Music Monday: The Undeniable Power of Adia Victoria

The musician talks about why writing music is necessary for survival — plus! An exclusive performance of "Head Rot."

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When I was a teenager, I spent my weekends going to see my favorite bands live with friends. Often held in VFW halls, at local YMCAs, or in the basement of Philly's First Unitarian Church, shows always made me feel at peace. The fact that I was usually the only nonwhite woman there didn't bother me, but the questions people seemed to have for me did. "You don't listen to rap music?" "What are you?" "Black people like rock?" The general curiosity that my presence sparked reminded me that for some, even in the early 2000s, seeing a black girl at a rock show didn't make sense. In their eyes, I was out of place, something peculiar. A living, breathing mystery.

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Thankfully, those years are behind me, and I no longer allow people to ask me those questions. Books like What Are You Doing Here?, by Laina Dawes, and long conversations with friends of color who are also avid music lovers have taught me that I don't have to validate my presence at a venue and that it is not my responsibility to educate those who are still under the influence of rock 'n' roll's racist past. When I go to shows, I can count on two hands how many people of color stand beside me in the crowd, and I see myself represented onstage and in the media through the cinematic power of Lemonade, through my favorite song by Santigold, and in the Southern Gothic glory of Adia Victoria's debut, Beyond the Bloodhounds.

I had the privilege to talk with Adia over the phone a few weeks before her album's release about how her experience of living in the South led her toward music and why writing songs like "Head Rot" (which you can watch an exclusive live performance of below) is necessary.

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Dianca Potts: How did growing up in the church shape your love for music?

Adia Victoria: One of the things that I loved most was the ability to sing in the choir with all of the little children at church. It was my first introduction to Oh my God, I feel different when I'm singing as opposed to when I'm just saying things. It was a way to bond with other people, and I felt more open when I was singing with my classmates. My Adventist school and the Adventist church were connected, so the school's choir would go and sing for Easter or for Christmas, and that's when I realized, I don't just love singing, I love performing for people. I was always the little soloist because I was a ham and I liked that feeling of I'm going to sing something to you, and it's going to make you feel a certain way. It was a total feeling of power for a five-year-old.

DP: Who were your biggest influences when you first started writing songs?

AV: When I started writing music back in 2008, I had just gotten into Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, just old country music. I learned all the "cowboy chords" on this acoustic guitar that my best friend left me when she moved to Seattle. I started learning all of Hank Williams's songs and all of Johnny's songs, and I was just like, Whoa, there is a definite magic to putting the right chords to the right words. Suddenly I was able to shift moods with sound. I was also writing a lot of poetry, so it just made sense to consolidate everything, and I just start started writing songs from these very simple chords.

DP: The stories that you tell on Beyond the Bloodhounds felt very Gothic to me. "Head Rot" and "Howlin' Shame" felt so intimate and really resonated with my own obsession with the past as a black woman in America. How did themes like possession and being haunted make their way into your songs?

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AV: Growing up as a black person in America, you're dealing with the dual consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke a lot about in his philosophy, which was this idea that you're American but you're also black, and you have this externalized and internalized [idea] that no one pays credence to or what you really feel. Growing up in the South, for me, that was particularly triggering, because I grew up as a lower-class black girl. I didn't have the means of escaping that reality. Being in the South, you live at ground zero of this American experiment and you understand that the past has not settled, that the past has not been paid for, and that it's very much alive and going on. That idea of [having an] obsession with the past, with being possessed by your own neurosis, that's something that I had to explore in my art because there was nowhere else for me to explore it. There was nowhere for me to be like, "Can we talk about the difficulties of existing as a Southern woman? Even now in 2016, even though Martin Luther King had a dream, I'm still not OK." That's what my art is, that's my primary muse, is going through life in America in the South with this double consciousness.

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DP: You explore your connection to South Carolina throughout Beyond the Bloodhounds, especially on "Stuck in the South." How has songwriting changed your relationship to your home?

AV: I wrote that song three years ago in my mom's house, and it was a rather stressful moment for us. We had a family member who was passing, and I felt stranded in my misery. I felt abandoned there, like a boat out to sea. There was no escaping it. I felt like I couldn't escape this  death that is happening, I can't escape where I'm from. There was nowhere I could go where I wouldn't feel [it], and so I sat with it for a while. I didn't want to write a song that was like, "My loved one is dying of cancer," so what can I do to articulate this feeling? I thought about my 16-year-old self who had never lived anywhere but upstate South Carolina and the feeling of the injustice of being stuck there. I've made peace with that, and I'm able to look back at my childhood, but as a 16-year-old it was the biggest injustice to me to be stuck in South Carolina, knowing that there was a world out there. I was obsessed with the thought of If I can leave this shitty place, then I won't be so shitty. So the character is letting you know that she has internalized misery and she projects it to the world around her, and it builds to this manic delusion of, like, "I'm leaving soon, I'm getting out of here, I'm leaving."

DP: In my experience, blackness is still unfortunately viewed as "other" within the indie-music scene, especially at shows. How have you dealt with expectations or misconceptions from white show-goers ?

AV: As far as how I deal with their expectations of what I'm going to be, I don't. It's a part of my process of going to the stage where I don't take anyone's expectations or feedback into account. It just doesn't exist to me. I understand that I'm probably the first black woman that they've seen with a guitar, but that doesn't mean that I'm the only black woman playing a guitar. I've had a lot of white journalists go there, who try and ask me, "Why do you play guitar, how did that happen?" And it's like, Why the fuck do you play guitar? You know? That's what I want to say, but what I do say is that I'm not going to sit here and limit down the conversation and the discourse to your level of ignorance. You need to educate yourself, and then we can have this conversation, but I'm not going to sit here and try to make it like I'm some kind of anomaly or some unique thing. There's black women all over this world telling their stories, it's just that you're not listening. Your ignorance is not a matter of fact, and I'm not going to treat it as one. I also know that the way that most white people view black women and black women artists is based in ignorance, so I'm not even going to respond to it. I have no room for that as a performer. This is my story. If you want to see your story presented in a certain way, then you grab a guitar and go on the stage.

DP: There's been a lot of conversation lately about black women reclaiming the appropriative legacy of blues and rock, which for me brings to mind Beyoncé's collaboration with Jack White on Lemonade and musicians like Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. Do you consider yourself as a part of this reclaiming?

AV: I don't think of it necessarily as reclaiming it, what Beyoncé is doing, what I'm doing, I see it more as I never relinquished it. I never gave this up, [white people] just decided to spin off and create some narrative of who black women are, what black womanhood is, and all the while we've been living our lives in spite of that. That's not who I am. I feel very fortunate that I'm able to do that on my own terms, and I'm glad that the conversation is happening. I'm really excited about it. I hope that it doesn't stop at Beyoncé. I hope that she is a catalyst for wider and deeper conversation about this, and if that's Lemonade's legacy, that it got people really talking, that's really cool. There are so many sides to black Southern womanhood, and there's always this push to make us seem monolithic when we are manifold, because we are dangerous. Black women are dangerous, and society knows that. They know that we're powerful, and they know that we know the truth.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.

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