INTERVIEW: Rocker Adia Victoria Talks Appropriation, Hair, And Black Women Playing Blues
By Sound Check
August 5, 2015
After her breakout last spring with slow-burning “Stuck in the South”, Adia Victoria’s bluesy rocker sound has been making waves, garnering attention with features in Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone as an artist to watch, and various other publications. Cutting away the supposed glitz and glam of Southern living, “South”’s frantic energy goes right for the less-than pretty truths and follow-ups, “Sea of Sand” and “Howlin’ Shame” do the same. Prior to her one-off show with Fantastic Negrito this past Saturday, Nashville artist Adia Victoria talked to AFROPUNK about appropriation, hair, and societal expectations as a black woman playing blues.
By Carina Browder, AFROPUNK Contributor
On using social media as a platform:
I don’t have a huge platform by any means, I’ve got like a couple hundred people following me on social media, which isn’t shit, but I’m not gonna sit around posting selfies of myself when people like me are dying on the streets because they look like me. If anything, I am selfishly motivated because I’m like, ‘Hey y’all, if we keep talking about this shit then maybe I won’t get shot!’ This is life or death for me, so I wanna keep it as relevant and on people’s minds as possible. I get a little frustrated when I don’t see black entertainers doing more to keep this relevant. It just seems like you’ve been compromised, where these people are writing your checks and financing your fancy lifestyle, so you just have to remain silent, which to me is as good as saying it doesn’t bother me enough to speak up, even if it is just tweeting some shit about it.
On expectations as a black woman playing blues:
We invented rock and roll. I am not playing [in] white drag. It’s the complete opposite. Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented rock and roll, and it’s just been appropriated by white people, like most things in our culture.
Gayl Jones, the introduction of her book White Rat, talks about how America is obsessed with blackness – black culture – but is also obsessed with erasing any sign of black people from it. And when you have someone like me come along, who loves playing electric guitar, loves playing blues, loves playing rock and roll, people are like, ‘how did you get into that? Like, why aren’t you playing neo soul? Like, why aren’t you playing R&B?’
This is our heritage. This is my birthright. This is my culture. We’ve been sold this shitty version of blackness, of what black culture is, corporate black culture. That does not represent me. Those aren’t my values. That is not my body. That is not my life, so stop telling me that this is what black people listen to, this is what they like, this is where they go.
It seems that black people get pigeonholed and our humanity is afforded to us, it’s so boxed in, you know? I find that white culture they’re just aching to put a white body into black culture.”Look what Miley’s doing, look what Sam Smith is doing!” That’s cool, but don’t act like these people are breaking ground. Let’s be respectful of people that came before them and actually invented this.
It frustrates me that white people can’t understand what they’re doing. I read an interview recently with Miley where she’s said, “In 30 years, people are going to look back on this and be like, you know, that was so stupid, that whole controversy on me using black dancers or whatever.” I hope so, because I hope that in 30 years, people won’t be as dumb and desperate as you have shown yourself to be when it comes to this topic of the juxtaposition of the black female body. I’m sorry that you can’t listen to black women when they’re saying things like “that’s kind of problematic,” and you just being like, “NO IT’S NOT.” I feel that’s what we’re dealing with now with white pop stars. Blackness is just super cool right now, but they can’t even find it within themselves to use the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. They’re hiding behind #alllivesmatter shit, but y’all wanna show out with cornrows. Everyone wants to be black until it’s time to be black.
On performing in white spaces versus black spaces:
It’s a duplication of being a black person in America, and unless you are fortunate enough to move in black spaces and have that support system, it’s really cool if you’re fortunate like that. I’ve been raised around white people my whole life. I’m always used to being the only brown face in the room. I find that usually, I’m playing to white hipsters. And they think it’s cool that they know about you. But when I do my black lives matter shout out, and that kind of thing, I get a tepid agreement. Like, yes, this is true, but they won’t do shit about it. The one show that I did have where people were visibly upset was in Spokane, Washington.
And it was just a bunch of average, white not-hipster people. We were playing a one-off with this jam band from New Orleans, and they were douchey, so their crowd was douchey, too, and so they were kinda looking at me like, “Who the fuck is this black girl?” You could tell that they weren’t comfortable, and afterwards, they would come up to where I was signing merch and stuff. The men were very aggressive, like the white men were there to assert dominance over me. You could tell these white people had never been around black people. It kind of reminded me of that energy in that Sandra Bland video, where the officer was pissed off at this black woman who knew that he was bogus and bullshit, and she wasn’t trying to be forgiving, and she wasn’t trying to conform, and that was the white male energy that I had to put up at that show. and I was like, well, you can’t do anything to me, Scott, so. Don’t buy my EP, I really don’t fucking care.
On the Mean Heart Tour:
We are headlining this tour heading up to Afropunk in Brooklyn, so we’ll have local bands opening for us on the way, and I decided to name it the Mean Heart Tour. I’ve been working on finishing this album, which we recently just got the primary recording back for. I was thinking about what’s been on my mind lately, what my mood has been these past few months. I kind of felt this coldness take over me, not jaded, but I’ve kind of gotten to this point where I’m like, “I don’t give a damn anymore about pleasing people.” I don’t really care about making people comfortable. I’ve had a few experiences in my personal life where I felt dicked over in relationships, and it’s just like, you know I can get upset about it, I can get angry and upset over a person, or I can just not give a fuck. I can be like, “Know what? If you think I’m mean, fine, I’m mean. if you think I’m a bitch, fine. I’m a bitch. You think I’m cold? Alright, cool. Whatever. I don’t care. I’m about my business.’ That’s where I want to take this tour, where I want to inform my performance for this next go around, just being unapologetic and be myself. Growing up, I had to be some pretty girl, a credit to my race, I had to be smart, and I had all these expectations that I felt people were putting on me, but when it came down to it, I was really putting them on myself.
On her hair:
I just got so fed up with all of that shit, I just went and had all my hair cut off, and I know it’s not some big political act, but for me, i’ve always been obsessed with my hair. It just takes up too much of my damn time and too much energy thinking about it. For me, it was a big thing of confidence. I want people to see my face. I want people to more readily identify me as black. I want to not hide behind it like I felt I had with my hair before and it made me seem less threatening. I want to look more confident.
I remember when I got my first weave when I lived in Brooklyn when I was 19, and I was just sitting there like, in the chair and then as the weave was being sewn into my scalp, i started like sitting up straighter and looking into the mirror like, “YES! I got it,” like, I’m in, you know? And I left, and I was like skipping down Flatbush Ave, like “Yay! Long and flowy!” But then, the paranoia and the anxiety that went along with maintaining the weave, like does it look real? Can people tell? Will they think this is my real hair? Like, really coming to despise my hair braided up underneath. I want to value who I inherently am, and I want to present an image that if any black women are looking at me, should they pick up my music one day, I wanna be something that’s off them.
On being “different”:
I think what we need is just more examples of real black people showing that I am a human being and that I have a full life. You don’t define blackness for me.
That’s one of the cool things I like about Afropunk, I think that it offers a safe space for black people to express themselves in – I don’t even wanna say in alternative ways – but in a way that allows people to just be black. Black kids can feel like, I happen to like metal, I happen to like prog rock, I happen to like what-the fuck-ever, and you’re not seen as the token, and you feel so good because
you’re finding people who can relate to you.
Yeah! and I’m so excited about playing Afropunk because I’m gonna play and I’m gonna look out and I’m gonna see a bunch of black faces looking up at me, I’m going to share my art with black people.
It gets frustrating, always being in white spaces. Always being under the white gaze, it becomes infuriating, it becomes frustrating. Like, I just want to be with my people, and I want to be in communion and in conversation with other black people, and I wanna know about their experiences from their mouths, and tell me what it’s been like for them. for me, this has been like an arrested development because my childhood was so white. Because I was so isolated, because I didn’t even identify with blackness as a young girl, I was like, ‘I mean, yeah, I’m black, but I’m not like other black people,’ and so as I became more aware during my 20s, I could see just how much racism Ihad internalized, and coming out on the other side of that, I guess I’m a little bit overzealous or overcompensating, because sometimes even black people are like, ‘Chill.’
I wanna make art for my people. I don’t make art for white people. If you enjoy it, that’s cool, I’m not gonna stop you from listening to it. You can buy my songs, but you need to understand that this art is informed by being a black woman in America. I’m very unapologetic about it, and I’m not gonna concede, I’m not gonna give up ground to make white people feel more comfortable, I’m not gonna step off the sidewalk for you.
On being black in America:
I just finished Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates, and after I finished it, I felt more grateful than ever that I was born black. I think it just makes for a more human experience because we never believed in the lie of America. I imagine that for a lot of white people it is hard to come to grips with the fact that you are told that this is the greatest nation in the world, but you see this nation doing horrible things. I imagine they have views of this country the way a kid would view their parent. It’s all good and anything they do is right, and never wrong. I feel like they see it from a very immature perspective and I think that black people have always known the deal, so any gains that we get, any victories we get, it’s particularly sweet because we know that this shit is not for us. I think about how I grew up poor, pretending that I wasn’t poor. I had to grow up poor pretending to be something that I wasn’t, and it was only when I gave all that shit up and started being myself that I found a little bit of success. I feel like, I survived growing up, a black woman in America, and the secret really is to not try, and be what they tell you to be. It’s the only thing that saves me.
White people credit their success to America, and I am successful in spite of America. it’s kinda like a little bit of a fuck you to this country, to me, like fuck you for telling me as a young girl that I had to look like Kelly Kapowski. Fuck you for saying that because I have melanin in my skin I was inherently inferior. Fuck you for making me feel there was just something inherently wrong with me. I feel like there’s been all these burdens and hurdles that I’ve had to overcome and maintain, and it makes the victory that much sweeter to me, to be beyond all of that bullshit. To know now, that if I bring a daughter into this world, I can tell her from the get go that they don’t have anything you don’t have. They are no better than you are, and they are nothing for you to aspire toward. In fact, you would do well to turn your back to it.
If you try and play games the way they try and tell you you have to play, and you try and become successful on their terms, you will go insane. You will be a crazy delusional girl in Brooklyn running down the street with a weave in her head. (laughs)
PHOTO CREDIT (Banner): Patrice Jackson