt, but was driven by an underlying imperative throughout the community to represent all aspects of American roots music, including elements that grew out of black communities, Latin communities, and other minority influences.

One of the artists at the City Winery Gospel Brunch was a throwback country artist named Luke Bell. In what seemed like a strange move, when Luke Bell got to the function, he paid a Lyft driver to deliver three black kids from his neighborhood to the brunch. Luke Bell didn’t do this to directly help promote diversity at the event necessarily. He did it because he thought the kids would get a kick out of it.

While the event was going on and and after Luke Bell had played, I was in the upper balcony and I looked down through a window to see Luke Bell, his friend and fellow musician Pat Reedy, and the three neighborhood kids hanging out in the part of the City Winery where they actually make the wine—taking a tour of the inner workings of the facility (see below).

Luke Bell wasn’t looking to solve the whole “white gaze” conundrum in Americana. He wasn’t participating in an intellectual exercise. He was just being neighborly. But his gesture shows how we can solve these racial divisions in music. It takes people reaching out to others, and then it takes others being receptive to that outreach and going into environs that they may not be particularly familiar or comfortable with, to break down these barriers of perspective that are keeping everyone from appreciating music that is meant for everyone, regardless of race, age, political affiliation, or any other superficial designation that only works to push us apart from our shared humanity.

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Pat Reedy (white cowboy hat), Luke Bell (green shirt), and three kids from Luke Bell’s neighborhood (one wearing Luke Bell’s black cowboy hat), taking a tour of the City Winery’s operations during the Thirty Tigers Gospel Brunch, September 2016.

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