Photo: Gabriel Baretto
Black People Helped Invent Country Music, Yet Gatekeepers Haven't Let Them In. The Black Opry Is Changing All That.
The Black Opry began as a way to connect Black country artists — and recently, the Black Opry Revue made a triumphant stop at Newport Folk 2022. In this emotional interview, learn how that moment felt to five musicians from the Opry.
The notion that country is an innately white genre isn't just wrongheaded and incorrect. If you take five minutes to research the history of the music, you'll learn that it's patently absurd.
First, Black musicians irrevocably shaped the genre at its genesis — from the African roots of the banjo to the presence of the blues in its very chromosomes. Second, the notion would mean barring the crucial participation of everyone from Ray Charles to Charley Pride to Mickey Guyton, which would be a beyond tragic state of affairs.
Despite the magnitude of these implications, racist marketing forces (among other factors) have long made country music a largely lily-white enterprise. That's where the Black Opry comes in. Founded by country music fan Holly G and co-directed by herself and Tanner D, the musician's collective acts as a hub for Black talent from all over the genre spectrum — whether they have tints of blues, folk/pop, soul, or anything else.
And just last week, its Black Opry Revue threw down at the legendary Newport Folk Fest — which is a historic moment, no matter which way you slice it.
Despite featuring Autumn Nicholas, Buffalo Nichols, Julia Cannon, the Kentucky Gentlemen, Lizzie No, Chris Pierce, Leon Timbo, and Joy Oladokun — as well as surprise appearances from Jake Blount, Adia Victoria, Yasmin Williams, and Kam Franklin — the performance wasn't merely a talent showcase. More than that, it showed which way the arrow is pointing for long-overdue racial equality in this embattled sphere.
"Everything that has happened so far regarding Black Opry has felt like divine timing," Holly G tells GRAMMY.com. "The community that we've organically grown fit so perfectly into Newport folk fest that it felt like a homecoming. What we do feels so new to us, and so often we have to spend time explaining what it is and how it works — but Newport understood us without explanation."
Backstage at Newport Folk 2022, GRAMMY.com caught up with Nicholas, Timbo, Blount, and the Kentucky Gentlemen's Derek and Brandon Campbell about how it felt to play at the storied festival — and what it means for country music writ large.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Where do you feel you fit into the lineage of country music — and Black country music, specifically?
Autumn Nicholas: I think we're maybe creating a lane. I don't know if there's a "fit in." I don't know if I want to fit in, necessarily. I'm OK with standing out, but where I fit in is probably just by what I have to say in each song. It might be different genres; it might be different things. But I don't know if I even care about fitting in, if I'm honest with you.
Derek Campbell: You know that freedom that country music talks about 24/7? I guess where we fit in is that actual freedom. It's not just a word that makes everyone feel good. It's actually representative of the freedom that when you're all encompassing of yourself and everything that you are, you want to be that example.
Brandon Campbell: I also think the word "freedom" means a whole different thing to us than it does to a lot of other people who grew up in small towns like us. So, it definitely fit into the freedom lane of: Be who you are, country or not.
Leon Timbo: I'm from Jacksonville, Florida — Duval County. In Florida, we've got a lot of water around us and a lot of back porches, and we sang a lot of songs that I never knew the origin of. I believe that kind of spoke to the origins of what we now know as country music.
And when I couldn't find my footing in other spaces, country music — and Americana music, specifically — helped me tell my story. The story of struggle, process, pain and love — and say it in a very honest way.
Jake Blount: I perform music that's hundreds of years old that comes out of archives — different written and reported sources from back in the day. My role is definitely as someone who's passing on those traditions — trying to make them available to another generation, because they almost went extinct before they got to me.
Even in my more recent work that's more ambitious, arrangement-wise — creating a new perspective on it — I always want to be mindful of those oldest threads of the tradition, and the way that I serve as a link between that past and the future ahead of us.
Tell me about your path to Newport Folk 2022 and what this festival means to you.
Nicholas: In all honesty, this is my first year ever being at it. I keep texting my mom: "This is just wild." This is an experience that I'm just trying to take in. Did I ever expect to come here? No, but I think that's what makes this career the best thing: what we don't expect, and what we don't necessarily have to put on a bucket list.
Derek Campbell: There are thousands and thousands of people out there with the same look in their eyes that we have when we're creating this music.
Brandon Campbell: It feels united. We're all here for one purpose, and that's just for the music — the feeling that music gives you.
Derek Campbell: It's family out there.
Blount: I think coming up in folk music, you hear "Newport" every 25 seconds. This festival is, like, the OG. And for me, this is my second year here. Last summer was my first time here, and it was the first big gig I ever got. That was my moment where I was like, "I made it somewhere. I did something." And it feels equally as gratifying to know that they liked me enough to have me back.
How does it feel to have Newport Folk 2022 give such a platform to the Black Opry and to your particular brands of artistry?
Nicholas: I think it's just humbling. I feel like everyone has a right to have a platform; everyone has something different to say. And I think it's just amazing that as life is growing, the younger crowd, I think, is kind of allowing that option. Everything is being opened. Everything is being shared. Love is becoming universal, more and more. At least in my mind; I hope it's coming that way.
So, for me to be here with this opportunity, with Black Opry — I just think maybe it's time. Maybe, a long time ago, it was supposed to be time, but we're here now.
Brandon Campbell: It's definitely humbling, and it fits with what the Black Opry's all about: Inclusion in music, and giving everybody a platform to be who they are and express the views they want to express.
Derek Campbell: There are so many incredible performances that are happening on all these stages. And for Newport to open their arms and invite Black Opry is pretty validating — a validation that we all, at some point, need or want to look for.
Blount: I think Newport is leading the way, in a lot of ways. We saw it happen last summer. This was the first folk festival that I've come to where there were that many Black people. And I think getting to be here with this crew of people — this incredible thing that Holly [G] created — is super exciting.
Timbo: It speaks a lot to Newport's evolution, and what they're always represented. It's always been in the bones, but now, to be recognized through Black Opry is a really big win, concerning unity and visibility and equity in musical expression.
I'm going to give you a statement of tension, and the statement of tension is that the reason why people of color haven't had hits in country music is because they don't write great music. And the disrespect in that context digs deep — an accusation of inadequacy.
What of the elephant in the room — the fact that Black people practically invented country music in the first place?
Timbo: So, the fact that Newport Folk Fest sees that, and sees past those really antiquated ideals, really means a lot. America gave us an opportunity, because all great anything comes from a space of absolute tension and pain and process. You give me a person in pain and process, and I give you a future artist because they have to describe it, in a way.
When you're in walls, when you're locked away, you have nothing but your voice — even if nobody can hear it. So, I appreciate the origins, but that's why it came from America — because America created the opportunity to press it into art.
So, it's like, "Thank you for the pain. At least give me the credit for the art, because you didn't mind giving me the credit for the pain."
Blount: And the creation of a thing called the Black Opry, specifically…
It's a watershed moment, for sure.
Blount: Yes. It was so exciting, because it's already creating a space in these ancient, towering institutions for people like us. And I think Newport is another one of those towering institutions that we've been trying to be a part of, and it's so nice to be welcomed in this way. It's so wonderful that Holly's put in the work to get everybody here and make all of this happen.
Who are you most excited to see, or who have you already seen that blew your mind?
Nichols: I've only seen mostly one person today. We haven't been here very long. I'm excited to see the people that I don't know yet.
Blount: I've been here since Thursday. I was playing on the Pete Seeger tribute show on Thursday, [and] Taj Mahal…
Blount: Listen. I've wanted to see Taj Mahal forever. Seeing him there, and then seeing him here — it's emotional to see someone who's been carrying the traditions in the same way we're doing, and opens so many doors for us just by being there.
Tell me about new music you've got out, or what you're working on currently.
Nicholas: I'm working on a song about no regrets — trying to live with that mindset. I think as we get older, we stop doing a lot of things that cause us to take risks. So, we step back from that. We don't climb trees. We don't do anything that's risky, like quitting your job and touring the world. We're constantly, as artists, doing that.
Derek Campbell: We just released a new EP this weekend, which is great!
Brandon Campbell: The Kentucky Gentlemen, Vol. 1. Honestly, the whole EP is just about letting loose all your inhibitions and having fun while you're at it. That's kind of what we're all about, so we're super excited for people to get a chance to listen to that.
Blount: I have a new album coming out Sept. 23. It's called The New Faith, and it's an Afrofuturist exploration of what Black, religious traditional music will sound like post-climate crisis. It's coming out on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as part of the African American Legacy Series in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Timbo: Lovers and Fools, Vols. 1 and 2. I believe there's a gift in being the lover, and there's a gift in being the fool. Both have the same goal; they just look at it differently. So, the lover acknowledges and honors the gift, and the fool rejects and minimizes it. But there's a gift to do either one. The fact that you can choose no to a thing is a gift as well.
I think with this country, with our relationships — I have daughters. So in that as well, lovers and fools is who we all really are.
Any last words on the vibe of the whole weekend?
Brandon Campbell: It's very peaceful, I feel like.
Nicholas: It's calming to be at a festival that you think [will be] very loud.
Brandon Campbell: It feels very for the people, by the people.
Blount: Oh, it's just wonderful to be back here. I know this happened last year, but just speaking for myself, I've been feeling so cut off from the human part of what we do and what this is. It felt so much like doing a dangerous thing — getting up and being stressed out about it.
But being in a place that's outside — with such an appreciative audience, and with so many artists who I love and respect, and who I'm excited just to be in the same general vicinity as — it's giving me a lot of life that I needed to get back.
Photo (L-R): Ria Mort, Thanos Poulimenos
Global Spin: Katerine Duska And Leon Of Athens Premiere "Babel," A Bilingual Tale Of A Love Lost In Translation
Frequent songwriting partners Katerine Duska and Leon Of Athens grapple with a relationship full of miscommunication in this emotional duet, which they debut with a powerful Global Spin performance.
"Can I love you a little more clearly?" Katerine Duska and Leon of Athens sing in the emotional chorus of their new song, "Babel." "Can we get it right? Can we talk another night away?"
In this episode of Global Spin, the two pop singers — and frequent songwriting partners — effortlessly trade off between Greek and English in a compelling performance. But as beautiful as the bilingual, harmony-driven duet may be, "Babel" chronicles a fraught relationship where, ultimately, the love gets lost in translation.
"Babel" brings the two lovers back to where they started: Frustrated and failing to see eye to eye, but still invested in one another. That narrative pairs with an equally passionate, string-filled sonic backdrop in this song, which Duska and Leon of Athens premiere on Global Spin.
The song's visual component further underscores its message. Duska and Leon of Athens perform the song from a bed, surrounded by candles and rippling water. As they wrestle through their disagreements — both lyrically and physically — the two artists make an attempt to find tenderness, but their best efforts dissolve into frustration and disconnection.
The bilingual duo have co-written several times in the past, and they're no strangers to performing together, either. Their first duet, "ANEMOS," came out in 2019; a year later, the pair released another collaboration, "Communication."
Press play on the video above to get a first look at the latest collaboration between Katerine Duska and Leon of Athens, and keep checking GRAMMY.com every Tuesday for more new episodes of Global Spin.
Photo: Matteo Vincenzo (right)
Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Akon And Teemanay's Favorite Tour Meal Is So Iconic That It Has Its Own Festival
Over plates of Nigerian jollof rice, global superstar Akon and Afrobeats mainstay Teemanay explain the finer points of this staple West African dish — which is also their staple meal on the road.
When it comes to music, R&B giant Akon and rising Afrobeats star Teemanay (aka Young Icon) have a lot in common. Not only are they both from West Africa — Akon's family roots are in Senegal, while Teemanay hails from Nigeria – but the two teamed up on the four-song EP Konvict Kulture Presents Teemanay, which came out on Akon's label earlier this year.
The two acts have similar tastes when it comes to food, too — though they might disagree on the finer points. Jollof rice, a staple throughout West Africa, is a dish that both artists grew up loving, even though they hail from different countries within the region.
"For a meal, if they have jollof rice for me, I will give them an extra 15 minutes of free performance," Teemanay jokes in the newest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.
"So the rice is actually smoked, almost like when you cook barbeque," Akon details, explaining what it is that makes this particular dish so special. "When you look at jollof, it ranks in the top five of those things you just can't forget. It's a part of the meal, every meal."
The dish is so essential that Akon hosts an annual Jollof, Music & Food Festival in Atlanta, which features a lineup of music and food trucks. But the pinnacle of the event is the jollof cook-off, in which recipes from different countries compete to see which region creates the best version of the dish.
"This year, Senegal won. But we kinda expect that, because Senegal is really the creators of jollof rice," Akon proudly explains, as Teemanay shakes his head in disagreement.
"I'm in a very aggressive, fighting mood right now," Teemanay shoots back with a smirk. "Nigerian jollof is the best jollof in the world."
Whichever regional version they prefer, Akon and Teemanay can agree on one thing: There's no better post-show meal or tour bus snack out there than jollof rice.
Press play on the video above to watch the two stars duke it out over their favorite jollof, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.
Photo: Suriyawut Suriya / EyeEm via Getty Images
9 Organizations Helping Music Makers In Need: MusiCares, The GRAMMY Museum & Others
Are you in a position to donate to musicians in a state of financial or personal crisis on this GivingTuesday? Check out these nine charitable organizations — beneath the Recording Academy umbrella and otherwise.
Imagine a world where care and concern is distributed in a holistic circuit, rather than being hoarded away or never employed at all. That's the paradigm that GivingTuesday is reaching toward.
Created in 2012 under the simple precept of being generous and celebrating generosity, GivingTuesday is a practical hub for getting involved in one's community and giving as freely to benefit and nourish others.
Since GivingTuesday has swelled not just from a single day in the calendar year, but a lens through which to view the other 364 days. You can find your local GivingTuesday network here, find ways to participate here, and find ways to join GivingTuesday events here.
Where does the Recording Academy come in? Helping musicians in need isn't something they do on the side, an afterthought while they hand out awards.
No, aiding music people is at the core of the Academy's mission. MusiCares, the Academy's philanthropic arm, has changed innumerable lives for the better.
And through this society of music professionals and its other major components — including Advocacy, the GRAMMY Museum and GRAMMY U — the Academy continues its fight in legislative and educational forms.
If you're willing and able to help musicians in need this GivingTuesday, here's a helpful hub of nine charitable organizations with whom you can do so.
Any list of orgs that aid musicians would be remiss to not include MusiCares.
Through the generosity of donors and volunteer professionals, this organization of committed service members has been able to aid struggling music people in three key areas: mental health and addiction recovery services, health services, and human services.
"Museum" might be right there in the name, but there's a lot more to this precious sector of the Recording Academy.
The GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles doesn't just put on immersive exhibits that honor the legacies of musical giants; it's a hub for music education.
At press time, more than 20,000 students have visited the Museum, more than 10,000 students have participated in the Museum's Clive Davis theater, and 20,000 students have participated in their GRAMMY Camp weekends.
By now, the evidence is ironclad: Giving incarcerated people access to music and art dramatically increases morale and decreases recidivism.
Give a Beat is keenly aware of this, both on direct-impact and mentorship levels.
The org hosts classes for incarcerated people, in order for them to "find healing, transformation, and empowerment" through its Prison Electronic Music Program, which helps incarcerated folks wade deep into the fields of music production and DJing.
Despite being at the heart of American musical expression, jazz, blues and roots can sometimes feel roped off on the sidelines of the music industry — and its practitioners can slip between society's cracks.
That's where the Jazz Foundation of America comes in. They aid musicians struggling to hang onto their homes, connect physicians and specialists with uninsured artists and help musicians get back on their feet after life-upending natural disasters.
Headquartered in Memphis, the Blues Foundation aims to preserve the history and heritage of the blues — which lies at the heart of all American forms. This goes not only for irreplaceable sites and artifacts, but the living, breathing people who continue to make it.
The Blues Foundation offers educational outreach, providing scholarships to youth performers to attend summer blues camps and workshops.
On top of that, in the early 2000s, they created the HART Fund to offer financial support to musicians in need of medical, dental, and vision care.
And for blues artists who have passed on, the HART Fund diverts money to their families to ensure their loved ones would be guaranteed dignified funerals.
Founded all the way back when World War I broke out, the Musicians Foundation has spent more than a century cutting checks to musicians in times of need.
This includes financial grants to cover basic expenses, like medical and dental treatments, rents and mortgages and utilities. Submitted grant applications are reviewed by their staff and a screening committee. If approved, the money is dispatched rapidly and directly to the debtor to relieve financial pressure as soon as possible.
The Musicians Foundation's philanthropic legacy is enshrined in Century of Giving, a comprehensive analysis of financial aid granted to musicians and their families by the Foundation since 1914.
Based in North Carolina, the Music Maker Foundation tends to the day-to-day needs of American roots artists — helping them negotiate crises so they can "keep roofs over their heads, food on their tables, [and] instruments in their hands."
This relief comes in the forms of basic sustenance, resources performance (like booking venues and providing CDs to sell) and spreading education about their contributions to the American roots canon.
When music people are in danger, this charitable organization sees no barriers of genre, region or nature of crisis.
If you're a musician suffering from physical, mental or financial hardship — whether it be due to a disability, an affliction like cancer, or anything else — Sweet Relief has got your back.
For any and all further information, visit their website.
The Recording Academy's concern and consideration for music people hardly stops at musicians — they're here to support all music people.
They share this operating principle with Music Workers Alliance, which tirelessly labors to ensure music people are treated like they matter — and are fairly remunerated for their efforts.
This takes many forms, like fighting for music workers at the federal, state and city level for access to benefits and fair protections, and ensuring economic justice and fair working conditions.
Music Workers Alliance also fights for economic justice on the digital plane, and aims to provide equal access for people of color and other underrepresented groups in the industry.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.