The most indelible moments in music come when a song raises the hair on the back of your neck and makes you put your fist in the air and stomp your feet. From classics such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” to more current numbers such as “Sweeter” by Leon Bridges and Tyler Childers’s “Long Violent History,” some of the most powerful tunes can also soundtrack a movement and become a force for change. “Black Myself,” by the East Tennessee singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah, is one of those songs.
Over a throbbing drumbeat and a crunchy blues guitar riff, Kiah sings—with an occasional snarl—a thrilling song that reclaims Black identity, something that has consistently been degraded for four hundred years. “Black Myself” is an anthem of those times and for these times. “This is the long-est sustained interest in talking about racial injustice that I think I’ve ever seen,” she says via a Zoom chat from her home in Johnson City, Tennessee. “So what a time to make the point, keep the conversation going, and maybe bring in some new people.”
“Black Myself” might end up being an anthem of 2021, though Kiah already received a Grammy nomination for it…two years ago. The original, folkier version appeared on the 2019 debut album by Our Native Daughters, a women-of-color supergroup assembled by Rhiannon Giddens (with Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell) that mines the Black female experience to craft searing songs addressing the stains of slavery, racism, and misogyny. As Kiah was nearing the end of recording her new album, Wary + Strange, her producer, Tony Berg, suggested she take another crack at the song. “I hadn’t really envisioned it being part of Wary + Strange,” Kiah says. “But a big part of the album is the different hardships that I’ve faced to bring me to the point where I am today. For me, being Black is quintessentially wary and strange.”
She has confronted that uneasiness more than once. Kiah graduated from East Tennessee State University with a major in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies, and was one of the only people of color in the program. But she found a welcoming group of friends and played in the university’s Old-Time Pride Band. “I started meeting really awesome people that understood the background and the history of the music,” she says. “West African culture was a huge part of string band music and country music.”
In conversation, Kiah, who is thirty-four, is measured and calm, though she shows glimpses of her “goofy side” during our ninety-minute chat. But underneath the laughter is nearly twenty years of struggle in the search for who she is, all of which is distilled beautifully on Wary + Strange. Raised in Chattanooga, she played a lot of sports as a child, but her teenage years brought on social anxiety and body issues. Instead of running around the basketball court, she stayed at home listening to nineties alternative rock such as Nirvana and Tori Amos. Her parents bought her an acoustic guitar, and she learned how to play via instructional DVDs. But when Kiah was seventeen, her mother took her own life, while her father struggled with drug addiction (he’s now eleven years sober). More than a decade went by before she could truly come to terms with her mother’s passing.
“I tried to bury how I was feeling,” she says. “It wasn’t until going to therapy that I realized I hadn’t been grieving for my mother.”
One of Wary + Strange’s most piercing moments is the haunting “Wild Turkey,” in which Kiah tries to make sense of what her mother was thinking at the time. “Wild Turkey in the car seat / The bottle’s empty. I hope it gave her some relief,” she sings. “Cause she’s never coming back / No, she’s never coming back.” The song did not come easy. “It took me two years to write because I was finally giving my younger self permission to feel what I was feeling, as opposed to trying to bury it and ignore it,” she says.
Kiah lives in Johnson City with her father, who is now retired and has helped her with the minutiae of managing a music career (she admits to being a “total scatterbrain”). She’s been in a relationship with her girlfriend, Jessica, for three years, and during the pandemic they’ve missed hanging out at their favorite bar for pint night. The two are considering taking a drive to nearby Asheville the next weekend. The mountains around her home hold a strong pull. “I like traveling, but when I come back and see those mountains, there’s this sense of home and peace that settles in me,” she says. “It’s a feeling where I know everything is gonna be fine.”
Amythyst Kiah’s East Tennessee Journey – Garden & Gun is written by Dacey Orr for gardenandgun.com