Americana has long been the beating heart that keeps quality music pumping.
Greats like Rosetta Sharpe and Big Mama Thornton were experts at perfectly encapsulating the daily movement and vulnerability of the genuine American experience all while shining a light on the South. This truthfulness is quite captivating- so much so that the genre has welcomed an array of voices and American perspectives.
However, with the steady insurgence of white Americana music over the years, questions have arisen over whether or not the constant additions and commercialization of what the genre has to offer have simultaneously watered down the authenticity fans have loved since the beginning.
Last Thursday, key voices in the industry took part in an Americana Music Association-hosted Zoom panel to discuss the importance of the Black voice in Americana. Black Equity In Americana: A Conversation was hosted by Washington, D.C. based journalist Marcus K. Dowling, with each panelist sharing anecdotes regarding the highs and lows of their experience in the industry.
One of the first topics discussed was the complicated nature of accepting newness all while honoring the past. Oftentimes, Black Americana artists can feel a certain pressure, especially artists just breaking onto the scene.
“Is it gonna be shoved into R&B just because it’s a person of color making this music?” said New Orleans panelist Lilli Lewis of Black Americana music. “We’ll get filtered into funk. They’ll call us funk, and then you look at the funk bands that are getting paid and it’s not the Black funk bands.” As an A&R representative for Louisiana Red Hot Records, Lewis has had plenty of experience signing new artists and takes this subject to heart. With over 20 years of experience as a composer, producer, and performing artist, she has seen what it’s like from all sides.
“If the industry gets out of the way, they might just get free,” said panelist Rev. Sekou. Based in Memphis, Rev. Sekou has played many large Americana stages. A theologist and activist, Rev. Sekou acts as the Executive Director of the Worker Interfaith Network supporting low-wage workers.
Panelist Jason Galaz also provided a unique perspective. With experience hosting boutique musical festivals in both Europe and the U.S., he has seen industry changes reflected in the audiences that have shown at Muddy Roots, a festival commemorating music from the Americana genre as well as the musical intersections between country, blues, rock, and folk.
He believes that at times, his audiences can be “too niche in the wrong way,” meaning that many of the country and bluegrass fans that attend associate with racist ideologies and identities.
“We’re dealing with white supremacy here,” said Adia Victoria, streaming from Nashville. Originating from South Carolina, Victoria moved to Tennessee to better support her music career. A Black poet and blues artist, she has had to learn first-hand that Black artists are marketed differently than white artists. She emphasized the importance of the realization that the lineage of Americana coincides directly with the Black American experience.
“When I look at the Americana scene and I see predominately white people who are pulling from this, who are borrowing– appropriating– that’s great, but their line doesn’t lead to [them],” she said. “That line doesn’t lead to East Nashville.”
Kamara Thomas, streaming from Durham, North Carolina, is another panelist who participated in the Thursday livestream. A singer/songwriter herself, she was featured in Paste Magazine as one of the “14 Artists Proving Black Americana is Real.” A recent passion of hers has been giving a platform to underrepresented voices in country and Americana. This year, she has spearheaded the production of the 2021 documentary “Tularosa: An American Dreamtime” where she does just that. With all of the hard work she has done on the documentary alone, she is one of many Americans that has had to adjust to new spaces due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“This has become the new sacred space,” she said, referring to the Zoom call. “This is an opportunity for the community.”
Amongst all of the panelists, there was an undeniable agreement that Americana not only thrives in sacred spaces but it is a sacred space. Passionate voices in Americana like those that are featured in the panel have made it their mission to make sure this sacred space is maintained in the purest, most authentic way possible. This means everything from giving a fair platform to Black Americana artists to advocating for justice for the marginalized communities that face hatred every day.
Check out the livestream on the Americana Music Association’s Facebook page, and if you want to hear more, the panelists will be doing a follow-up on Black equity at the Americana Music Association’s Thriving Roots Conference from September 16th to September 18th.