Amythyst Kiah has burst on the roots music scene in recent years with her powerful vocals and insightful songwriting. The native Tennessean is a self-described “Southern Gothic” singer of “alt-country blues” who has been receiving rave reviews and is nominated for a 2020 Grammy in the Best American Roots Song category for her spell-binding “Black Myself.”
Our Native Daughters is the name of Kiah’s recent collaboration with 2017 MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell (from Birds of Chicago). Early last year the supergroup delivered a full-length album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, produced by Giddens and Dirk Powell. “Polly Ann’s Hammer” is a Kiah/Allison Russell song that reimagines the old John Henry tune from the point of view of his wife, and it certainly is one of the album’s standouts. “Black Myself,” the opening track, grabs the listener right from the beginning and is described by NPR as “the simmering defiance of self-respect in the face of racism.”
In the liner notes to the album, Kiah writes about “Black Myself” in saying,
“This song was inspired by a line from north
Mississippi hill country musician Sid
Hemphill’s ‘John Henry:’
‘I don’t like no red-black woman
Black myself, black myself’
This sentiment is linked to the history of intraracial discrimination, the idea that being a lighter shade of black is more desirable because it means that you look closer to being white than black. And from that I thought about how this negative connotation of blackness was integral to slavery, segregation, and then the “white flight” to suburban neighborhoods after desegregation. I thought of my experience as a black girl in a white suburban neighborhood in the 1990s, and how, once puberty hit, the doors of my neighbors would soon be suddenly closed to me. And thus the refrain and title of this song are intended to be an anthem for those who have been alienated and othered because of the color of their skin.”
Kiah’s solo projects have been turning heads now for several years. In addition to her own songs, such as 2019’s “Firewater,” Kiah presents powerful interpretations of traditional tunes, as in “Darling Corey” from the album Dig.
Rolling Stone noted that Kiah and Our Native Daughters arrived
“…as a crucial pronouncement in folk music. It’s the culmination of a movement of 21st-century singers, artists, songwriters and instrumentalists of color who have been reclaiming the racially heterogeneous lineages of folk, country and American roots music.
‘In the past 10 or 15 years, there’s been this real sense of need to bring forth this cultural history,’ says Kiah. ‘You’ve got people now who are interested and invested in bringing attention to the history of folk music, who really bring things full circle and show that this is America’s music. This isn’t something that only black people or only white people do.'”
Amythyst Kiah, who tours extensively, opens for English roots musician Yola this Wednesday, January 8th, at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn and then again on Friday at Washington’s 9:30 Club. She will appear at the Baltimore Old Time Festival on Friday, March 13th, and at the Merlefest musical festival in North Carolina on Friday, April 24th.
Catch her soon at a venue near you, and enjoy.
More to come…