Not long ago, the Nashville-based blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Adia Victoria took to Facebook to respond to the online chatter regarding pointed comments she made in an MTV News article about the state of Americana. She indicted an industry in which a largely white pocket of the music world attempted to take ownership of her identity and work.
"I have been treated as a special exotic ornament that they can point to and say 'see! see! That, too, is Americana!'," she wrote, continuing, "But here's the rub: I'm not yours. You do not decide under what genre I create and what community I represent."
Americana isn't the only rootsy faction that struggles with the way it treats and represents artists of color. Its more acoustic cousins—folk, bluegrass, old-time—have the same problem.
Kaia Kater is a young Canadian banjo player who released her second album, Nine Pin, last year. The record isn't purely bluegrass, but Kater grew up around folk music and musicians; her mother served as the director for a folk festival for many years. She's spent her whole life taking it all in, and she knows that at many folk-related concerts and festivals, it's rare to see a person of color in any context.
"As much as Americana is tough, bluegrass is even crazier," Kater says. "I don't know a single black person that plays bluegrass, or that is in a bluegrass band that I know currently. That's insane."
How did that happen, given that the black experience weighs so heavily on American traditional music? According to Dom Flemons, one of the Carolina Chocolate Drops' original members, you have to separate the folk tradition, which consists largely of nonprofessional players, from the commercial style of folk that emerged in the sixties and seventies.
"The genre of folk music wasn't made by people of color. It was made by left-leaning white people that were interested in elevating the style of music that, at that time, was considered subpar or just beneath what was legitimate music," Flemons says.
The folk revival shed new light on under-appreciated traditional music, but it didn't always involve or include the artists of color who had perpetuated the form throughout decades of racial discrimination. Folk music and its adjacent styles still haven't fully recovered from or reconciled with this legacy.
"I grew up in folk music, and a lot of folk music was, 'Free to be you and me, we're all equal.' And we're not. That's the hard part," Kater says. "We have to acknowledge that, and see how those dynamics function, and how we can really help each other, and how we can really listen to each other to make things better for my grandchildren."
Flemons and Kater, along with Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton, will do some of that work together during their Friday night concert in Raleigh. The three are among a handful of people of color who are asserting their rightful place in folk, bluegrass, and old-time circles. Kater and Flemons recognize the centuries-long impact of white supremacy on the music they play. Flemons says he doesn't want to make people feel bad, but he feels a responsibility to testify about the history of the music he plays—the good and the bad parts.
"If people enjoy the music, that's the first key. The music at least softens the blow so that people's minds can be open to discussing these harder issues," he says. "I like to use the music as the way to break through the barriers, more than using the actual rhetoric as my talking point."
Kater's approach is more direct. She wrote the slow, stunning "Rising Down" as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, shortly after the killing of Tamir Rice in 2014. When Kater first began performing it in collaboration with tap dancer Katharine Manor, she was attending college in West Virginia, and lines like "Your cross is a symbol of my lynching" made her white audiences uneasy. That was fine with Kater.
"We figured that the best way to make people confront those things is to just say it, and not to have any warm-up or coddling," she says.
But while white performers and audiences still dominate, Kater and Flemons both say that the overall situation is improving. Flemons credits the cultural normalization of people of color in public spaces, which he links to the visibility of the Obama administration—it's no longer so unusual to see people of color in advertisements or on television, he notes.
"We're able to be honest about who we are for the first time in history, really, and still be successful," Kater adds, pointing to Nina Simone as an artist whose outspoken rejection of racism derailed her career. Flemons, meanwhile, sees progress writ large in Paxton and Kater's careers. Things are different than they were a decade ago, when the Carolina Chocolate Drops were making their ascent.
"They are coming into a time where it's not a completely crazy thought that the banjo is an African instrument and that them being able to play the instrument on stage is not that strange," he says.
The only thing that's strange now is that it took so long for folk camps to come around. But perhaps even a slow start can lead toward accelerated inclusion, in which "free to be you and me" is a practiced principle instead of a platitude.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beyond the Pale"