In 1973, Stevie Wonder sang of a young man from “Hard Time, Mississippi,” born into a nearly inescapable poverty where employers “don’t use colored people.”
Before the album version of “Living for the City” ends, the protagonist unwittingly steps into the middle of a crime, gets arrested and jailed for 10 years, the prison guard dismissing him with the N-word as he shoves him into the cell.
In 2019, Mickey Guyton delivered her own version of that story by writing “Black Like Me.” She wasn’t referencing Wonder, though she could be when she contemplates cultural inactivity in the prechorus: “Now I’m all grown up, and nothing has changed.”
“Black Like Me” reached the public sphere in May after murders of unarmed Black men by whites were caught on cell phone cameras: jogger Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting went viral once news/talk WGIG Brunswick, Ga., posted footage on May 5, and George Floyd was choked under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
“I have just been in so much pain,” reflects Guyton, feeling the racial hatred those tragedies represent.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained new momentum, she registered her beliefs by posting 38 seconds of audio on Instagram and Twitter, concluding with the last two lines of her song’s chorus: “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be Black like me.”
“People’s reaction to it,” she says, “was like, ‘Oh, my God, put this out now.’ “
Guyton infused a lifetime of experience into “Black Like Me.” The school system in China Spring, Texas, rejected her, and she was forced to attend an out-of-the-way private facility, where she was harassed with the N-word in the classroom and ridiculed for the “ashy” color of her legs on the playground. But she never approached the subject in her music until she took part in a Warner Chappell Nashville writers retreat. She was booked at the home studio of songwriter-producer Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift, Lady A) and teamed with two London-born pop songwriters currently living in Los Angeles: Fraser Churchill and Emma Davidson-Dillon.
After some introductory discussion, Guyton grew comfortable enough to reveal her “Black Like Me” title. It came from a 1961 book by John Howard Griffin, a white reporter who had his skin darkened so he could experience life as an African American. She wanted to use that title to document her own experiences, something she could only do if she felt emotionally safe with her co-writers.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like being the only black female country artist signed to a major label,” says Churchill. “This is Mickey’s real-life truth and real experience that needed to come across. I’m so proud of her for being so honest.”
Churchill developed a progression on guitar with enough minor chords to give weight to the song’s foundation. And he came up with the “land of the free” setup line for the “Black like me” hook. Chapman chipped in the opening lines of the chorus, which connect unintentionally with the Hard Time locale of “Living for the City”: “It’s a hard life on Easy Street/Just white-painted picket fences far as you can see.”
The image clearly represents the American dream, but it also fits a media message that was prevalent for decades when minorities only saw white people in major roles of power and prestige.
“That’s kind of what I’ve only ever seen in country music,” says Guyton. “I mean, I’ve always been the only one [like me] in a room. And I’m not uncomfortable with it. I’m used to it.”
It’s key, perhaps, that Davidson-Dillon was in the writing room, since she was able to identify as a Black woman with the experiences Guyton weaved into the piece: the outsider feelings, the hurtful playground scenarios and the extra effort required just to get an old house and a used car.
“It’s unfortunate that so many people can relate to that,” says Davidson-Dillon.
But as personal as “Black Like Me” was for Guyton, it was clear that the song should be as universal as possible. They addressed that in a short bridge: “I know I’m not the only one,” she sings, “who feels like I, I don’t belong.”
Despite its brevity, that section packs a lot of punch. The notes are elongated to highlight Guyton’s pure tone and vocal power, and the section changes key, automatically bringing a sense of drama.
“I don’t know how often that happens in country music,” says Churchill. “That doesn’t often happen in pop music either, but it brings out a lot of emotion in the melody.”
As the song came to its conclusion, they put a different spin on the hook — “Someday we’ll all be free/And I’m proud to be Black like me” — bringing a rainbow to the storm.
“We wanted it to be positive,” notes Davidson-Dillon. “That’s what this whole movement is that’s going on right now. Even if people are [just] talking about it, that is positive.”
Chapman shifted to the piano to create the demo, and Guyton dug down deep for a scratch vocal.
“It would take me like 10,000 takes to do what she did in one,” marvels Davidson-Dillon.
“Nathan turned around,” recalls Guyton, “and he said, ‘Well, we probably wrote the most important song of your career, and it’ll probably make a lot of people mad.’ “
Producer Forest Glen Whitehead (Kelsea Ballerini) built the rest of the track around the demo, adding bass and several guitars, though he was careful to always remain in the shadow of Guyton’s vocal and lyrics.
“It needed dynamics,” he says. “It needed just a couple of different extra elements that didn’t get in the way of anything that was there, but increased the hills and valleys of the track. By the last chorus, I really wanted it to be an anthemic stream.”
He tracked new vocals on Guyton, but something was missing, so she brought Whitehead and Chapman together to work on it in the studio where the song was originally written. Chapman replaced the newer vocal with Guyton’s original demo performance, and he added a layer of steel guitar.
“My husband said it best: ‘The pedal steel brought tears to the song,’” remembers Guyton.
“Black Like Me” was originally planned for an EP, though that package was delayed with the advent of COVID-19. But the racial unrest created by the Arbery and Floyd murders — the same kind of unrest at the heart of “Living for the City” — spurred the release of “Black Like Me” on June 1, the day before Blackout Tuesday.
“Her being so vulnerable and honest in that lyric, it’s going to change a lot of people’s perspective on country music,” predicts Whitehead.
The jury is out on country radio, resistant and conservative in nature, boarding the train, but streaming platforms have lent significant attention. And listeners with open minds may find “Black Like Me” to be the most insightful, and rewarding, country song of 2020. As Chapman predicted, it’s an important track, and it has been given a public life at a time when social attitudes have mostly aligned with its move toward equality.
“A lot of people in the Black community have to work twice as hard to get a life,” says Guyton. “The American dream doesn’t necessarily apply to everybody. We think it does, but it doesn’t.”
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