meta-scriptYola On Reclaiming Her Agency, New Album 'Stand For Myself' & The Evils Of Tokenism | GRAMMY.com
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Yola

Photo: Joseph Ross Smith

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Yola On Reclaiming Her Agency, New Album 'Stand For Myself' & The Evils Of Tokenism

On her new album, 'Stand For Myself,' singer/songwriter Yola doesn't want to be viewed as a moral authority or a representative of a nebulous global community, but as a nuanced human being

GRAMMYs/Aug 10, 2021 - 09:15 pm

In the wake of George Floyd's murder, a feeding frenzy for diversity officers and employees of color began. While this sea change in culture speaks to a valid and long-overdue reckoning, singer/songwriter Yola sees an insidious threat even in well-intentioned spaces. That menace, to her, is tokenism—the act of perfunctorily recruiting marginalized people so as to not get yelled at.

To Yola, tokenism isn't just a side effect of trying to do the right thing: It's a calculated wing of white supremacy. "The second that you find somebody that is different from you, you group them with a bunch of people that are different from you, so you have less work to do," she tells GRAMMY.com. "You're economizing." Because of this, Yola made Stand For Myself, which celebrates individuality over arbitrary pigeonholing based on melanin content.

Stand For Myself, which was released July 30, is a blend of soul, country, blues, rock and R&B, which shows both Yola's flexibility and how Black innovators created all those styles—a reality that remains depressingly lost on many. The music, however, is merely a vehicle for Yola to communicate who she is at her core, which may not jibe with what the public expects her to be. 

"I'm a massive softie. I'm sentimental as heck," she says. "I want to be treated with a sense of nuance and tenderness. I don't have to be tough because I'm a Black woman. I don't have to be servile because I'm from some other community. I don't have to be 'Put up or shut up' because I'm seen as a moral authority."

GRAMMY.com caught up with Yola, who kicks off her national tour on October 7, to discuss the individualist philosophy behind Stand For Myself, why Black musicians still aren't given ownership of their inventions and how she exercises her agency in her music.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In the press release, you mention an insidious component of discrimination: Tokenism. Can this form of overcorrecting be destructive?

It's funny: I don't really think it's overcorrecting. I think it's an actual function of the white supremacist paradigm. The second that you find somebody that is different from you, you group them with a bunch of people that are different from you, so you have less work to do. You're economizing. That was a mainstay of my life for a long time: The sense of people economizing. They go: "I see a Black person." Can you tell one from the other?

I have a dear friend who gets mixed up with Mavis Staples. There's nothing [in common between them]—least of all, the considerable decades separating them. It gets to the point where you're not listening with your ears anymore. You're listening with your eyes. So, tokenism is one thing that is part of that paradigm: That "You're all the same, really."

Like, "Isn't it weird that you're in country music?" No, it's Dolly Parton. She's got records everywhere. "But isn't it bizarre that you're in this space?" It's all part of the grand paradigm of the supremacist's assumption that white people create all the music, when it isn't even remotely true. It's the colonization of our ideas. So, when you get tokenized, it's a way of disempowering you. You get put into a small box. It's a way of taking away your ownership.

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Your contribution to rock 'n' roll, for example. It sort of goes around on the Internet at the moment: My interview with Channel 4 News in the U.K., speaking to Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who I adore as a journalist and generally. We were talking about navigating the industry and I said "I've heard a person from an A&R from a major say 'Nobody wants to hear a Black woman sing rock 'n' roll. That's not what we want right now." 

I'm like, "That shows you don't know the history of who created it! You don't know anything about Sister Rosetta Tharpe! She created rock 'n' roll!" We have a problem here. If you don't understand the lineage of something, if you minimize it, you become reductive to any marginalized group. You reduce their contributions to society.

Do you think it may not be as simple as the "bad guys" engaging in this? That some of the good guys might be driving this?

Yeah! We've all seen liberal moments gone wrong, right? [Cringing voice.] "Oh, no! Oh, sweetie! Sweetie! You tried, but no!" It's a big thing. People aren't realizing that programming is something done to them and they have to police it. People say no baby comes out with cognitive bias, right? No, no baby does. They're right. They know that. But they come into a world that is absolutely strewn with it. 

The second they hit air, they're learning supremacist programming. It's in advertising. It's in language. It's in the structure of how wealth is distributed. It's in the laws that govern the land. It's in everything. It's in so much of the politics. Supremacy is in so many things. Is it possible to escape it? What you have to do is be aware of it and police it. Someone's trying to program you all the bloody time.

I don't think racism is a thing you can be cured from, like we're searching for the cure for the coronavirus. Like, that's not how it works. Do what you can and police and pull out the things that keep jumping up into your life, because we all have it. It's not that white people are the only people to get supremacist programming. Black people get it too. Brown people get it too. You see it jump up in people where they haven't policed it and they start championing paradigms that's beneficial for their own people themselves.

Yola. Photo: Joseph Ross Smith

The title of Stand For Myself seems to imply individual identity and action, not a sense of belonging to a nebulous, easily pigeonholed "community" of people with similar melanin content.

[Long laugh.] I actually couldn't put it better myself! To not be part of this nebulous community, but to have this sense of standing up for your right to nuance. Standing for your right to tenderness. To be like: I want to be treated with a sense of nuance and tenderness. I don't have to be tough because I'm a Black woman. I don't have to be servile because I'm from some other community. I don't have to be "Put up or shut up" because I'm seen as a moral authority. 

[It applies] whatever way you are: You don't have to be extra-camp because you're part of the LGBTQIA+ community if you don't want to be. It's past individualism and gets to the point of authenticity. Not faking it. Actually just being you. I know it's kind of a trite thing to say, but actually do you.

So, let's say somebody comes to Stand For Myself with an open mind. What do you hope people take away from it and learn about you?

I'm a massive softie. [Knowing laugh.] I'm sentimental as heck. The flesh of the record, the very innards of the record are highly sentimental and seek authentic connection through friendship, through the process of work and collaboration, through love, through my family, and all of these things. You hear it across the record.

People try to put this "strong Black woman" paradigm on me, and there's so much of my life when I wasn't that. I was a real bloody doormat. So, to be able to see the nuance that I have as a person is really, really the function of writing from my lens. I want to speak about my life experience. I want people to know about the nature of my life and the steps that I've taken.

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Read More: Press Play At Home: Watch Yola Perform A Rock-Solid Rendition Of "Stand For Myself"

I want people to see the whole of the person. I want people to see me as I am in spaces, across spaces. I want people to see what it sounds like when I'm taking the helm a tiny bit more. I'm actually able to choose the co-writers, whereas on the first record, I didn't know anyone in Nashville yet so I couldn't choose any co-writers! 

This is the very epitome of my agency, so I want people to see what that looks like for me.

For Charley Pride, Black Country Music Was A Self-Evident Truth

Kehlani press photo
Kehlani

Photo: Mia André 

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Crashing Into The Present: How Kehlani Learned To Trust Their Instincts And Exist Loudly

"I want this next batch of music to feel like the most fiery parts of me," Kehlani says of her new album, 'Crash.' The singer/songwriter speaks with GRAMMY.com about embracing the moment and making an album she can headbang to.

GRAMMYs/Jun 20, 2024 - 01:07 pm

After finishing the first mixes of their new album, Kehlani knew exactly what she needed to do: head to Las Vegas. 

The L.A.-based, Oakland-born singer/songwriter had always identified with Sin City: "I’m full of juxtapositions," she tells GRAMMY.com. "Vegas is this crazy bright light city in the middle of a vacant desert that has weddings and also strippers." Fittingly, Kehlani harbored a very Vegas-like image in their head while creating Crash, a record built on blaring neon, glowing smoke, and the highest highs.

Crash drops June 21, and is Kehlani's fourth solo album. She burst onto the scene in 2009 as a member of teen sextet PopLyfe, but their 2014 debut solo mixtape Cloud 19 announced a far more complex character. Their debut full-length, SweetSexySavage, was released three years later to critical acclaim, with two more albums and a handful of platinum-certified singles following. As if that weren’t enough, Kehlani added acting, appearing in "The L Word: Generation Q" and a cameo in Creed III. 

And while Crash embodies the evolution and growth through all those experiences, the record builds a hyper-real language all their own. Beyond any sense of R&B or pop, soul or hip-hop, Crash finds Kehlani chasing passions that refuse to fit in any box, shifting multiple times within a track — refusing to focus on anything but the moment. 

"A crash isn't anything from the past. It isn't the anxiety of what's about to happen," she says. "It's the height of the moment. It's right now."

Nearing the release of Crash, Kehlani spoke with GRAMMY.com about finding inspiration from international music, getting their five-year-old to sing on the album, and their need to stage dive.

What’s it like living in Los Angeles after growing up in the Bay Area?

I moved to L.A. when I was about 17. I had already left the house. I left the house at 14, and by the time I was almost 18 it was the appropriate time for me to situate in a new place. L.A. and the Bay are like cousins. Do we have differences? Absolutely, things that are fundamental to us, but when you leave California, you can really see that we're just like a big family.

Had you been dreaming of L.A. as a place where you could pursue art? Were you already set on that goal?

It was the closest place that a young, very broke person could go and work in music. I'm sure there were other places with musical homes, musical cities, but if all I had to do was get on a $15 bus and go find someone to stay with in L.A., I was gonna do it for sure.

That’s the same ambition that I feel drives this new record, which is just so dense and full of surprises. That includes the lovely retro radio intro to "GrooveTheory," where you move from this ‘60s pop feel to the present. That’s such a smart way to foreground your evolution.

I think the second that we made that song and then turned it into ["GrooveTheory"], I was like, This feels like it encompasses where I'm headed, this whole new sound. 

Once that radio dials in and it comes in with R&B elements, it's producing where I'm headed, but also remembering that my core hasn't changed. Especially the energy of what I'm saying in the song, like, "I'm kind of crazy," it's introducing this energy difference on this album. I feel like that's the biggest change, and that's what's so prevalent in this whole rollout. Energetically, I'm on a whole different type of time.

You can sense it. 'Crash' feels really rooted in self-expression and personal growth, and when you listen to it as a whole, it really does seem like an evolution story. Beyond just the genre and style, how do you feel the way that you've expressed your true self has shifted over the years?

Thank you! That's been the feedback I've gotten from pretty much everyone who's listened, and I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't this. I have realized the public's understanding of me and the general consensus for so long, and I also realized how multi-faceted I am to people. 

People get really confused when I express all the sides of my personality. They’re either, like, "Okay, she makes really sweet love songs," or "We've seen you be political, we've seen you come out, we've seen you be a family member." And then there's a lot of people who are, like, "I feel like she's f—ing crazy. I've seen her in multiple relationships. I've seen her be angry. I've seen her get online and cuss people out." 

I want this next batch of music to feel like the most fiery parts of me. I want it to feel like the most present and energetic parts of me. I don't want anything to feel somber. I don't want anything to feel reminiscent. I think a lot of my albums in the past have been me looking back, and sitting in that feeling and detailing it. I just wanted [this album] to feel right here, right now, which is why the title came about. A crash isn't anything from the past. It isn't the anxiety of what's about to happen. It's the height of the moment. It's right now.

That’s unfortunately a story you hear too often about artists of color — that essentialization, where you can only be seen as one thing. R&B often gets hit with those same issues. Throughout your career you’ve stood up to those expectations, and "Better Not" on this album is such a good example of that. It’s a left turn, a stylistic contrast and an open conversation with the listener. You cleverly fuse that intentionality with a voice that’s stronger than ever.

In the past, I have had moments where I would make the song and [start recording], and there would be so many versions of each song on different microphones, recorded in different places.

"Let me try vocal production. Let me try to go back and work with this version again." I went back and did vocal production with Oak Felder, who did all the vocal production on SweetSexySavage. When I come back to some of my favorite vocal production moments, it was moments like "Distraction" or "Advice" or "Escape" — songs on my very first album — and I wanted to get that feeling again. Where it's lush where it needs to be, but also that I really mean what I'm saying. 

That started with the approach in the songwriting. Once I had the songs and I had to go back and deliver them, I had enough time to listen and listen, to learn the songs and identify with them. We would make music all day and then go out, and we would be in this sprinter van on the way to going out, and, like, bang, the songs we just made, the energy was just different. It allowed me to be present in a different way where my voice is able to show up like that.

Learn more: R&B Isn't Dead: Listen To 51 Songs By Summer Walker, Josh Levi & More Artists Who Are Pushing The Genre Forward

Which again ties perfectly to crashing into the present. As someone from South Africa, I love that the other guests that you included represent different cultural viewpoints. You worked with Young Miko from Puerto Rico, Omah Lay from Nigeria. Having that musical dialogue is so powerful.

We had so many conversations about how America's in the backseat often when it comes to music. We have our moments, and it's fantastic, like Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter. There's a culture that is super American, that is Black, that historically needs to be dived into. It needs to be shown that we do have something here. 

So many people that don't speak Spanish bang Bad Bunny all day. Amapiano’s taking over; Tyla’s going up. It's really not here. So that wasn't a conscious choice. It's just what we've all been listening to, what we've been loving.

Read more: 11 Women Pushing Amapiano To Global Heights: Uncle Waffles, Nkosazana Daughter, & More

Speaking of guests, I wanted to ask about your daughter, whose voice is on "Deep." Was she just in the studio and you got her singing?

So those vocals on that, that’s actually my little sister and my goddaughter. And [my daughter] was in the room and she started singing along. She has perfect pitch; she's always freestyling or singing or making something up. 

I was like, "You want to just go sing on it?" What's on there is her first take. Literally. She did it the first time, all the way through, perfectly. I was like, "Well, that's it, guys. I can retire." 

That track is so lush. It feels so alive. Were you working with a full band?

[Producer] Jack Rochon, who I did a lot of the music with, he just is a freaking genius music whiz. Honestly, he's one of the most humble people that I know, and deserves credit for how amazing a lot of this album is.

Talking about touchstones, there's a Prince energy to the title track. Did you have any new inspirations or influences for this record?

Thank you! My main focus for this album came from going on tour for my last one and making such a pretty, sweet, intimate album, and then playing some of the biggest venues of my career. At some point I had to rearrange the setlist to add in a lot of the album before that one, because it was just more energy on the stage. By week two of tour, the setlist had completely changed. I knew that I was playing venues on this next tour that I've dreamt about, places that I can't fathom that I'm playing, like Barclays Center. 

I do a lot of things for, like, my inner child, and this is such a move for my inner child. Like, You're about to go play Barclays. Do you want to look back and say, ‘I rocked out and played Barclays’? I'm a person who headbangs on stage. I stage dive. I wanted to create an album that would ring through a venue like that. I want people to be engaged again. I'm not looking for the lighters and the somber, holding each other — which will occur regardless, because it's a me show. 

But I really wanted people to be in their bodies, and their heart’s exploding and the ground’s shaking. So that's what we accomplished. I wanted to have fun. This album is so fun to me. It’s a place of fire in my heart.

It took me a second to get the word play on "Eight." I loved the track, and then suddenly I was like, 'Oh… I knew there was something raunchy going on here.'

[*Laughs.*] "Eight" was super fun, and shoutout to the boys that I did it with, because they made it everything for me. 

I didn't come up with the wordplay. My boys did. Like, "This is how you talk!" I was like, "It is! This is perfect." Once I got in to fix things, add things, add my own spin, and finish writing, my favorite part was that it sounds like a Brandy song. She's my favorite.

I also wanted to ask about the Nina Sky sample on "After Hours."

That was mine. I was like, "What can we flip that when it comes on, my generation loses their mind?" And for me, every single time that Nina Sky comes on in the club, everybody's like "Woo!" And then you see how many songs were made from that same sample, and they're all songs that make us lose our minds. 

I went into the room with the producers, and I was like, "So, I want to flip this, but I want you to make it to where it doesn't become one of those where the whole thing is just a sample."

Similarly, "Lose My Wife" balances breeziness with high emotional stakes. Is finding a balance like that just natural for someone so capable of juxtaposition?

The second that we established that [the record] felt like Vegas, I knew what components were missing from the energy of how I feel the second my car crosses the line into the city of Las Vegas. I knew I was missing that feeling of the next morning when you realize you went on this high and you come down. I wanted to create these scenarios that weren't necessarily applicable to me, but captured that emotion. I've been there before, and I want people to be like, Damn, I've been there before. I know this feeling. 

I recorded that song at 4 in the morning with a sinus infection. The second that we finished it, everybody was like, "You can never re-sing that. Don't try to make another version, you're not gonna be able to sound like that again." All the chatter in the background of that song is really everybody who was in the studio that stayed up to just hang out. We had the tequila out, it was perfect. That was probably one of my favorite moments of making the album.

It takes a while as an artist to reach a place where you can capture those moments. You said before that people try to figure you out, and I mean this in the best possible way, but it feels like now you don’t care if they can’t figure you out.

I don't give a f—anymore, yeah. And that was a very important thing for me to learn. I used to care so much, and I would spend so much time explaining myself online, in music, in interviews, on stage. I realized that you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. 

I've been so forward-facing with my heart my entire career that I've left a lot of room for people to consistently pedestal me and then critique me, for people to want to tear me down. I realized I'm just being present, here, existing loudly in front of a billion people, and whichever way that goes is how the cookies gonna crumble. Me giving a f—? I'm the only one it's affecting at this point, for sure.

Angélica Garcia's Intuition: How 'Gemelo' Was Born By Embracing L.A., Ancestry & Spanish Language

Queer country feature hero
(L-R) Orville Peck, Allison Russell, Lily Rose, Adeem the Artist, Jaime Wyatt

Photos (L-R): Jeff Hahne/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/Getty Images, Erika Goldring/Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Americana Music Association, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

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How Queer Country Artists Are Creating Space For Inclusive Stories In The Genre

As country music continues its global explosion, the genre is seeing a growing number of artists in the LGBTQIA+ community — including Adeem the Artist, Lily Rose and Jaime Wyatt — blaze a trail toward acceptance.

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2024 - 04:36 pm

When country singer/songwriter Jaime Wyatt announced she was queer with the release of her second album, 2020's Neon Cross, she was convinced doing so would destroy her career. Instead, something shifted — not only was she more free to be herself and to date women openly, but many fans reacted positively, too.

"Several times on the road I've had fans come up to me with their same sex partner, and they're like, 'Hey, we feel safe here. It's so awesome because we both love country music, and we're not out of the closet, and we're not out to our families, but we can be here,'" Wyatt says.

Modern country music is generally perceived as a conservative genre, and deep-rooted cultural and industry biases have long excluded LGBTQIA+ (and BIPOC) artists and stories from the genre. For example, in 2010, when successful mainstream country artist Chely Wright came out, her career stalled and record sales halved. Kacey Musgraves was criticized for lyrics supporting same-sex love in her beloved anthem, "Follow Your Arrow." More recently, even, Wyatt walked out of a recording session after the owner of the space asked if she was singing "'some gay s—.'"

But Wyatt is also one of a growing number of country artists who, in recent years, have blazed a trail through country music and toward acceptance. Among them, Adeem the Artist, Mya Byrne, Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark, Mary Gauthier, Lizzy No, Orville Peck, Lily Rose, and Allison Russell. Together, they're celebrating queerness alongside their love for the genre, and pushing it into diversity with patience, tenacity, and darn good country music.

"If you listen to popular music, or if you listen to hip-hop music, it feels like there's a broader diversity to a lot of subcultures as far as what you're able to access," nonbinary country singer/songwriter Adeem the Artist says. "Whereas with country music, it's very linear, it's very myopic, and singular in its expression."

By way of broadening country's storytelling, Adeem plays a honky-tonk blend of classic and '90s country music that's sonically aligned with the deep musical traditions in Tennessee, where they now live. Lyrically, though, their propensity for gorgeous, frankly worded songs complicate stereotypical southern narratives in rare and provocative ways. On White Trash Revelry, their 2022 studio album, they grapple with racism, economic entrapment, gun violence, and family heritage. And their latest, Anniversary, released in May, includes songs about mental health, the poignance of parenthood, and the pain and fear of being a queer person in a world that threatens their existence.

Indeed, some of the places in the U.S. with the strongest ties to country music remain the least hospitable to queer people. Just last year, Tennessee, home of Nashville, the country music capital of the world, passed a total of 10 bills aimed at LGBTQIA+ people, while Texas, perhaps country music's second-best known state, passed 20 percent of all anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in the U.S. What's more, LGBTQIA+ people and culture have been targeted by numerous attacks around the world — including the Pulse nightclub and Club Q shootings stateside — in the last few years alone.

For many, the consequences of not coming out, of not sharing their full selves with the world, are risky, too. Growing up, Wyatt had no role model to show her it was okay to be queer. She struggled for years with mental health and substance abuse and was convicted of robbing her heroin dealer as a young adult. "I needed to see someone who looked like me when I was a young child," Wyatt says. "And maybe I wouldn't have been a dope fiend in jail."

But while straight white men comprise most of country music's standard slate of forebearers, women and people in the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities have contributed to the genre since its beginning. Notably, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer Black woman, who in the 1950s introduced reverb to gospel and rhythm and blues music — and in doing so, she forever changed guitar playing, and inspired some of country music's biggest trailblazers, from Elvis to Johnny Cash.

In 1973 — four years after the Stonewall uprising kickstarted a widespread gay liberation movement — Patrick Haggerty and his band Lavender Country released what is generally considered the first gay country album. But after it sold out its first pressing of 1000 copies, the album was mostly forgotten until 1999, when the Journal of Country Music published an article hailing Haggerty as "the lost pioneer of out gay country music." Haggerty began performing again and in 2014, indie label Paradise of Bachelors reissued the Lavender Country album, securing Haggerty status as a grandfather figure to queer country.

Haggerty's reissue landed in a different world than the album's original run. In the interim, a handful of artists released more queer country music, including Jeff Miller, aka "John Deere Diva," known for his George Strait parody, "Not Really Strait," as well as Doug Stevens and the Outband's When Love Is Right and Sid Spencer's Out-N-About Again, which put lyrically gay songs to country music.

In 2011, shortly before the Lavender Country reissue, queer country singer/songwriter and music scholar Karen Pittleman convened the first Gay Ole Opry in Brooklyn's now defunct Public Assembly performance space, launching more than a decade of queer country events, tours and a far-reaching network of performers and supporters. And in 2015, gay marriage became legal nationwide.

As progress has accelerated culturally in the near decade since, it has in country music, too. In 2018, Paisley Fields' debut album Glitter and Sawdust merged cowboy grit with queer raunch. In 2019, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" provoked country music to re-consider the nature and identity of country music. In 2021, T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne became the first openly gay male artist signed to a major record label; a year later, the duo's song "Younger Me" — which was written in response to T.J.'s coming out — became the first country song with an LGBTQIA+ theme to win a GRAMMY. And this Pride Month, longtime LGBTQIA+ supporter (and GLAAD's 2023 Excellence in Media Award recipient) Maren Morris declared on Instagram, "happy to be the B in LGBTQ+."

Read More: 9 Times Queer Artists Made History At The GRAMMYs: From Elton John's Collab With BSB To Kim & Sam's "Unholy" Union

"We as queer fans deserve to have songs that speaks specifically to us," says Rachel Cholst, a queer writer and educator. "And if that means putting in same gender pronouns, then we deserve that too. And if that makes a straight person uncomfortable, I don't know what to tell you. I've grown up my entire life having to internally change the pronouns to the love songs that really moved me."

Cholst started writing about music when she realized she couldn't be the only queer country fan out there. Her work aims to make queer country music accessible, and she has run the Adobe and Teardrops blog for more than a decade. In 2022, Cholst launched Rainbow Rodeo, a zine about queer country music, which appears bi-annually in print and regularly online.

"Everyone just assumed that country music is this one thing, and it never occurred to them to go look for it. That tells you a lot about how country music wants to present itself as an industry," Cholst says. "If we erase anyone who's not straight, anyone who's not white, then what you're saying is, you want those people to be erased from the conversation, from the culture."

Beyond using she/her pronouns in love songs (which she didn't get to do on her first album, Felony Blues), Wyatt's powerful, steely queer country music complicates social consciousness. Incisive and elegant in her delivery, she's equally compelling chronicling her conviction and jail time on Felony Blues, confronting demons and figuring out who she is on her Shooter Jennings-produced second album, Neon Cross, and outlining her hopes and frustrations for the world on her third album, 2023's sultry, groovy, Feel Good.

Wyatt's knack for catchy and advocacy-laced country bangers is clearest in "Rattlesnake Girl," one of her most popular songs. In it, she offers an anthemic celebration of joy unfettered: "I see my sweet friends out on the weekend/ They all look happy and gay," and a barbed warning to anyone who might impinge on that happiness: "Thank you kindly, don't walk behind me/ I've seen people slip that way/ And if you try me, boot heels beside me/ I might have to make your day."

Queer country music means something a little different to each artist. For many, it's about much more than simply being a queer person performing country music. Adeem the Artist considers queer country its own genre, complete with specific rules — many of which have nothing to do with sexual or gender orientation.

"It is explicitly political in nature. It is often kind of raunchy," they assert. "There's an element to queer country that is confrontational, that is willing to create discomfort for the sake of a relief that leans towards some greater social awareness."

To some degree, raising awareness and representation — which is essential for inclusion and acceptance — requires a bit of self-tokenization, Adeem says. "The very, very basic act of referring to me as a person who is queer, who is trans, who is nonbinary, who is whatever, those labels only do good as much as they illuminate the differences between us and the fact that I am more difficult for some people to relate with."

Adeem and Wyatt both operate within the alt-country scene, which has been marginally more inclusive than mainstream country over the years. Recently, though, rising country musician Lily Rose cracked through with her viral breakup single, 2020's "Villain." On her latest EP, Runnin' Outta Time (which she released in May), she sings a high-octane pop/country mix about her values and relationships. It's a well-worn country music landscape that has been almost exclusively dominated by heterosexual white men.

"To be one of the first to literally [and] figuratively, carry the flag... it makes me really proud. And it has its heavy moments for sure," Rose says. "Night after night, when I get to meet fans and see comments on social media that they feel seen for the first time in the genre, it's really special and it makes every single second of hard work to get here worth it."

The day after Runnin' Out of Time dropped, Rose made her Grand Ole Opry debut with two songs from the album, "Back Pew" and "Two Flowers"; Adeem and Wyatt also played the Opry for the first time in the last year as well. The Opry, one of country music's oldest and most lauded tastemakers, has welcomed a number of queer artists in the last few years, signaling a subtle shift toward a more inclusive country music institution. (In addition, all three artists recently scored high-profile touring spots: Rose with Shania Twain and Sam Hunt, Adeem with Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit; and Wyatt wrapped up her first headlining tour.)

For Pittleman, an essential part of making music is ensuring space for anyone who wants to make music to do so, regardless of how they look or identify. "Most people who like country music, they just want to hear country music," Pittleman says. "I want to have a good time, too. But you have to ask at a certain point, 'Who is invited to the good time?'"

As she insists, there's a long way to go. In a digital world, radio play doesn't offer a complete picture, but it remains a dominant force in country music. For decades, women have been played sparingly on country radio and artists of color and queer musicians featured far less, a shortcoming which SongData's principal investigator, Jada Watson, spent years studying. Her research concludes that women country artists are played roughly 29 percent of the time, Black artists 5 percent, and other artists of color 7 percent. Queer artists, Watson estimates, make up less than 1 percent of radio play.

"The real problem is who's making those decisions; who has the power and as a result, who has the power and the resources to record their music, to distribute their music, to get it out on a broader scale," Pittleman suggests. "We have to make sure that everyone who's called to make the music has the resources and the power to make it and bring it into the world."

And in spite of multitude setbacks and naysayers, queer artists are creating country music. As Pittleman wrote in a 2020 essay in the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled "You're My Country Music," one of the joys of singing queer country music is making country music, plain and simple. "The point is to mark the deepest moments of human connection, our truest hopes and heartbreaks, and turn them into a sound that gives us joy and strength," she says.

"Because sometimes you love a culture that doesn't love you back," Pittleman continues on the Gay Ole Opry's about page. "We do it because we love the music and want to build a community to support queer country musicians. We do it because everybody needs a honky-tonk angel to hold them tight. We do it because we believe in country music for all."

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PRIDE & Black Music Month: Celebrating LGBTQIA+ & Black Voices

Normani in 2023
Normani attends Elle's Women In Hollywood event in 2023.

Photo: MICHAEL TRAN/AFP via Getty Images

list

Breaking Down Normani's Journey To 'Dopamine': How Her Debut Album Showcases Resilience & Star Power

The wait for Normani's first album, 'Dopamine,' is officially over. Upon the album's arrival, reflect on all of the major moments that have happened in the six years since she made her solo debut.

GRAMMYs/Jun 14, 2024 - 09:39 pm

All eyes are on Normani as her long-awaited debut album, Dopamine, arrives to eager fans and critics alike on June 14. It arrives more than six years after Normani made her solo debut post-Fifth Harmony — and though she has released a number of singles since, even her most loyal listeners were bewildered by the delay of her debut project. But the 28-year-old has been strategic in building something timeless.

"I took the time to learn and develop my sound. I wanted to be different and create a body of work that's unique but still fresh and exciting," Normani tells GRAMMY.com. "There were many days of trial and error trying to perfect something that embodies who I am and the type of artist I wanted to be. I always knew that I had to trust myself even when others doubted me and questioned my hunger."

On the highly anticipated Dopamine, Normani's womanhood and artistic breadth effortlessly glides across its 13 tracks. She makes no apologies for her sexier image and music after years of "feeling safe with being seen, but not too seen," as she told Teen Vogue in 2020. That newfound confidence translates into a musical paradise that's a far cry from her Fifth Harmony days. Up until now, the world has only received Normani's talent in snippets here and there; Dopamine finally gives us the full dose.

As you dig into Dopamine, take a look at a complete breakdown of every major moment that's led to Normani's long-awaited debut project.

2018: She Re-Introduced Herself As An R&B Star

A mere month prior to Fifth Harmony's hiatus announcement, a then 21-year-old Normani teamed up with Khalid for her first-ever single as a solo act, "Love Lies." Penned for the Love, Simon soundtrack, the sultry R&B number foreshadowed Normani's imminent success outside of Fifth Harmony; not only did it crack the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it hit No. 1 on both Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 and Radio Songs charts.

At the tail end of 2018, Normani delivered another R&B jam, the hazy, slow-burning duet with 6lack, "Waves," which found success on multiple R&B charts. Though somewhat forgotten compared to "Motivation" and "Wild Side" (more on those later), "Waves" shows off Normani's vocal range as she laments over an on-again, off-again relationship.

2019: She Celebrated A Global Smash & Massive Opening Act Slot

Normani struck gold again in 2019 when she teamed up with Sam Smith for "Dancing With a Stranger," which became the most-played radio song in the world that year, according to Forbes. Sonically speaking, the disco-tinged oasis marked new territory for Normani — and it paid off in a big way as it boasts over a billion Spotify streams and remains her biggest single to date.

The singer's star continued shining bright into that summer, when she served as the opener for the North American leg of Ariana Grande's Sweetener Tour. The arena trek marked her first opportunity to show off her performing skills, and further prove her prowess as a solo act.

On the heels of the international success of "Dancing With a Stranger" and touring with Grande, Normani released her first fully solo single, "Motivation." The bubbly track presented a poppier side and offered a fun moment with its Y2K-inspired video, even igniting a viral dance challenge. But it seemingly wasn't indicative of the direction she was headed; at the time, Normani admitted to The Cut that she "didn't feel like it represented" her as an artist.

Still, "Motivation" served as a pivotal moment for Normani. It became a top 20 hit on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart, and she delivered a showstopping performance of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards — which even earned the title of 2019's best performance from Harper's Bazaar.

2020 & 2021: She Teamed Up With Two Of Rap's Biggest Female Stars

The next couple of years saw Normani continue linking up with several of her peers. She first joined forces with Megan Thee Stallion for the anthemic "Diamonds" — which brilliantly samples Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" — off the Birds of Prey soundtrack. Soon after, she teamed up with Megan again — this time, for a jaw-dropping cameo in the video for the chart-topping smash "WAP" with Cardi B.

"WAP" drew criticism for its sexually explicit lyrics (and equally racy video), but the message aligned perfectly with Normani's mission to champion and represent Black women in and outside of the music industry. 

"The 'WAP' video I was really, really excited to be a part of, just because I feel like we're in a time in music where women — and Black women — are really on top, which is something I feel like we haven't seen in a very, very long time," she told Teen Vogue. "Where I come from, we were all about female empowerment. The fact that I could be a part of such a special moment embracing our sexuality, in which I definitely think there's a double standard, [was exciting] to be a part of it."

In 2021, Normani took her turn with Cardi B on another fiery track, "Wild Side," which saw her return to her R&B foundation while also continuing her artistic evolution. From sampling Aaliyah's "One in a Million" to executing the intricate choreography seen in the Tanu Muino-directed video, the '90s-inspired slow jam — which closes out Dopamine — whet fans' appetite and established Normani as a force to be reckoned with in R&B and beyond.

2022: She Traversed Several Different Musical Worlds

Keeping fans on their toes, Normani veered away slightly from her signature R&B sound by incorporating synth-pop into the one-off single "Fair." The mid-tempo track put the spotlight on her vulnerability; the lyrics deal with watching a past lover move on as if you never existed.

"This one is really unique and different for me. Probably not what everyone is expecting," she said in an Instagram story ahead of the release.

A few months later, Normani dove deeper into the dance genre by lending her light and airy vocals to Calvin Harris' "New to You," a collaboration that also featured Tinashe and Offset. But she never strayed too far from her R&B stylings, as she also teamed up with childhood friend Josh Levi for a remix of his song "Don't They" that summer.

2023: She Ushered In A New Era

Though 2023 didn't see any new music from Normani, she made some business moves that indicated she was ready for a reset. That May, Normani parted ways with S10 Entertainment and Brandon Silverstein after signing a new management deal with Brandon Creed and Lydia Asrat — signifying a new chapter and much-needed change in direction. 

"The transition signified a new beginning, filled with hopes of  moving forward and getting things done that were important to me," Normani tells GRAMMY.com. "I was faced with many obstacles over the years, some that you would not believe. But through it all, my faith in God kept me aligned with what I felt was right for me."

A couple months later, Normani launched a partnership with Bose that saw her give a first preview of the assertive Dopamine track "Candy Paint." She also offered some insight to the album delays, which partially stemmed from her parents' health struggles.

"It was hard feeling misunderstood because of the lack of knowledge people had for my circumstances in real-time. I don't even know if I had the energy to explain — my emotional, spiritual and mental endurance was really tested," she explained to Dazed. "When my parents got sick, I didn't have the mental capacity to even try to be creative, but I pushed myself anyway. If it weren't for them, I probably wouldn't have, but I know it's what got them through such a tough time — they needed to see me persevere and push through and continue to move forward."

As she shared with Bose, crafting Dopamine ended up being a creative outlet for Normani and offered a sign of hope for her and her parents during their respective treatments.

"(When my mom was going through chemo) the thing that really kept her going was getting on FaceTime and being like, 'How are the sessions going?' She's always so eager to hear the new records we've been working on," she said. "And then a year later, when my dad ended up being diagnosed, he would say mid treatment, 'I'm ready for you to take over the world.'"

2024: She Completed A Hard-Fought Journey

By the beginning of 2024, even Normani couldn't help but acknowledge how long fans had been waiting for her debut LP. She facetiously launched a website called wheresthedamnalbum.com — but it actually served as the official kickoff to the album campaign.

Two months after she shared the album's title and stunning cover art on the site, Normani delivered the guitar-driven lead single "1:59" arrived, as well as a release date for Dopamine.

Despite a series of false starts and personal challenges, Dopamine is proof that Normani is as resilient as they come — and this project was well worth the wait. Opening tracks "Big Boy" and "Still" flex her swag, whereas Janet Jackson-coded tunes like "All Yours" and "Lights On" (co-written with Victoria Monét) ooze sensual vibes. While the album mostly caters to her R&B foundation, she touches on her dance music dabblings with the house-leaning"Take My Time." 

Dopamine even offered a full-circle moment for Normani, who has cited Brandy as one of her biggest musical inspirations. The R&B trailblazer lends background vocals to "Insomnia," which also features hypnotic production from Stargate

As Normani embraces her close-up, she's keenly aware that the stakes are high, but it's a moment she's been ready for all along.

"I hope [fans] see the passion and the hard work that I have put into creating something so special," she tells GRAMMY.com. "I love my fans and how they have been patiently waiting and supporting me over the years. I hope the wait was worth it for them and they are proud of what we have accomplished together."

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Tanner Adell Press Photo 2024
Tanner Adell

Photo: Chase Foster

interview

Tanner Adell's Big Year: The Country Newcomer Talks Stagecoach, "BLACKBIIRD," & Meeting Her Childhood Idols

As Tanner Adell continues making waves in country music, she shares some of the most monumental moments from her career so far — from featuring on Beyoncé's critically acclaimed 'COWBOY CARTER' to making space for Black women at the CMT Music Awards.

GRAMMYs/Jun 6, 2024 - 02:48 pm

With one bold tweet, Tanner Adell's life changed.

"As one of the only Black girls in the country music scene, I hope Bey decides to sprinkle me with a dash of her magic for a collab," she wrote, minutes after Beyoncé premiered "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" and "16 CARRIAGES" during this year's Super Bowl in February.

At first, Adell was mocked for her pitch. "You're trying too hard, love," one user said. Another chimed in, "Baby, that album is finished with all the songs cleared. I don't know about this one. Maybe, open for the tour," another user remarked.

But she wasn't bothered by the chatter: "Those people said I look desperate, I'm like, 'You must not know me, b—!" Adell reveals to GRAMMY.com with a hearty laugh. 

Confidence is the inner core of the Tanner Adell ethos. And her boldness paid off because shortly after when Beyoncé approached her to feature on COWBOY CARTER.

In Adell's first music release of 2024, she appeared alongside Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts in Beyoncé's cover of "BLACKBIIRD" by The Beatles. It was a full-circle moment for Adell in more ways than one, as her father used to sing the song to her as a child. Little did she know, decades later, she would popularize the track's backstory — the plight of Black women in the American South — alongside one of her heroes.

But before Adell became one of Beyoncé's songbirds, she was also the Buckle Bunny. On the 11-track mixtape, Adell traced the provocative tales of an acrylic nail-wearing, lasso-wielding heartbreaker. But for every Black girl that listens, it's more than a country project. It's also a reminder that it's okay to be feminine and girly, just like Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift.

Among her rodeo of exciting firsts, Adell tacks another on June 8, when she makes her debut at Nashville's Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest. She'll perform on the Platform Stage at the stadium; the next day, she'll play a set at the Good Molecules Reverb Stage outside of Bridgestone Arena.

Below, hear from Adell about her most memorable firsts thus far, from having her debut daytime television performance on "The Jennifer Hudson Show" to bonding with Gayle King behind the scenes at Stagecoach Music Festival.

Seeing Her Breakthrough Single, "Buckle Bunny," Have A Second Life

I released "Buckle Bunny" on the Buckle Bunny EP in July 2023. I actually teased it on social media first. Almost nine months before that, I had gone super viral with it. It was doing incredibly well, so my plans were to release it in January or February of last year. But, I ended up signing a record deal in December of 2022. There were plans for it at that time, but the timeline kept getting pushed back. It turned into a fight to get that song back into my hands, which was what prompted me to go independent. Eventually, I was able to work with my label, shake hands, and mutually part ways.

I started this year as an independent artist with this song that everybody loves. It's become a huge part of my brand, but it's really my life story. People might think it's a dumb song that was easy to write, but I was called a "buckle bunny." As a teenager growing up between Los Angeles and Star Valley, Wyoming, I was into glam country, and "Buckle Bunny" is the pinnacle of that. 

"Buckle Bunny" was my first single that charted. I felt like I finally had broken through that invisible box that Nashville put me in as a country musician. It was me saying, I'm not going to follow any rules. I'm going to be as true to myself as possible.

We, as Black women, have been fighting our whole lives. We've been fighting for space. I'm purposely trying to bring softness into the picture, allowing women who listen to my music to know that it's okay to feel that way. We don't always have to have our walls up.

"Buckle Bunny" is aggressively confident, but I think that's the door to softness. You have to be self-assured to let your walls down. My newest single, "Whiskey Blues," is my next step into that. I have another song on my social media, "Snakeskin," that people want me to release. "Buckle Bunny" is like the girl who protects those softer moments.

In a way, I look at all of this as a relationship between Tanner Adell, the artist, and Tanner, the person. For me, Tanner Adell is the buckle bunny. Then, you have Tanner, who's on the inside, writing all of these songs.

Serving A Bold Fashion Statement On Her First Major Red Carpet

I wore Bantu knots! I've always loved Bantu knots in all styles, the really small ones and the larger ones. There were ideas about whether I should do a certain number of them that was significant to me in some way.

I work very closely with Bill Wackermann, who was the CEO of Wilhemina Models. He does a lot of styling and has a close relationship with my manager. So, my manager was like, "You would love him!" At the time, I was trying to hone in on what myself is. What's the message I'm trying to convey through my fashion, hair, and beauty? 

Bill sat down with me, and I told him I wanted Natalia Fedner to do my dress, which is that stretchy chain metal dress. Originally, I thought I would do my long blonde hair, but Bill was the one who told me, "This is your first major red carpet as an invited artist. Think about what you want your hair to say." As a Black woman, our hair tells 1,000 stories with whatever it is, and the lightbulb went off in my head.

I knew I wanted my hair to say everything I needed to say without having to say anything at all. I also knew there would be a lot of people who didn't know the significance behind it or just thought it was some extreme hairstyle.

I've looked very deeply into my heritage. It turns out I have a bit of Bantu heritage in my DNA. I thought that was so cool because I do love the knots so much.

The CMT Awards were a big thing at my school, Utah Valley University. Everyone would get together in the dorms and watch the show. It's crazy that a couple years ago, I was watching it, and I'm here now. I feel very respected and loved. People I've looked up to would come up to me, and I was like, "I'm a huge fan." And they're like, "No! I listened to you."

I got to meet Gayle King, who I absolutely love. I remember watching her from afar while she was doing "CBS Mornings." She saw me from across the room, and I kid you not, in the middle of her interview, she started walking towards me. She was like, "I just want to tell you that you're so beautiful. The Bantu knots are stunning." That was my favorite moment of the night.

I also had the chance to see Tiera Kennedy. She's so sweet. We got matching blackbird tattoos before that. Being on the red carpet for the first time, it was comforting to see a familiar face. It really reinforces that idea that I belong here.

Being A Part Of COWBOY CARTER

So, I'm adopted. I have four siblings. We're all biracial, but our adoptive parents are both white. Obviously, my dad is a white man with five Black children. My parents always wanted me to understand that I am a Black woman, and he was very educational when it came to music. He taught me about the Black female power players and the buzz in the industry. But The Beatles were his favorite. So, when I finally told them the news, my dad immediately got choked up. He told me that "Blackbird" was one of his favorite Beatles songs.

My dad isn't the best with words when it comes to expressing his emotions, especially in front of people. He's a quiet, reserved dude. So, he eventually texts me, sending me screenshots about the meaning behind "Blackbird." The reason why it was his favorite song was because he had Black girls, and he told me, "This is special. This is not a burden to carry, but it might be a bit of weight on your shoulders. Keep your head up high and walk knowing that this is why he wrote this song."

I can remember going to a recital as a kid and being so nervous, but my dad was so confident and excited about my abilities. Was that strategic? Was it quiet strength? Maybe. It feels like this song has been a part of my whole life. So, to be on it, on such a massive album, feels very divine.

The whole process was a surprise. It took a few weeks to set in. But I always knew I would work with [Beyoncé], and I always said it's a matter of "when," not if. 

On the day of the Super Bowl, I saw that black-and-white picture of her, and I thought it looked a lot like a photoshoot that I took the week before. Let me make a tweet, just to put it out there. I don't know — she's magical! She has her way of knowing everything that's going on all the time. 

I think that tweet has almost 10 million views. It was fun to go back to that tweet to see the people who were supporting me. And also getting to say "I told you" to the people who didn't. It kicked off a Renaissance — pun intended.

Performing At Her First Stagecoach Music Festival

I have bad social anxiety, and I get nervous in front of crowds and people. So, festivals were never something that interested me, but Stagecoach was always one I felt like I could go to. And I was not disappointed.

I had the first slot of the day, which is a s—ty slot for anyone, but you have to pay your dues in country music. It's how you build your cred with these festivals, to show you're a hard worker and will perform like you're at a sold-out show in Madison Square Garden. And I did.

Mentally, I prepared for no one. I told myself it was okay if nobody came, and I'll perform like I always do. I'll figure out where the camera is and perform it for the jumbotron, so if no one comes to the pit, the people watching the livestream will have a great show. 

Well, I didn't have an empty pit! People showed the f— up and out. I heard people in line thought they were going to miss it because the gates opened late. Within the first 10 minutes, the VIP pit was half-filled with people screaming and running in their sweet little cowboy boots and hats. That never happens at Stagecoach or Coachella, but it's a testament to the relationship I built within my listeners. It was eye-opening for me. I don't think I'm ever going to play to a dead crowd again.

Before, Levi's reached out and said I was the first artist they wanted to collaborate with for Stagecoach. So, they custom-made my outfit. I told them I have these ribbons, inspired by my mom, who was a rodeo queen. I also told them if they can't incorporate them, I probably won't do it. But they loved it! And it was special because it came back to my mom. She was a winner, so when I wear the ribbons, I'm also a winner.

My mom has competed in over 1,000 competitions and probably places in half of those. In Wyoming, we had a big wall, covered in those IQHA (International Quarter Horse Association) ribbons. She gave me a strong sense of competition.

Making Her Debut On Daytime TV

I have overcome very serious, debilitating stage fright. I don't get nervous anymore, and performing live is my favorite thing. But I was not prepared for what a television show taping looks like.

We had a soundcheck, and there were a bunch of suits in groups of threes and fours standing everywhere. There were all these cameras and lights. Then, I start realizing I'm about to meet J. Hud, who I made little custom Crocs for. It was a dream come true.

I know a lot about her story. We have very different upbringings, but we're similar in the sense of trying to stand on ground that isn't steady. I see her as someone who is a great example. She's reached so many different avenues. For me to be able to sit down with an EGOT winner is a great honor. 

I kind of like to keep my manifestations as quiet as possible. I don't tell anybody anything, but an EGOT is something I wouldn't mind having, you know?

I look at her as a woman who exceeded greatness. So, it was just amazing — and for my first television debut. I felt like this is right for me.

Why 2024 Is The Year Women In Country Music Will Finally Have Their Moment