First things first: Adia Victoria is a black woman who writes blues-rock music who we can describe without mentioning Brittany Howard or Valerie June. Not because she and Howard don’t possess a similar amount of poorly suppressed vigor, but because I think they express them in distinct fashions. Not because I don't love and respect Valerie June, because Pushin' Against a Stone is one of my most-played albums ever, according to last.Fm. I simply am not going to use these comparisons (too much) because they're easy, and she deserves to be considered on her own and in a new light.
For starters, she's from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and spent her high school years at the Fine Arts Center in Greenville, SC (which is kind of my to rival high school.) Spartanburg and Greenville are both in the Upcountry region of our state, which is closer to North Carolina and far west enough to meet the Blue Ridge and Piedmont Mountains. In my experience, most people you speak to will tell you that the Upstate counties and cities are generally a bit better off than many Midlands and Low Country ones. When you ask many folks about Spartanburg, they might point to the economic growth BMW has brought to the area, the city's racial diversity, or its relatively stable schools in a state otherwise struggling with education.
Adia Victoria has a drastically different view of her home. If you mention the better job prospects in the last years, she’d likely draw your attention to the lengthy regional struggle with textile industry employment for several preceding decades. If you mention the “racial diversity,” she’ll translate this code term for you: in her city, racial diversity means there are a hefty population of black people who live in East Spartanburg, and a nearly equal number of white people in the more prosperous parts of the city. While she wants you to know where she’s from, she also wants you to reconsider what that means.
If you couldn't guess, Adia Victoria’s not necessarily okay with Southern life. I could rephrase this by saying she hates Southern life a good 95% of the time (“I don’t know nothing ‘bout nothing but my own misery/I’ve been dreaming of swinging from that old Palmetto tree.”) This discontent shows in her songs about the Nashville landlords she can’t stand, or her Facebook posts about the “dark flipside” of Southern chivalry. Regardless of her discontent with her home region, she also can't seem to stop singing about it. As someone who's often felt the same way, I think it’s high time that we see Southern women who aren’t apologizing for their contradictory emotions towards home, but instead shedding light on the distinct experience of never wanting to come back to the place that never leaves you. Of course, everyone is proud of where they live, but there's a distinct experience that arises from being proud of somewhere you often can't stand. If we must compare Adia Victoria to Alabama Shakes, I think we should talk about how she furthers the thought of Howard & Co. in "Rise to the Sun" (“I feel so homesick/where’s my home/where I belong/or where I was born?”)
Many people may find it a challenge to categorize Adia Victoria’s music. While the lyrical delivery and sonic structures of her songs are well within blues conventions, Adia Victoria resists the deceivingly simple lyrics of many of her genre counterparts, instead reaching for indie-esque complexity and densely populated tracks. Like a true Southerner, Adia Victoria has a complicated and tortured history with everything around her—the South Pacolet waters that stole her dress shoes as a child, the Atlanta streets she escaped to after high school, and of course, the city that may be attempting to move on without her. She allows this multi-faceted history to temper every note she sings, shirking the parsed-down hymns of many modern blues singers for a kind of anger we haven’t seen in quite a while.
When you look at earlier blues/folk/gospel musicians, however, they're often incensed, complicated, and occasionally over-the-top. If you listen even somewhat closely, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's plucky Arkansas church blues often sounds like righteous indignation over her state's way of life. While we’ve all learned about how white male rock artists were able to turn her sound into more appealing, “less dangerous” forms of artistry, this narrative often robs Sister Tharpe of some of her fire. When we paint her as the quietly groovy, patiently under-recognized godmother of rock, I think we forget about the COGIC-feuled fury that is palpable in songs such as “This Train.” While Sister Tharpe clearly loved her people and town, she obviously wanted much more from them, and wasn’t scared to demand as much. The idea, then, that blues and folk artists (specifically black female ones) perform at their best when their chords are peaceful, their notes are muted, and their lyrics are reverential, is clearly historically inaccurate.
In many ways, Adia Victoria gives me hope that black women can perform the music they originated in its full glory, without becoming demure caricatures of themselves. She gives me hope that I can write about how much I hate the inequities in my hometown, and also still read Northerners for coming for my zip code. She gives me hope that outsiders will try to understand this contradiction, as long as I explain it to them well. She gives me hope that black girls can be angry and still respected, new on the scene and still forces to reckon with. She gives me hope that I can be myself, and not just the Opry-approved version.
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