Country Star Mickey Guyton: Why Being ‘Black Like Me’ Shouldn’t Be Twice As Hard
BY JEWLY HIGHT
When Mickey Guyton signed a Nashville record deal nearly a decade ago, after growing up in Texas on Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston and doing a bit of work in the LA entertainment industry, she approached the country music scene with tremendous respect. Cognizant of her newbie status, she showed how serious she was about becoming a part of that professional community by learning its culture and customs and taking its conventional wisdom to heart. Soon, she came to see what she was actually up against. She was a stirring, sumptuous singer, the sort of pop-embellished voice that was celebrated in a slightly earlier era, but undistinguished male vocalists with swaggering affect were now having their day, and women had little hope of radio airplay at all. What’s more, Guyton was a black woman in a format whose association with whiteness, though a distortion of the historical narrative, remained entrenched in the popular imagination and reinforced by market biases.
But, after many demoralizing years, Guyton started to create a role for herself where none had existed; within and beyond her music, she would accentuate the differences she embodied in identity, experience and perspective, while persisting in her warmhearted drive and artistic inclination to please a popular audience. Committing to that course, she’s emerging as a poised and galvanizing country-pop conscience, at once consummate pro, steadfast optimist and truth-teller.
On Tuesday, while much of the music industry paused in recognition of unjust threats to black survival, Guyton’s song “Black Like Me” appeared, without promotional fanfare, on her Instagram account and Spotify’s marquee Hot Country playlist. The track encapsulates her vision on many levels. It builds like a pop anthem, piano chords supplying a pensive pulse until the hook lifts above handclap backbeats, shadings of subterranean bass and ribbons of steel guitar. Vocally, she moves through country, pop and gospel modes: intimate narration, commanding plea and, at the song’s emotional climax, imperial belting, agile, octave leaps and flaring, improvisational runs. In the lyrics, she applies familiar tools of country storytelling — a small-town backdrop; poignantly down-to-earth scenes of class disparity; admiration for a parent’s hard work — to aim her anguish at dehumanizing encounters with racism toward sparking broad empathy.
While self-quarantining with her attorney husband in LA, Guyton’s zeal — for acknowledging marginalized peoples’ contributions to and shared ownership of her genre, and furthering a sense of connection to the Black Lives Matter movement among country peers and audiences — has only grown. She checked in with NPR over the phone, and before hanging up, took care to emphasize that, even now, she persists in believing, “There is more love than hate.”
Jewly Hight, NPR Music: What have the last couple of days and weeks and months been like for you?
Mickey Guyton: Girl, I’ve been crying every single day. Honestly, I haven’t stopped crying since I saw Ahmaud Arbery. I imagined if that were my nephew, running for their lives.
Why was it important to you to insert “Black Like Me” into the conversation this week the way that you did?
I have been watching all the things happening in the world. When I saw the video of George [Floyd], I couldn’t even watch it, because just seeing him gasping for air that long made it hard for me to breathe.
We had this song done and mastered about eight months ago. Our plan, before COVID, was to release my song “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Black Like Me” as a bundle. We were getting ready to shoot a music video. All of that was being prepared. Then everything just stopped. … I didn’t feel right trying to promote anything while people are suffering and not able to buy food. … And then I saw Ahmaud. And then I saw Breonna [Taylor]. And then I saw George. I just put “Black Like Me” on my Instagram. No permission, no nothing. I just put it out there because people need to hear that. And then Spotify called and asked for it. I was like, “Here. Take it. No, there doesn’t need to be promotion, because that’s tacky.” This is not about me. This is about the bigger spectrum of things and about humanity. And that’s why we did it. It was purely to try to at least get people to hear different perspectives.
How are you measuring the impact it’s having?
Well, my inbox on my Instagram has never looked like this before. I’ve never seen that type of viewership, and people reaching out. I’m trying to get [back] to everybody, because everybody matters to me, even the ones that don’t agree with me — besides racist people. Obviously, I have no time for that, because racists do not have a place in this country and need to go back to their cubbyhole. But people that don’t understand, those are the ones I want to reach, so that they can see the perspective. Because for some reason, it’s taboo to say, “I support black lives,” and people are scared of it. But if you care about animal cruelty, you should care about human cruelty.
“What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” was your contribution to an already unfolding body of music and professional advocacy around the marginalization of women in the country format. You’ve acknowledged Rissi Palmer and Priscilla Renea as kindred spirits who are, presently, positioned differently than you. But there’s no clear precedent for a major label performer in your space releasing a song like “Black Like Me.” Did you give that any thought when you wrote it?
I didn’t even think about that song fitting in when I wrote it. It was literally a song of healing for me. I wrote the song on a writers’ retreat — and I hate writers’ retreats, by the way.
In that context, isn’t there pressure to come up with something that’s commercially viable?
Absolutely. I perform well under pressure, but I don’t write well under pressure, because for me, writing is truly about emotion that you can’t put a timeline on.
I had had this title, “Black Like Me,” in my notes forever and ever and ever. When I got in the writing session, I just blurted it out. I was like, “Y’all. I’ve been wanting to write a song about being a black woman, about being black.” These other writers jumped on it. And when we finished it, [writer-producer] Nathan Chapman said, “This could either be the biggest song of your career, or it’s gonna make a lot of people angry. But I think we just wrote one of the most important songs of your career.” People aren’t used to hearing that much honesty in a song, because we don’t write honesty anymore.
This is a very different kind of song than those you released during the first several years of your recording career. What had to happen for you to go here in your writing?
A lot of hurt had to happen to get me to that point. … I did Nashville the Nashville way for so long, and I had seen so many women do Nashville the Nashville way, with very little results, and that’s kind of how I felt within my own life as being a black woman. I was having to face that and feel that, and go through studio sessions or makeup sessions having all these people around me that don’t look like me telling me how to do my hair and my makeup. And me a lot of times having to do my own hair, because people don’t know how to do my kind of hair. And me turning in a song and it automatically being [declared] too pop. It had to be all of those moments for me to get to a breaking point where I needed a song about it.
That was part of working on myself: I had to step outside of myself and realize I’m getting older. I can’t sing about liking boys, because I have a man. And having to find a different perspective for a grown woman. And that perspective was seeing people being marginalized and wanting to protect [them] so they don’t ever have to go through what I went through.
The lyrics land with the heft and authority of autobiographical reflection, especially the way you describe being othered on a small-town playground and watching your dad work twice as hard to provide the family stability.
Those kinds of things that I internalized as a little kid. My dad going to work two hours earlier than everybody, just to solidify his space, and him working overtime to keep us in a private school, because the neighborhood we lived in, they didn’t want black kids to go to that school. So not only did the public school that I should have gone to not accept black people, the private Christian school, Trinity Lutheran, that I went to, my best friend in class said that her parents called us “N***lets,” and laughed about it. Every part of that song is something I’ve experienced. The bridge is where I wanted to address that I know I’m not the only one and that it’s not about me — that there are brown lives that don’t matter; LGBTQ lives that don’t matter; transgendered black men that are getting murdered at an alarming rate; the white women being discriminated [against] in country music. That’s who I was thinking about there.
During Tuesday’s webinar, “A Conversation on Being African-American in the Nashville Music Industry,” you made a passing reference to something I’d wondered about — the 1960 book Black Like Me and film adaptation that tell the story of a white man trying to learn about black suffering in the South by passing as black. What is your relationship to that story?
I carried the book around with me forever, because I studied black history in college. You just realize, when we study history in our regular classes, black history is glossed over. You learn about Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks and everything else just kind of gets jumbled into one thing. Unless you dive into black history, you don’t really know everything. I took this class at Santa Monica City College, [taught] by a UCLA professor who was amazing. … Every single day that we had African-American history class, we left the room gutted, because it’s so heavy. You look in an African-American history book and you can see lynchings of slaves and people in the back celebrating and smiling — and to know that every single one of us in America, that is in our DNA. That pain has moved all the way up to 2020. … When you see discrimination over and over and over and over again in your life, the more you’re living it. I lived it for so long that it eventually breaks you down. I think that’s where a lot of us are. We’re like, “I’ve given you everything that I had, and that wasn’t enough. But the one thing I didn’t give you was truly my truth and my honesty, so now I’m going to give you that. And hopefully you’ll hear me.”
Country music is heavily indebted to black musical innovation, but the decade during which you’ve been building your career — the 2010s — has been an era of extreme borrowing from R&B and hip-hop cadences, aesthetics and postures among white country-pop performers. As an African-American country artist who’d been shaped by blockbuster vocal pop, what did you feel like your stylistic parameters were? What was available and not available to you?
That’s a really good question, because the reality of it is everything was always available to me. … Me trying to please and to fit in hindered a lot of that. I admit that. I mean, people were telling me I can’t. But I also have a mouth where I can say, “No, but I can.” … I know people believed in me, but I don’t think they were sure of me. Their certainty in me wasn’t available to me. And that was really, really hard. How do you sign someone and you say that you believe in them, but then you’re uncertain? … I think what was not available to me was a clear plan. My own choices were not available to me. Choosing my own songs wasn’t available to me. Any time I turned in a song, it was dissected more than others’. … There’s nobody else like me in this space, so anytime they tried to compare me to somebody, they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.
It seems like you had to live and work with a kind of double consciousness, trying to find your footing in an industry where you’re constantly aware of your difference, while others had the luxury of incorporating as much hip-hop influence as they wanted into approaches that were very commercially successful.
That, I can tell you, was very hard — to be in a space and have people play you a song, like, “Oh my God, this is the best thing. Have you heard this record?” Coming from someone who is black, who knows black culture, it was really hard for me to think that it was great. To be honest, it was borderline offensive. I appreciate everybody in their space and I appreciate artistry and I appreciate moving the needle forward and making different sounds and embracing other cultures. But when you’re embracing the sound of black people, but there’s not a lot of black people in this space, it’s a tough pill to swallow. I was so used to it, I became numb to that feeling. I just would compartmentalize that feeling. I didn’t want to be the complainer.
How did you feel like the racial coding of sounds and styles applied to your singing?
Well, if I went too country, if I went traditional, it was not current enough. And then if I made it poppier, then I was too pop. It made songwriting really, really hard for me, until I told all of those people to stop feeding me all of that information and stop telling me what I should and shouldn’t write. I’m going to figure it out on my own. … When I say I worked on myself, I had to work on myself and take everything that everybody was saying with a grain of salt. Not everybody’s intentions are bad, even though what they’re saying comes across horribly. For me to be able to stand here with such conviction and what I’m saying and what I’m doing, I went through a lot to get there.
You laid the groundwork for “Black Like Me” by the way you show up when you’re called on to represent, explain and educate. On social media, you’re always highlighting information, sharing how you feel and cheering on or gently calling out fellow artists. What’s your strategy for engaging, and what does it require of you emotionally?
It takes a lot out of me emotionally. But when I saw Chase Rice say what he had to say [on May 30, Rice, who co-authored Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” tweeted, “Yeah, rioting helps.”], this man has benefited from black culture. … If you’re going to mention anything about rioting, you have got to mention and at least acknowledge the deaths of innocent black people. I’m not saying that rioting is right, but if you want to talk about the rioting, then you need to open your mouth and say black lives are being persecuted disproportionately and it’s not OK. If you don’t say that, you don’t get to say a word. And what I realized is I have the power, and as a black woman in a space, it is my job to protect other black people, and to protect other white people from receiving information that could be harmful. Seeing Riley Green say what he said about J.Lo after the halftime performance [Green tweeted “Great game… but can I get somebody to translate this Super Bowl halftime show so I know what they are singing about??”], No, sir. You don’t get to say that and me see that and not call it out. Because we, as artists, have a responsibility to use our platform for good, not for division. That does not work in this space in 2020. And if I see it, I’m going to call it out. It doesn’t matter who it is. For some reason, in country music, we’ve allowed people to hold our voices hostage.
How have you felt the effects of the perception that getting somewhere in the mainstream country scene requires avoiding anything controversial?
I had to control my mouth for a long time. … It was like, “How are we going to represent you in the best way possible without losing radio?” as I was trying to push a single up the charts. And the more I saw that radio wasn’t supporting women anyway, I’m like, “Why am I keeping my mouth shut? It doesn’t matter what I do. So why am I holding out just in case?” … I hit my lowest lows. I have nothing left to lose. And because of that, even if my music goes nowhere, I want to empower people to use their voice.
Country music praises Johnny Cash, praises Dolly Parton, praises all of these old-school country artists. And guess what? The common denominator with these greats is they were singing about their truth, and they were not afraid to speak up and call a spade a spade. You can’t praise Johnny Cash and then tell us, in 2020, to keep our mouths shut. Our voices matter, and voices that are trying to do the right thing. Not trolls, but true voices. When I see Cassadee Pope speaking on something, it’s beautiful. I’m so freaking proud of her. When I see RaeLynn saying something, I’m so proud of them, because I know these girls. I know their hearts. And they have something to say. And people need to listen to them.
There are times when you’re reliving your own pain and trauma in order to help people understand realities beyond their personal experience. What toll does that take?
It does contribute to a lot of pain for me. … But in order for things to change, people need to know that and see that. All of this is heavy. I’ve talked about it every day since all this stuff has happened. I don’t always want this responsibility, but I’m putting out this music, so it is my responsibility. People are looking to me. I am not some model citizen that knows everything. I’m just a normal freakin’ person, and it is a heavy burden. I couldn’t even eat yesterday. You don’t realize how much this affects your physical being. It’s a lot.
But I have seen progress, and even through my pain, beauty has come out of it. I helped a lot of people understand what Black Lives Matter really means, and helping them understand that when people are protesting and saying Black Lives Matter, we’re not saying that all lives don’t matter. We agree that all lives matter. We just want to matter too. It took me crying. It took me upset and going back to a place that I don’t like to go back to — but to see people have that understanding, what a beautiful thing. If that means I have to relive it, I’m going to have to relive it, because we can’t continue life like this anymore. I want to have kids. I don’t want to worry about my son walking the street or going for a run.
I’m not sure who else could or would have stepped into the role you’ve stepped into in the contemporary country community.
I have stepped in it. Yesterday I was talking to my husband and I said, “I can’t go back.” I realize the responsibility in that, and it’s a lot of pressure. However, it is much easier for me to fight for other people than it is to fight for myself. Yes, I have music out there. Yes, I need to make a living. But the music is not self-centered. It’s not self-serving. This music is about everyone coming together. And that does take some of the weight off of me. But I have been nervous, I’m not going to lie. I’m nervous. I don’t know what this new chapter looks like. I asked for this, you know? And now I’ve got it. I’m starting to get the respect. And it’s like, “How do I keep that up?”
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.