As Told to Beverly Keel
Every once in a while, I’ll have a journalist who is doing a story on diversity in Country Music reach out. Whenever that request made its way to me, even three years ago, I felt that the story was valid and legitimate, but I had a strong sense that it would have fallen on deaf ears, to be honest. Until now, it never felt like the right moment to speak to the press about my experience of working in Country Music as a Black woman.
If I had shared my story three years ago, could it have maybe done something? Sure. But I didn’t feel like it was time yet. It didn’t feel like it does now.
This year, a mass awakening about racial injustice swept across the world, especially in the United States, and even in music. The resounding effects were palpable for me. So many of my peers and colleagues in Country Music were listening, engaging and leaning in. It’s something that I have never witnessed to that degree in my 14 years in Nashville. And that’s when the right time presented itself to share my story — when the moment is happening, when there’s an engaged and mobilized audience. I wouldn’t have dared miss that important opportunity.
After I spoke candidly about my experiences as a Black woman in Country Music on the panel on June 2, which was Blackout Tuesday, I received so many emails and text messages from friends that I was shocked by the response. For me, I talked about how I live my life every day. My existence is normal to me. I didn’t know that sharing my everyday life would actually be shocking to people. The resounding sentiment was that they had no idea what the Black experience was like today.
I was so glad that all of us shared our stories that day, myself included, and that we were honest and vulnerable. Hopefully it made a significant impact. Now people know a little more about what our experience is like in Nashville or Country Music, such as not feeling safe around town or when we go to festivals or road trips and video sets.
I had a very prominent executive in Country Music tell me that she was shocked and embarrassed that she didn’t know what it was like for us. She had also said how she wished the panel had been recorded because she would have made it required viewing for her staff and future new hires.
I had several people say, “I am making a vow that I won’t stand for racism. If you are brave enough to share your story, I can be brave enough to call it out if it ever happens in front of me.” I teared up when I read that. The responses were remarkable. It seemed to almost give people permission to investigate the magnitude of the problem for themselves and to hopefully feel more ownership in resolving the problem.
Where do I want to see the conversation go from here? This is the toughest question I’ve been asked. Specifically, for the Nashville Country Music industry, there still needs to be a lot more conversation, sharing and listening — especially of personal stories and systemic roots. That’s only part of the equation. Another part that is difficult to share because it can sometimes sound cliché, but there’s no way around it is: change is a personal, inside job. People have to change their belief and value systems. They have to have their own reckoning.
Where will we be in five years? I hope that we are more diverse, both in the genre and industry. I hope that people have personally come to grips with any racist beliefs that they have and that they’ve changed. I also hope people call out racism and racially-damaging words and actions, when witnessed. I hope there is more unity. I hope the stereotype that Black people don’t like, desire to work in, or play Country Music will cease to exist. I hope all truths come to light and that we’re all better for it.
Before June 2, I never had any hope that racial injustice would be overcome. Now, I think I have an ever-so-small glimmer of hope that change could be possible. It’s a very small glimmer of light in a really dark room, but it’s still there.