New roots: Black musicians and advocates are forging coalitions outside the system The mostly white country and folk music industries remain frustratingly difficult for Black musicians to enter. During one of Nashville's biggest events, one group envisioned a new pathway in.

New roots: Black musicians and advocates are forging coalitions outside the system

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There's been growing recognition of the ways that Black and queer people have been marginalized in country, folk and roots music over the last several years. Journalists have written about it. Diversity committees have been created to address it. But musicians, fans and advocates who have been shut out from the scenes themselves are forming grassroots coalitions to support each other. WNXP's Jewly Hight brings us this snapshot of a telling movement in a broader movement.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: From the outside, the brick bungalow could have been rented by people visiting Nashville for any touristy occasion. But its occupants aren't here for the sites. They've moved furniture into a circle for a cross between a guitar pull...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGHT: ...And a support group.

JETT HOLDEN: I'm Jett Holden from Elizabethton, Tenn. And I've been writing music since I was 17. But I quit, like, two years ago.

HIGHT: There are nods of understanding around the room. Many here have been told that they have no claim on the music they want to make.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLDEN: (Singing) Got to love that 'que (ph).

HIGHT: This is happening during the annual Americana Music Festival. But it's not on the official events schedule, nor is it sponsored by a music company. Journalist Marcus K. Dowling secured the place for the week.

MARCUS K DOWLING: I feel very good to say that white people paid me to write about country music. I then paid for Black people to come down to Nashville and to write songs about country music.

HIGHT: A lot of networking happens in industry hangs like this. And Dowling wanted to recreate that for those who haven't been included. Think of it as applying political organizing to music.

DOWLING: In that room right now is three generations of African American country performers stretching back from 1990 to the present day.

HIGHT: Until 2020, Dowling wrote about other music and had no outlet for his interest in covering country. His co-host at the house, Holly G, had reached her breaking point as a country fan.

HOLLY G: Last year when George Floyd got murdered, it made me take stock of everything that I was consuming in my life. And one of the biggest things that I consume is music. And the most important way that I do that is with country music. It became a thing of either you let it go because there's nothing there for you, or you figure out a way to enjoy it better.

HIGHT: She did that by starting the Black Opry website. Her day job had nothing to do with music. But she was skilled at scouring social media for Black and brown performers. Soon, they were reaching out to her.

HOLLY G: Spreading the word was literally as easy as talking to our friends. We become so connected to these people because we have this shared identity that we all thought was unique to ourselves.

HIGHT: One of those new connections, Lilli Lewis, is an experienced artist and activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LILLI LEWIS: (Singing) And you're waiting for the sunrise.

HIGHT: Today, she's playing a set at the Rainbow Happy Hour, a showcase of LGBTQIA and BIPOC performers at a neighborhood bar. This is a crowd that's about solidarity at the margins.

LEWIS: But I sing this one to celebrate the power of the misfits.

HIGHT: Lewis has done accomplished work in folk, country, gospel and jazz traditions. But at a picnic table outside the bar, she explains that she hasn't always been respected as the roots authority that she is.

LEWIS: I've even been told point blank by record label executives, serving as an executive myself, that Black people in particular don't have the interest, the knowledge or the passion when it comes to Americana music.

HIGHT: Lewis not only guides working musicians on an independent roots label in Louisiana, she's also helped play in grassroots festivals and volunteered to put together a directory of underrepresented musicians. The goal is to make the true diversity of voices easier to find. Take Jett Holden from the writers' round at the Black Opry House. He was there because Black Opry founder Holly G tracked him down on Instagram. As a Black and gay man, he'd faced repeat rejection in his attempts to launch a career and was skeptical of a stranger's offer to help him get a microgrant to start recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAXIDERMY")

HOLDEN: (Singing) I believe my life matters, do you? When I'm more than taxidermy for a Facebook wall.

It's just opportunities that I was denied for so many years, resources that were denied to me so many years. And then now, in the last six months, so much is happening that I didn't think was even an option for me.

HIGHT: Now that he's meeting peers and allies face to face, Holden knows for certain that he's not the only one putting in the work.

For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAXIDERMY")

HOLDEN: (Singing) But they'll argue I deserved it in the courts.

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