Considering Diversity and Representation in Americana

Rhiannon GiddensRhiannon Giddens

The Americana Music Association’s annual festival and conference returns to Nashville Sept. 12-17, but in the 12 months since last year’s event, an uncomfortable debate over the genre and its relationship with race has broken out on the internet. Both sides of the debate agree that Americana’s performers and audience are overwhelmingly white and should become more diverse. The debate is over the reasons for the current state of affairs and how to change it.

The dust-up was initiated by “Americana’s Year of Reckoning,” a long year-end essay by Charles Aaron for MTV News, which prompted a response from Nashville journalist and radio host Craig Havighurst, which itself prompted a response from Nashville rock and blues performer Adia Victoria, who is black and who had been interviewed at length by Aaron for his piece. Let’s start with Aaron’s essay, which highlighted a very real problem and then offered a flawed diagnosis that was short on logic and consistency. 

Aaron begins by accusing the Americana Music Association, a trade group designed to lift the commercial prospects of a group of artists not well-served by the mainstream music industry, of developing a marketing brand to do just that. That’s as silly as attacking the Bernie Sanders campaign for having printed up bumper stickers and T-shirts that marketed its brand. Aaron then tries to discredit the genre’s politics by pointing out that the Avett Brothers played the 2013 inauguration of far-right North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. That was a bad decision, but James Brown not only played Richard Nixon’s 1969 inauguration but also endorsed his 1972 re-election bid. Does that discredit the entire funk field? Does that mean we shouldn’t listen to James Brown?

Aaron further attacks Americana by claiming that “no matter the genre’s origin story, its smartly marketed roots clearly lead back to Southern rock.” That’s preposterous. Of the many strands that feed into Americana, Southern rock probably comes in sixth after Dylan-esque singer-songwriters, Emmylou-like country-rock, the Cash family’s progressive country, mountain string bands and Texan cosmic cowboy music. Working from this flimsy premise, Aaron attributes every sin of the 1980s Southern-rock movement to the 2010s Americana community.

Near the end of a scaldingly righteous hipster essay, Aaron condescendingly derides Neil Young’s anti-racism song “Southern Man” as “a scaldingly righteous hippie anthem.” Then Aaron lambasts Hillary Clinton’s voters (blacker and browner than Bernie Sanders’ voters) for being condescending to white Trump voters. 

In a long response posted on his own website, Havighurst points out many of these flaws in Aaron’s argument and defends the AMA’s efforts to grow more diverse. He name-checks all the young Americana artists of color that Aaron conveniently left out of his story. He also points out that Victoria’s website posted the Spotify playlist “Best of 2016 Folk & Americana,” which included a song of hers.

Victoria responded in turn to Havighurst by posting an open letter on her Facebook band profile. In the letter, she explains that the playlist was posted by her team without her knowledge, and that her problem with Americana is not that she’s “been shunned due to the color of my skin. … Quite the opposite, in fact. I have been awed [sic] over and placed in the category of ‘Black People We Like!’ by White tastemakers in the industry. I have been treated as a special exotic ornament that they can point to and say, ‘See! See! That too is Americana!’ ”

In other words, the Americana community invited her to join the party, which is its right, and she declined, which is her right. Worth considering, however, are the reasons she gives for refusing. She argues that African-American artists who often play to largely white audiences are not only cut off from their own community but also face unspoken pressure to cater to that other audience by softening their politics or cultural markers. 

Victoria tells Aaron she rejected Americana because she didn’t want to be “something white people consume to feel better about themselves.” In her response to Havighurst, she adds, “My art is informed by my tumultuous relationship with the South, the beauty and the horror. It is complex and nuanced and cannot be represented by the donning of a Stetson, and the stomping of a boot.”

Victoria is right that there is a portion of the white Americana audience that responds to black music with naive romanticism. Sometimes that reaction stems from an unseemly sense of entitlement that demands affirmation from every side. Just as often, though, that “gee whiz” attitude stems from inexperience with a music the listeners are just discovering. If their curiosity is honest and they keep learning, this is a transition period they will pass through. All of us who have embraced music from a different culture have passed through this phase. 

Rev Sekou Credit Cody DickensonRev. SekouPhoto: Cody Dickinson

It’s also true that there are Americana acts that indulge in retro-hillbilly nostalgia, but those tend to be the least influential and most forgettable acts. No one who has listened to such Americana acts as Rhiannon Giddens, the Drive-By Truckers, James McMurtry, Alejandro Escovedo, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell or Otis Taylor will find avoidance or soft-pedaling of our nation’s troubled racial history.

“We take racial and ethnic, gender, geographic, sexual orientation, life experience and artistic diversity very seriously,” declares Jed Hilly, the executive director of the Americana Music Association. He offers as evidence the fact that his organization honored Flaco Jimenez and William Bell with lifetime achievement awards before the Grammys took the hint and followed suit. He points out that this year’s AmericanaFest kicks off Tuesday evening at War Memorial Auditorium with Voices of a People’s History of the United States, a tribute to struggles for racial and gender justice, with music and spoken-word performances from Giddens, Rev. Sekou, Patterson Hood, Alice Randall, Billy Bragg, the Blind Boys of Alabama and more.

It’s also worth looking at Folk Alliance International, an organization focused on folk music traditions that produces multiple regional conferences as well as a national conference each year. FAI makes a point of diversifying not only its guest performers but also its staff. 

“To be more than token about inclusivity,” says FAI’s executive director Aengus Finnan, “we have started at the top by encouraging, welcoming and recruiting visible minority board members, and hiring visible minority staff and interns.” He adds that the organization’s every decision about showcases, panels and speakers “includes the question, ‘Who is missing from the conversation?’ ” Only by explicitly raising the issue, he says, can the Folk Alliance be sure it doesn’t “default to programming with known contacts” and instead make sure they “invite new perspectives.”

Taken as a whole, the comments of Aaron, Havighurst, Victoria, Hilly and Finnan indicate that both Americana’s talent pool and its audiences need to be more culturally diverse. The evidence is that Americana-Fest, the Folk Alliance Conference and other Americana presenters are making a good-faith effort to tackle the easy part of the problem: diversifying the performers by broadening their bookings and the range of talent they honor with awards. 

The harder question, however, is how to diversify the audience. Anyone who has ever been the outsider in a large audience knows how uncomfortable that can be. I go to a lot of R&B shows, where I’m usually one of a few white faces in a large black crowd. At almost every concert I’m asked — sometimes with friendly curiosity and sometimes with unfriendly suspicion — what I’m doing there. I’m a professional music journalist, so no one’s going to stop me from seeing the music I want to see, but I can understand how uneasy a black person might feel at an alt-country or bluegrass concert. 

I wish I had a magic answer for this problem, but I don’t. I can suggest that journalists and promoters keep emphasizing the African-American strain of the Southern working-class folk traditions that feed Americana — and the profound black influence on strains like string bands and trad country, which seem so white. I can suggest that black audiences take a chance on Americana shows, and that white audiences neither ostracize nor patronize their non-white peers. 

How do you thread that needle? Well, here’s one place to start — there’s a bit of the music nerd in all of us, and we all like to argue about our favorite records. Who’s better: Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf? Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash?


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