Though Black singers and musicians were instrumental in the formation of what we now call country, diverse voices have been largely absent from the genre since it began catering to white rural audiences in the 1920s. Now, one organization is out to change that.
The brainchild of country singer-songwriter and activist Kamara Thomas, Country Soul Songbook is an online community platform that aims to center and support historically marginalized artists in country and Americana music. Launched in November 2019, the organization is now spearheading the Country Soul Songbook Summit, a four-day virtual event that will include performances, panels, interactive workshops and curated conversations spotlighting “Black, Indigenous, Queer, Southern, Spiritual, Working Class contributors to the Country / Soul / Americana community.”
Notably, the summit is being billed as a challenge to the entrenched forces in the country and Americana industry and is inviting “those that have profited from systemic exclusion” of Black, Indigenous and queer artists to become co-signers of what it is calling the CSSB project. It is also providing opportunities for individuals and organizations to donate, become an event sponsor and more.
The BIPOC/LGBTQIA-led event, which is slated to run from Oct. 15-18 online, will kick off with land recognition before launching into performances and conversations with artists, activists, journalists and tastemakers including Amythyst Kiah, Rissi Palmer, Pura Fé, Leyla McCalla, Rev. Sekou, Lavender Country, Birds of Chicago, Cary Morin, Lilli Lewis, Karen & The Sorrows, Kandia Crazy Horse, Loamlands, Joy Clark, Geronimo Collins, Brian Farrow, Gangstagrass, Luis Rodriguez, J.Rees, Dusky Waters, Taylor Crumpton, Shirlette Ammons, Will Darity, Alice Gerrard, Molly Sarlé, Marcus K. Dowling, Charles L. Hughes, Phil Cook, Blue Cactus, Nana Grizol, Lee Bains and more.
Highlights from the forthcoming summit include “Establishing Black Country in Black Pop Culture,” which will discuss the recent mainstream success of Black artists in country music with writer Taylor Crumpton, artist/author Kandia Crazy Horse, podcaster Geronimo Collins and moderator Marcus K. Dowling; “Ancestral Healing: Ode to Lavender Country,” a celebration of the life and career of Patrick Haggerty, frontman of the groundbreaking queer country band Lavender Country; “How to Use Country Music to Organize White People for Racial Justice,” a panel about how country music has been coopted by the right wing featuring Karen Pittelman of Karen & the Sorrows; and “90’s Country Was Pretty Gay,” in which the Neon Boots podcast and members of the Durham, North Carolina-based House of Coxx drag family will discuss the co-opting of queer and BIPOC culture in mainstream country music videos during the 1990s.
“We need BIPOC and LGBTQIA creatives to lead the conversation, instead of waiting around for the ‘invitation to exploitation’ at the hands of a profit-driven music industry that has no incentive to do anything but tokenize us, water us down, keep us in line, and homogenize our art and our viewpoints,” said Thomas in announcing the summit.
The CSSB Summit comes at a critical juncture for the historically white country music industry, which lately has seen the rise of such Black and LGBTQ artists as Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Mickey Guyton, Orville Peck and Blanco Brown (not to mention the hip-hop/country crossover megastar Lil Nas X) as well as Black executives including Warner Music Nashville’s James Marsh and Big Loud Records’ Candice Watkins. At the same time, many in the industry say its power brokers must do more to foster diverse voices.
For more information on the Country Soul Songbook Summit and to stream it live, navigate to the official website.