[This is part one of a two-part series. Keep an eye out for part two, coming soon.]
Listen to your local country station and you might think the universe revolves around straight white dudes: every other song seems to be about trucks, beer, and “my girl.” If you listen long enough and close enough, though, you may hear signs that the foundation is starting to crack, with artists slowly but steadily claiming space for Black or queer perspectives.
What you won’t hear on mainstream radio – yet – is these artists. Artists who are Black and queer, and just as talented as anyone on your local Froggy station. Despite the uphill battle they must constantly wage for acceptance, these artists are deeply rooted in the traditions of American music, and they are without question paving the way to this music’s future.
As we enter Black History Month, it’s imperative to recognize the modern-day Black, queer artists who are reconstructing that history today. These artists, as well as the voices that we will explore in part two of this series, are paving the way and giving voice to new perspectives.
Kiah is no stranger to readers of CQ – we started covering her well before the release of last year’s debut album, Wary + Strange. The album, as well as her powerful performances, have deservedly met with rave reviews. If you haven’t yet seen the video for Kiah’s signature song, “Black Myself,” you’re in for a ride.
Russell and Kiah are found family, having first worked together with Rhiannon Giddens and Layla McCalla in the supergroup Our Native Daughters prior to releasing debut albums last year under their own names. Outside Child, Russell’s solo offering, is a masterful tapestry of various strands of musical tradition paired with a devastating lyrical pen. In “Nightflyer,” Russell lays claim to history, agency, and her own roots. (You can find out more about her in this CQ interview.)
With her signature ballcap and jean jacket, Oladokun has quietly declared her sovereignty in a landscape that seems determined to impose its notions of what a star looks like. The same can be said for her art: the lowercase titles Oladokun adopts for her songs seem to carry through in their sound, but they belie the rock-solid assurance she brings to her art. Check out this recent live performance on late-night TV.
Are we straying from country? We refuse strict genre definitions, but if you’d like to call Anjimile “indie-folk”, feel free. Their supple voice and lovely melodies often act as counterpoint to the piercing depth of the lyrics. In the recent single, “Stranger,” Anjimile explores the complexities of transitioning.
Blount has made reclamation of the Black and Indigenous roots of old-time music, as well as centering queer perspectives, a thesis of his creative work. Blount’s rigor in pursuit of this vision results in music that packs a punch. This recent video is a piercing interrogation of white male desire, disguised as a comic acoustic blues.
Lewis released a low-key masterpiece last fall with Americana, a sweeping statement of the musical and thematic territory she claims as her birthright. Trained as a classical pianist and singer, seasoned by years fronting a rock band (with an all-time great name: The Shiz), and steeped in the traditions of her adopted hometown of New Orleans, Lewis continues to carve a space for her art in an environment that’s seldom welcoming to Black, queer artists.
Named one of “12 Artists to Watch in 2022” (along with Lewis) by The Nashville Scene, Brooklyn-based No offers an irresistible vision of folk-inflected country pop. We’re especially fond of this video, featuring a big chorus, slick choreography, and silent-film stylings.
Thomas’s artistry is expansive: she is dedicated to the proposition that it’s time for Black artists to reclaim their heritage through musical and theatre performance, community art-making, and ritual. She spearheads an organization called Country Soul Songbook, as well as recording and performing music she dubs “astro-religious songspells and tales culled from ancient American songlines” under her own name. In 2020, she performed “Sister River” live at the North Carolina art space Cassilhaus, as part of her Folklore: Live at Cassilhaus EP.
Special thanks to Annie Parnell, who contributed to an earlier draft of this article.