Black Americana is a term that most readily conjures imagery of slave-era memorabilia rather than a subsect of contemporary music. Conversely, “old-timey” is a catchall term that masks a history of blackface minstrelsy and certain appropriations of black vernacular culture. In truth, no matter who’s performing, Americana represents an original culture born of African, Native American, and Scotch-Irish hybridity in the southern parts of the U.S.
The notion of who represents Americana spread to the mainstream this past autumn when The Dixie Chicks’ performance with Beyoncé at the Country Music Awards sparked a metaphorical firestorm across both sides of America’s racial binary. (Paste responded by pointing out 6 Reasons Why Country Music Is Blacker Than You Think.) Still, people of color performing this style of music slip under the radar too often, perpetuating the false idea that the Americana genre is just for the white and male.
Nay, especially in this new century, the work of Black Americana musicians has been reaching new levels of popularity and influence. Now is a cultural moment in which an increasing amount of artists of African descent are reclaiming the hidden histories of Black Appalachia (sometimes referred to as Affrilachia). So, here are 15 artists proving Black Americana is not only real, but also valid.
Born of Afro-Caribbean descent in Québec, Kater is a young banjo player who plays a combination of old-time tunes and socially conscious originals. She studied Appalachian music and dance at West Virginia’s Davis and Elkins College and her thorough understanding of history and ethnomusicology shines on her most recent release Nine Pin. That LP, named for a square dance formation, also includes everything from the traditional shape-note song “White” to songs referencing the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tété ought to be crowned France’s folk king. A charming self-taught artist, he ably combines folk, Delta blues and Chanson Française influences. Born in Dakar, Niang Mahmoud Tété later moved to St. Dizier in northeast France and was given a guitar at age 15. His Antillaise mother ho reared him on The Beatles, Bob Dylan and jazz greats like John Coltrane before beginning to busk in the Paris métro. As a result, his work from 2000’s EP Préambule through last year’s Les Chroniques de Pierrot Lunaire navigate everyday themes sung in French, although he also pens lyrics in English and harkens to folk of the Anglo tradition. One of his best tunes, “Le Magicien,” features a video showing him appropriating the folk boom cool of the famed placards with lyrics segment from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “C’est juste une phase,” some might say. Non, Tété is not a phase but a flash of the future of black vernacular music.
Founded and led by fiddler Henrique Prince, the Queens-based Ebony Hillbillies were at the vanguard of the current Black Americana movement in the 1980s. Singer-banjoist Norris Bennett and Federation of Black Cowboys habitué and percussionist Ali Rahman achored the original trio with Prince, and they became a live fixture in everywhere in New York City—from the subways to Astor Place in the East Village to Carnegie Hall. The band has since expanded to include Afro-Native powerhouse frontwoman Gloria Thomas Gassaway, drummer Newman Taylor Baker, and the soul-steeped couple of William “Salty Bill” and Allanah Salter. The Ebony Hillbillies are among the very last few black stringbands in America for, as Prince has opined, “These songs are part of Americana, but because […] in black communities, mainly because of the banjo, the music was maligned because of its association with Jim Crow and other unpleasant things, the art form has been somewhat forgotten.” This band stays blazing a trail for coming generations to follow so that the art form never dies.
Revered as the co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons has also enjoyed a solo career and served as a mentor to rising Black Americana artists like the aforementioned Kaia Kater. Flemons has performed at the Grand Ole Opry and earned a Grammy, and is now working to illuminate the songbook of black cowboys. Besides singing, he plays banjo, guitar, harmonica, fife, bones, bass drum, snare drum, and quills, and is currently on tour with another acolyte, bassist/fiddler Brian Farrow, in tow.
Osei Essed, originally from Suriname, is a singer-songwriter, film composer, and multi-instrumentalist picker based out in Brooklyn. Essed is best known as the frontman of The Woes, a performance collective founded in 2002 blending country, folk, and blues, held down by Cicero Jones (organ, piano, french horn). The Woes have long been a must-see in New York City’s Americana orbit with shows characterized by high rollicking energy and Essed’s singular vocal style. The band’s most recent effort, 2010’s Heaven Knows, seamlessly fused folk, bluegrass, Dixieland, R&B and Delta blues in a way that perpetually centers classic Americana imagery.
Somali-American singer-songwriter Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz goes by Fantastic Negrito when he performs. The moniker is perhaps only too fitting for a hustler who gained a musical education by auditing courses at UC Berkeley with neither permission nor tuition. He released albums under an earlier incarnation in the 1990s (including X-Factor, redolent of fellow California soulful rock auteurs Shuggie Otis and Sly Stone), but after an intermediary period of ceasing to make music, he returned to playing in 2014 with what was self-fashioned as “black roots music for everyone.” Just this year, Fantastic Negrito won a Grammy for his latest, The Last Days Of Oakland, thus placing a postmodern stamp on folk-blues tradition with his own inimitable style.
After fronting the British country-soul outfit Phantom Limb for years, Bristol, England-native Yola Carter is emerging as a solo artist in her own right. This past november, she released her first EP Orphan Offering and is currently hard at work on a full-length, tentatively titled Orphan Country, which will doubtless showcase her inspirations rooted in American gospel and country. The Orphan Offering EP will be released physically in the U.S. this week.
This classically trained Haitian-American singer, cellist, guitarist, and banjo player is also a Carolina Chocolate Drops alumna. What distinguishes her music from her erstwhile bandmates is that McCalla also sings in Kréyol and French, incorporating songs from Haiti’s own banjo tradition into her repertoire. After time spent in her native New York City studying cello performance and chamber music, she found her métier playing in the streets of her new hometown New Orleans. Last year, McCalla released a follow up to her Langston Hughes tribute album, called A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey and continues to pursue the Louisiana-inflected sounds of the deep southland.
Amythyst Kiah is an alt-country singer-songwriter, guitarist and banjoist whose music is infused with the Southern Gothic. Based out of Johnson City, Tenn., she has made strides as heiress to a lineage of black women in folk like Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman. Her band, dubbed Her Chest of Glass, includes Patrick Taylor (guitar), Taylor Green (keyboards), Matthew Martin (bass), and Andrew Gibben (drums), and amplifies Kiah’s habitual acoustic sound with some rock fire. Resplendent in her signature ‘frohawk, Kiah pays homage to such grand dames of mid-century country/western and rhythm & blues as Patsy Cline, The Carter Family and Big Mama Thornton, providing a powerful update of the masters.
The Motor City’s Duane Gholston, who has also gone by Teenage Weirdo/Brand New Dog, is making a provocative, fresh form of Americana fit to rival Kendrick Lamar’s under the alter-ego of Jet Black Eel. His recent genius track “When The Eel Accepts Your Invitation” strikes at the heart of Trump America with biting language of yesteryear’s racial and sexual frankness (making this clip NSFW) and a video deploying a black-on-blackface minstrelsy figure to stand in for “a dancing and sliding and gliding Negro” with recalcitrant Africana ethics and address fear of a black planet. Jet Black Eel prefaces his jaunty western swing rave-up best: “The perfect piece of visual and aural satire to ring in the new year and era of an America under President-elect Donald Trump. This is a song written from the perspective of a young queer man of color peering into the metaphorical storefront window of white American culture, pride and heritage and breaking through. Whether he is truly invited or not…” This is what the lovechild might sound like if Little Richard and Dolly’s “Jolene” met up at a Lynyrd Skynyrd gig.
Aaron Vance first started learning to sing around the same time he received his first pair of cowboy boots at just four years old. He came of age on the music his trucker grandaddy played on the road—Hank Williams, George Jones and Georgia country-soul man Travis Tritt—as well as by singing in church. After a youth spent moving often and a period spent embroiled in odd jobs, Vance found his sonic family with Nashville label Windy Holler and subsequently moved to Music City where his rich voice has navigated him through increasingly great, stripped-down albums culminating in 2016’s Shifting Gears.
Born in Chicago to a hippie-turned-born-again mother who only permitted her to listen to country/western out of the world of popular music, Kamara Thomas is a singer, songwriter and dramatist that logged time in Los Angeles and New York City. In the latter, Thomas honed her craft playing in power trio Earl Greyhound and twangy side project the Ghost Gamblers. (She also served as the driving force behind the weekly Honky-Tonk Happy Hour series at the Living Room on the Lower East Side.) Performing in the vicinity of her current Durham home with her ace band the Night Drivers, Thomas is working on her successfully crowdfunded debut Tularosa: An American Dreamtime, which explores the Mythic West through a song cycle about a forsaken plot of New Mexico land. It will be a culmination of the first august stage of a storytelling career from the little girl who once eagerly soaked up the voices of Dolly, Emmylou, Loretta Lynn and the 1970s outlaws.
Justin Robinson, a native of Gastonia, N.C., is the final former/founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops on this list. He contributed vocals and fiddle to the trio, and also plays autoharp, tres, and banjo (while also contributing to his former group’s live shows with some memorable dancing). Robinson now lives in Durham, and currently works with Josh Stohl to create songs blending the South, forestry, embroidery, medieval culture, and culinary ventures. Having veered away from his earlier old-timey ventures, Robinson has recently been lauded for finding a meeting place where André 3000 and John Hartford co-exist.
Dorris Henderson is a lesser-known figure of the black modernist transatlantic vanguard, but served a guiding light to later generations of African Diaspora artists over the course of her life. The niece of bluesman Guitar Nubbit, Henderson was a folk singer and autoharp player of Blackfoot and African descent. Although born in Florida and raised in California, she spent most of her career and adult life in the U.K. helping build to Americana tradition on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kandia Crazy Horse leads the Harlem-based Native Americana band Cactus Rose. To keep abreast of her doings in the world of Black Hillbilly, follow her on Instagram @cactusroselovesyou.