(Editor’s note: Kevin is handling a song review for “Black Like Me” over at Country Universe, so I decided to write about it here)
“Black Like Me”
Written by Mickey Guyton, Nathan Chapman, Emma Davidson-Dillon, and Fraser Churchill
Mickey Guyton hasn’t yet succeeded at country radio because ______.
A.) She’s black
B.) She’s a female artist
C.) Both A & B
D.) She isn’t making good enough music
If it’s not obvious, it’s option C. It should be obvious which one is the incorrect answer.
And let’s not mince words here, option D is the go-to excuse for country radio programmers, where a system of “equal opportunity” really just boils down to a system wherein the status quo always favors one group at the expense of another. Guyton has released five singles over the five years since she made her debut with “Better Than You Left Me,” and at this point, Capitol Nashville’s excuse of, “we’re still trying to develop her as an artist” isn’t going to work, either.
Granted, there’s plenty of opportunities to thrive outside of the country radio industry, and performers like Rhiannon Giddens, Yola, Trè Burt, Aaron Vance, and Amythyst Kiah are providing a much-needed voice and perspective right now for country music. But the thing is, country radio in 2020 is still the dominant representative for the industry, and something as simple as a country radio playlist can give away how it’s being perceived to the general public – non-country music fans and all. Guyton wants her fair shot at that representation, but again, it hasn’t happened yet.
Earlier this year, Maren Morris, Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett all found themselves within the country airplay top 10 concurrently, but this isn’t a change for the better so much as it is a sad reminder of how it shouldn’t be a rare occurrence for female country artists. Guyton addressed that discrimination head-on with “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” earlier this year, and to hold myself accountable for my own mistakes, I missed out on covering it on this blog. Still, that was Guyton’s way of addressing blatant sexism within the country music industry. Now, in the wake of a week that’s left George Floyd dead and a call for social action to fill the streets of the United States, Guyton is addressing the other elephant in the room – one aimed at the country music industry, for sure, but also one aimed more broadly at the United States – with “Black Like Me.”
Written in 2019, “Black Like Me” operates similarly to “What Are You Gonna Tell Her.” Both are sparse piano ballads, and Guyton is only trying to draw empathy with both messages. But whereas the latter track takes a broader approach to its scope and framing, the former is about Guyton’s own experience as a black woman growing up in America and trying to make it in the country music industry. It’s bold, risky, and opens up an uncomfortable conversation we all need to have right now, yet the core theme, again, boils down to empathy, which shouldn’t be a controversial topic.
But it is for America in 2020, and while performers like Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown have made inroads at country radio over the past few years, there’s no “etc.” to tack on to that; they’re it, as far as newer minority artists go, that is. Guyton’s technical vocal abilities have remained impressive since her debut, and here, her tone is frank and measured. This, of course, speaks to the fact that, like with her last single, Guyton would unfairly be relegated to the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype by some should she dare show any further emotion, so she uses her voice to draw subtle power, instead. That speaks to the writing, too, which quietly asks white listeners to understand their privilege, but not, of course, with a truth-to-power fury that would unfairly overshadow the real message of the song. All art is political, and this is a prime example of how those two entities intertwine.
The important thing now is to make sure we keep that conversation going – to do exactly what Guyton asks here and imagine things from her perspective, even though we’ll, of course, never actually know. Brantley Gilbert and Zac Brown are both set to release “songs for the current situation” soon; Riley Green is releasing the title track to his Different ‘Round Here album as his next single, which couldn’t ring as a more tone-deaf choice right now if it tried. I guess what I’m saying is, this is what I’d rather hear dominate the airwaves and garner the attention. It’s not too late, but I’d be lying if I said I had faith right now.