Black Folk Musicians Are Reclaiming the Genre

THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE Drops and many others have now ensured that future generations can see themselves onstage but, once up there, such Black performers rarely see themselves in the crowd. Do Black artists need a Black audience? It’s a longstanding debate that sometimes pits the artistic against the sociopolitical functions of song. The writer Amiri Baraka once defined Black music as “American music expanded past the experience of the average American.” “It gets down,” he wrote. “It is about the life of the downed, yet its dignity is in the fantastic sophistication even at the moment of would-be, should-be humiliation and actual despair.” Giddens, who once described her music as “Black non-Black music” and now prefers to call it simply “American music,” understands this implicitly. “All the good things that come from American music [come from] mixture,” she says. “Hiding in plain sight in all the different types of American music is cross-cultural working-class collaboration. It’s people making music because that’s what they’ve got.”

The most powerful folk music has always addressed points of tension: between Black and white, rich and poor, sophistication and humiliation. Cannon’s 1927 song “Can You Blame the Colored Man?” tells the story of Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, dining with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1901, the year Washington’s best-selling autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” was published. “Could you blame the colored man for makin’ them goo-goo eyes?” Cannon sings, after describing in detail the lavish dinner at the president’s table. Likewise, today’s best folk music still confronts issues of race and class. In 2019 Amythyst Kiah, now 36, a guitarist and banjo player from Tennessee, joined Giddens, along with Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell, in a string-band collective called Our Native Daughters. They decided to excavate American history, going back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to find inspiration for new songs. One of the songs that came of that process was the startling and soulful “Black Myself.”

I don’t pass the test of the paper bag
’Cause I’m Black myself
I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me
’Cause I’m Black myself
You better lock your doors when I walk by
’Cause I’m Black myself
You look me in my eyes but you don’t see me
’Cause I’m Black myself

The brown paper bag test, as the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, was born out of colorism within the Black community, in nightclubs and house parties in New Orleans where anyone darker than the bag taped to the door would be denied entrance. In a song that confronts the experience of being shut out of traditionally white spaces — such as contemporary folk and country music — Kiah’s lyrics build toward resistance and joy: “I’ll stand my ground and smile in your face / ’Cause I’m Black myself.”

Addressing her race so explicitly in her music was a departure for Kiah. “I’ve always written songs in a way where anybody can put themselves in that position,” she says. Throughout her years of playing, she’s subscribed to the theory that the more specific and personal a song’s perspective, the more a listener — any listener — will relate to it. Just as Kiah, no poor white Southern girl from rural Kentucky, could relate to Loretta Lynn’s 1970 single “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” she says, so she hopes that listeners, whomever they may be, will relate to “Black Myself.”

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