It's possible that Grammy-nominated roots rocker Amythyst Kiah's latest single, "Black Myself," took four centuries to develop but was written and recorded on the same day. The song debuted via Kiah's participation alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell in recording 2019's stellar Songs of Our Native Daughters project. As a part of a release that highlights African-American women's stories of struggle, resistance, and hope, the track is a standout. However, as an electrified rock anthem for Kiah's 2021 album Wary + Strange, it reflects more of the artist herself, as someone for whom recording roots music "helps define [herself] as both an American and a musician."
In this interview for CMT, Kiah dives into the parts of both herself, American history, and the depth and breadth of the Black experience in full that define both the song as well as its music video presentation.
Marcus K. Dowling, CMT.com: So, how does "Black Myself" travel from the Our Native Daughters album to your latest release?
Amythyst Kiah: Initially, I had no plans to add this song to [my new album] Wary + Strange. It didn't fit the concept, which was originally about my experiences in dealing with and working through grief and emotional turmoil. However, when 2020, as a civil rights moment, started happening, my management convinced me that it'd be a great idea to add it to the record. You can't get much warier or stranger than being "black myself" in America right now.
CMT: Indeed. I also love the fact that the song works like a classic gospel "call and response"-style hymn of sorts. I think that's where the profound strength is. I'm aware that there was a lot of research and borrowing of historical inspiration for these songs. What exactly comprised the inspiration for this song?
AK: This was originally recorded at the end of recording the Songs of Our Native Daughters album. It's a culmination of things I'd read and looked at while working on the project, plus things I'd seen and heard before even coming to Louisiana to record. The original idea came from a version of the song "John Henry," recorded by Alan Lomax and written by Sidney Hemphill. That part of [Hemphill's song] is about a person internalizing racism in a white supremacist society. When writing my song, I decided to name -- basically making a long list -- all of the other ways we experience racism. As well, while reading Bill C. Malone and David Stricklin's [1979 published] book Southern Music, American Music, I noted the book's first paragraph. It reads, "Southern music is the culmination of West African and British Celtic folk traditions." That blew my mind! I had no idea. This played a pivotal role in this song but initially in my decision to embrace and record American roots music in general.
CMT: I wanted to dive deeper into how this song impacts people. There are a lot of deep, hard, American triggers at play here. This song, in effect, is a roots song with...roots, so to speak. Was this an intentional decision in the creative process?
AK: I had some definitive intentions in writing "Black Myself." However, looking back, there are things that I wasn't consciously thinking when I was writing the song -- like the gospel call and response cadence -- that just happened. But, while listening to field recordings of country blues while writing the Our Native Daughters album, that spirit is everywhere. [Call and response] was certainly one aspect of early American music that has remained because of its direct human communication. To hear a song and feel like you can call back to the person onstage is an interaction that now materializes in modern music.
CMT: Even deeper...and I feel like this is more of a long-tail impact, I see this song doing the work of revitalizing sounds like country and rock, too, for many Black fans of popular music, especially. There hasn't been a song that's really gotten great visibility -- by a Black artist -- in quite some time that really digs deep into that Delta blues-type vibe that artists like Led Zeppelin really borrowed heavily from Black artists to define their own style. Thoughts?
AK: Oh yeah, that's definitely in here. I love that -- they're calling it vintage rock, maybe -- vibe. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and early Black Sabbath are all things that I listen to. I also grew up with parents with eclectic tastes that included everything from Earth, Wind, and Fire to the Allman Brothers and Yanni.
CMT: Digging back into the rock vibe, it's what makes the video really connect. Stark images with powerful sounds, ultimately. The song was fantastic in its acoustic form, but what inspired the rock take?
AK: The inspiration to make it more of a rock song came from my backing band, who are a bunch of alternative music fans, much like I am. For us, the inclination when playing ["Black Myself"] live was to play it as an electrified, "balls to the wall" rocker. I always had a feeling like this could be a rock song. The acoustic guitar with the drum rhythm is an unusual sound, and though I also recorded an electric version, we kept the original acoustic guitar and drum track. From there, we added Blake Mills, who added an excellent electric slide guitar, and then Wendy Melvoin (of Prince and the Revolution fame) added a great wah pedal-aided bass part, too.
CMT: I believe that 2020 was a protest year that lacked an accompanying protest song. I'm not entirely saying that "this is that song," but I do believe that that this song has that spirit behind it. How does it feel to be the artist behind what could or should be one of this generation's most inspirational songs?
AK: I never really put myself out there as a "protest songwriter" because I've never been quite comfortable enough in my own skin to speak freely about my Black experience without worrying about what some trolls are going to say [on the internet]. However, I feel like this song -- and others, for sure -- meets a moment where, after a year of quarantine, the world has been surrounded by media and messages that have been normalizing the uniqueness of America's Black experience. I never really explicitly wrote protest music before because so much of it lacked real melody and rhythm. ["Black Myself"] works because it's as straightforward as it is melodic and musical. This song -- because of its musicality -- feels like the type of protest music that I enjoy. Now that I've discovered these rhythms in this style, I've only just begun to write protest songs. I have more that I'd like to explore in the realms of [songs] that are social commentaries.