“Black Myself” Singer-Songwriter Shares Her Journey Toward Her Truth
By Rachel Cholst, Contributing Editor
The last five months have been a contradiction for all of us: a time of great change and upheaval — but we need to stay put. A time when plans have had to be put on hold, or goal posts moved dramatically — or even a time when new opportunities open. For Amythyst Kiah, it’s been a respite from career highs: 10 years of relentless touring, a whirlwind summer with the trad music supergroup Our Native Daughters, and a Grammy nomination for her stunning song “Black Myself.”
Kiah, who has been proudly out since she began touring professionally, spoke with Country Queer about her path to this moment and her upcoming album Wary and Strange. When we spoke, she was preparing to leave her Tennessee home to record in L.A., but despite the nerves she must have been feeling, Kiah was buoyant and effusive.
Growing Up in Chattanooga
Kiah’s destiny as an internationally-acclaimed musician was not inevitable. She grew up in a subdivision in Chattanooga, one of only a handful of Black families there. She describes her hometown as a “mixed bag.”
“Some of the neighbors just didn’t really say anything to us. Some of them were nice. Some of them were cool with me playing with their kids until I was about 13 or 14. And then all of a sudden, no one wanted to hang out any more. It took me a while to realize that it was more than just, ‘Oh, we grew apart.’ It was just all of a sudden — bam.”
However, the family also found themselves somewhat isolated from Black families because they did not attend church. When she met new people, they asked which church her family attended. “If you say you don’t go to church, then that’s a problem,” she laughs.
In spite of the isolation, Kiah understands why her parents chose to raise her where they did. “My parents came from humble beginnings. They wanted the best for me, their kid. As far as picking the neighborhood, picking the school and all of that, I guess there were unforeseen consequences. I’m a person of color regardless of what my socioeconomic status was, regardless of what I did in school or how I dressed or what I listened to.”
When Kiah’s parents’ marriage hit a rocky spot, she found herself to be “emotionally distant” from others and turned to music for solace. “I turned to music as my way of being able to create a world where I didn’t feel like I had to answer to anyone, that I didn’t feel like I needed to be a certain way. That was my refuge and that was the place that I could go where nobody could hurt me or ignore me.”
However, when Kiah transferred to a creative arts high school, she found her people.
“I found a group of Black kids that liked anime and weird nerdy stuff. I also found people who accepted gay people. When I came out at my other high school, someone just started yelling at me in the library about how awful it was that I was gay.”
(For the record, Kiah’s favorite animes are Vampire Hunter D, Cowboy Bebop, and Record of Lodoss War.)
Getting Into Music
Before high school, though, Kiah’s parents wanted to instill a sense of balance in her. “There were three pillars to help me be a well rounded individual. They were: making good grades in school, playing some kind of team sport to learn how to interact and work as a team with other people — which failed miserably — and then playing an instrument just because learning how to play music is a very nourishing, therapeutic and really fun thing to do.”
Kiah’s sport was basketball, though that was an overwhelmingly negative experience. However, she has since returned to sports in the form of Frisbee golf.
As for music, Kiah initially wanted to learn piano. But she would sneak into her parents’ room to watch MTV without their permission. Inspired by the alt-rock videos she watched illicitly, Kiah picked up the guitar.
Her first lessons came through CD-ROMs, DVDs, and videos. She soon gravitated to reading guitar tablature (a graphic representation of the guitar neck that does not require knowledge of reading sheet music) and “then the world was like an open book. Anytime I heard a song, if I wasn’t sure what the chords were, I could just look it up.”
For Kiah, this self-study was “empowering.” When her mother passed away, that sense of control served her well. “I never really explored playing music with other people because it was the one thing that was mine that made me feel safe.”
Unfortunately, that would lead to some pitfalls later. “When I started to play music in college with other people, I had a huge learning curve. The idea of doing it with someone else was unfathomable to me because it was so personal. It’d be like, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Let’s get naked and stand in the shower.’ It was that personal.”
While Kiah is an impressive guitar player, it’s her singing voice that turns everyone’s heads. That skill came to her through osmosis: her father, who is also her tour manager, sang and played percussion in a band in the seventies. Her mother sang in the church growing up. Her parents collected all kinds of music, from Jimi Hendrix to Dolly Parton to Yanni.
Kiah chuckles about that last choice, but she credits her parents’ expansive palates to her entering the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University. Kiah had taken a few classical guitar lessons at her creative arts high school, but was uncomfortable with sheet music. When she learned that the bluegrass guitar classes would “never” require anything so formal, she was in. One of her mentors, Jack Tottle, taught Kiah about Appalachian culture and how bluegrass was influenced by West African music. From there, Kiah picked up banjo as well.
Meanwhile, her vocal professor also encouraged Kiah to approach singing in a new way. “He said, ‘I don’t want to change anything about your voice at all, because you have this amazing gift that I don’t want to mess with.’ He just wanted to help me use my breath more efficiently because I did have a tendency to go full blast all the time. I also learned how to sing in character. That was another game changer for me as far as being able to further develop as a performer.”
These were wise words. Anyone who has heard Kiah perform knows she can bring a sold-out venue to a standstill.
Coming Into Her Own
As Kiah learned more about herself as an artist, she navigated life as a queer young adult. Kiah did not come out right away — Johnson City is smaller than Chattanooga and she wanted to feel the place out. “I just got to the point where not only did I not feel like I’d be able to come out, there was actually a short period of time that because I was moving to a small town, I actually started to maybe second guess like, I mean, should I even date women? Should I date at all? Should I reconsider dating guys?”
Ultimately, Kiah concluded that she was there to study music and devoted her energy to that. She simply didn’t discuss dating with her peers, though she’s met more recent students in the bluegrass program who were out.
Since then, her interactions with her professors and fellow alumni have been positive. “I feel like had I been out, the people that I was around, it wouldn’t have mattered. But there was a segment of that program that was already standoffish towards me for being black. So it’s almost like why add on being gay too, you know?”
Things changed when Kiah read Jeff Mann’s Loving Mountains, Loving Men at the age of 27. The memoir recounts Mann’s life growing up queer in West Virginia, leaving for Washington DC, and ultimately returning to his roots.
“I thought that was really beautiful. I thought, ‘If he figured it out, surely I can figure something out.’ You know? I mean, obviously my background is not exactly the same as his, but that’s when I really started to see myself as being an Appalachian person, even though I grew up in the suburbs, were a lot of Appalachians do grow up. That’s when I started to realize all of our stories in Appalachia have meaning. The Carolina Chocolate Drops really hooked me into realizing that.”
Our Native Daughters
Kiah’s research into old-time music set her on her current path: a collision course with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla (both co-founders of the Chocolate Drops), and Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell. Our Native Daughters is a supergroup of Black women in traditional music, and their album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, is a stunning masterwork of original compositions telling stories that are too often ignored in the roots music world.
For Kiah, it was her first real foray into writing music with a band. “It felt like this cool biker gang or something. We got these jackets and I was like, ‘Oh, so this is what being part of a group feels like.’ That came to me in a time in my life when I really needed it most. It definitely was a big help in healing aspects of my life where I felt othered even though I didn’t feel like I should have been othered. To be able to share similar experiences with Rhiannon and Layla and Alison was just incredible. I hadn’t had a group conversation like that since high school. To be able to sit down and have these kinds of conversations was just really special. To take on this concept of singing about the transatlantic slave trade and bringing a strong human element to it, and to show how they connect to things going on right now — I’m so grateful to have been part of it.”
The project, released on Smithsonian Folkways, drew more attention than anyone had anticipated. The response led to a tour in the Northeast and a should-have-been tour down the West Coast this fall.
One of Kiah’s contributions to the album, “Black Myself,” has struck a chord from England to the Staples Center.
When Kiah toured England with vocal powerhouse Yola, she found the song resonating beyond the African-American experience.
“There had to have been 300 white English people under that tent and they were all singing ‘Black Myself’ back to us. It was such a beautiful moment because even though you’re not a Black person, but if you can understand being othered or if you can understand what it would feel like to be othered, it’s so amazing that people are able to see beyond that. The song was able to reach across in spite of it being so confrontational and being so specific. I’ve prided myself on writing songs which anybody can relate to. It was a really eye-opening and very empowering to know that.”
That’s why Kiah’s work received a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Song of 2019.
Kiah knew that Smithsonian Folkways had submitted the album and a few songs to the Recording Academy, but the Academy receives lots of materials for consideration, so she didn’t get her hopes up.
When she got the news, she was on a two-week tour with her dad. Her phone blew up, receiving messages from people who hadn’t spoken to her in years.
She picked up her phone and turned to her dad. He was stunned.
“We’ve been traveling on the road for 10 years. There’s been so many emotional ups and downs. This was a song that I wrote that I had the courage to finally write because of who I was with.”
Kiah put together a snappy look for the ceremony, riffing off her customary “androgynous” look. She used the bonus she received from Smithsonian Folkways to buy a pair of designer pants. Ever practical, she paired it with a jacket from JC Penny’s.
“I allowed myself one designer piece because I cannot blow all my money just on the clothes, but this is a special moment. So I might as well just lean into it.”
Kiah brought her dad has her date. Overall, the ceremony was “overwhelming.” The Grammy nominee was understandably anxious.
“I really loved the pre-broadcast ceremony because it felt like an award ceremony. They had a classical house band and a pop house band. It was so amazing. But for the main ceremony, I felt like I was on a television set because of all the commercial breaks. There was no time to eat between ceremonies and I was just really hungry and highly irritated. The seats were crushing my knees. My experience was awesome the whole time, but just truly, I was just really, really, really anxious.”
Even though Kiah didn’t win, she’s optimistic about her future chances. “I think the next time I go,” she says off-handedly, “I think I’ll enjoy myself a little bit more.”
Wary And Strange
Up next, Kiah is finishing up her solo album Wary and Strange, a phrase she says has been floating through her mind since she was a teenager.
“It turns out that the songs that I’ve written are all about dealing with feeling wary and strange at various times: there’s heartache, there’s loss, there’s overcoming self-medicating to bury your feelings.”
Since the album is primarily a breakup album, her girlfriend has teased her for pulling a Taylor Swift. Wary and Strange has been a long time coming. Kiah began work on the album in January of 2018, but as she worked on more songs she realized she needed to overhaul the album’s sound — twice. She did record a version of the album in September, but since she was in the middle of touring at the time she wasn’t happy with the sound and moved on to a third producer.
“Over the past three, four months without touring, I’ve been taking better care of myself. I’ve been re-evaluating, maybe I shouldn’t run myself into the ground all the time.” When we spoke, she was just about to pack for LA. “So now when I go back into the studio, I’m mentally and physically in a place where I can really put my best foot forward.”
Kiah is in the process of negotiating a record deal because she’s confident that Wary and Strange will “take her to the next level.”
Ultimately, her experience with “Black Myself” has solidified her desire to write more confrontational music. “A lot of my fear came from reading history books when people spoke out and got blacklisted, they’d have letters sent to their house. That stuff would terrify me. I’m done being terrified now. We can’t be silent if we want to see things change.”