by Beverly Aarons
America is still engulfed in the flames of civil unrest and even the largest corporations such as Amazon and Spotify have declared BLACK LIVES MATTER as their rallying cry. And the music industry, a sector infamous for its institutionalized racism and misogyny, has asked the world to black out their social media profiles in tribute to Black lives lost to police violence. But just beneath the slick veneer of Instagram-worthy social justice memes, pithy hashtags, ominous blacked-out profiles, and well-funded musicians pledging their fealty to racial equality, another conflict has emerged. The conflict involves two artists — Lady Antebellum, a white country band, and Lady A, a Black blues singer. Lady Antebellum is a well-funded trio that has sold millions of albums, while Lady A is an independent artist with a small but dedicated following of fans in the U.S. and Europe.
This conflict started innocently enough: the white country band had a “come to Jesus moment” when they realized that naming their band after a period of American history where slavery was its primary feature might be seen as a bit insensitive if not racist by some, so they decided to change their name to Lady A. Seems like a legit move, but there was just one problem — that Black blues singer, Lady A, was already using that name and building her music career around it since the 1980s. She wasn’t willing to “share” the name with the much more powerful white country singers backed by a large music label and their millions, their connected publicists, and their savvy lawyers without some concrete plan to avoid her erasure.
Now if you think that this was destined to have a bad ending, in a turn of events that would fit neatly into any Hallmark movie or on a MLK “I Have A Dream” meme, the Black and white artists came together to work out their differences and even considered creating some music together. But just like any good Hollywood script, something happened — the talks fell apart. The powerful white country singers lawyered-up and accused the Black blues singer of unreasonably demanding $10 million dollars when all they wanted to do was “share” with her. This script didn’t quite sound complete to me — a few scenes had to be missing. So I decided to reach out to Lady A, the Black blues singer who lives right here in Seattle. I needed to hear from her what, exactly, is happening from her point of view. I talked to her and her producer, John Oliver III, in a phone interview. The first thing I needed to know was what’s in the name Lady A?
“My play sister in Florida actually gave me that name because I used to sing karaoke, and so she started calling me ‘Lady A’ because I didn’t want everybody knowing my name.” Lady A giggles as she tells the story, her voice is playful and warm. “So that was kind of like my karaoke name, and so I kept it when I started performing. I started performing in the Sonny Byers’ Motown Revue.”
As Lady A and her producer reminisced over the birth of her music career, it was obvious that those were fond times for them. But Lady A notes that she was always very shy, and it’s one of the reasons that she preferred to use the moniker in her music career over her birth name, Anita White.
“I used to be really afraid to sing in front of people,” Lady A said. “I grew up in church and I was a choir director. At the age of 16 I started directing the choir, and so my back was always to people. Even if I was singing lead and directing the choir, my back was always to people. So when I started singing background and people could actually see my face, I was intimidated by it. I didn’t have that confidence. And so Lady A was my alter ego — my go-to. And so I used it since 1987 — I’ve been Lady A.”
It wasn’t lost on me that Lady Antebellum’s trio were all born in the 1980s, just when Lady A was learning to take hold of her music career and go for her dreams. Lady A, who is now 61, has been singing the blues and gospel since long before Lady Antebellum’s band members were born. In their statement posted on Instagram, Lady Antebellum says that they chose their original name partly because it reminded them of all the music that came out of the American south, including Blues and Gospel. Blues and gospel were born out of the suffering, grit, and fortitude of enslaved Africans, so it is quite perplexing why this very successful country group would insist on using the name of a Black blues singer who is a descendent of those enslaved people and who was born in 1958, at the height of Jim Crow, in a Seattle where downtown businesses “had virtually no Black employees, except for cleaning staff and plantation-themed waitresses.” The irony.
I needed to know more. Certainly there had to be more to this story. Maybe Lady A had gotten greedy, just as many on social media accused her of being. Demanding $10 million seemed like a lot, so I asked her and her producer about it.
“So Lady Antebellum, their team reached out to us and we had phone calls — personal phone calls, Zoom calls, you know, where we thought we were being transparent,” Oliver said. “Because Lady A from the beginning, the same thing, ‘I want my name’ because coexisting means there’s Lady Apples and Lady Apples. And that’s pretty tough, right?” He goes on to explain that Lady A never got the concrete answers she needed about how sharing the name would work. “If we’re going to share the name, I need to know how that works practically. Right? And so that question never got answered. Another question that never got answered is ‘what would they do if they were in the situation that Lady A was in? How would they respond to that?’”
Lady A and her manager said that they put forth two options to Lady Antebellum: They could help Lady A, the blues singer, rebrand under another name, or they could be ‘Lady A, the band’ while the blues singer was known as ‘Lady A, the artist.’ In this way, everyone got what they needed — it would be a win-win situation. So what happened? How did she go from that conversation to a $10 million conversation?
“There wasn’t a conversation. I made a decision that I was tired of going back and forth,” Lady A said. She addresses her manager. “John, correct me if I’m wrong. I made a decision. This is nobody’s decision but mine. I made a decision that I was tired of going back and forth with them because every contract that they gave us had no substance to it. It said, ‘we’ll do our best efforts.’ ‘Best efforts’ kept coming up. ‘Best efforts to make sure that you stay relevant.’”
According to Lady Antebellum, they’ve been using Lady A for years (they were formed in 2006) and it’s a nickname that their fans gave them. They even filed for a trademark in 2010. But certainly they checked to see if there was another artist using that name — that’s generally standard operating procedure. There’s nothing indicating if they knew of Lady A’s presence before filing for a trademark, but the facts are that Lady A has been using her stage name since 1987 and Lady Antebellum didn’t come into existence until 2006, a full 19 years later.
But now Lady A says that she is being erased. When she searches her name on Amazon, only Lady Antebellum (now Lady A) appears. You can only find the Black “Lady A” if you put in the exact title of her song. And on Spotify, a search for the blues singer “Lady A” only returns the white country band “Lady A.” This is what Lady A feared: her erasure from the search engines making it impossible for people to easily find her.
“All the while that they were doing these contracts and we’re going back and forth, they had already erased me,” Lady A said. “I went to tag myself on Facebook. Because I have a Lady A fan page as well as my Anita White page. I went to tag myself on Facebook, some pictures somebody had sent me. And when I tagged Lady A, their picture came up — my picture no longer came up.”
Lady A says that she believes that was their intention all along; they were just using her to appear progressive and to be an ally to Black people. What better way to do that than to leverage a Zoom call with the original Lady A all while making vague promises. It was because of this that Lady A made the demand for $10 million dollars, but she says it wasn’t just for herself.
Her manager, John Oliver III, explains how the settlement would work. “The $5 million is to help her rebrand herself. She’s an individual artist. She does all her own publishing ,” Oliver said. “And so that money will go towards her future career because now if things will go the way they’re going, she would have to rebrand herself and come up with a new name and the other $5 million would go towards charities.”
Lady A has a long history of community and charity work. She worked with United By Music in 2011 mentoring young musicians in Europe and then she was invited back for a tour.
“So when they say I asked for $10 million, that $10 million wasn’t for me. Because as far as I’m concerned, that $10 million is still not enough for my name,” Lady A said. “But I just want to move [on] with my life. And I want to get back to my community because I’m responsible to my community, to my church, to my family, and to my fans. I’m responsible to these kids that I mentor at The Rhapsody Project. How am I going to tell them that I let somebody take my name from me? How does that look? So if somebody is going to have it, then I’m going to be able to pour back into my community. And if you want to be an ally that’s what you need to do. Otherwise, you can’t have the name. I’m not going to roll over and, just because I didn’t trademark it, allow you to steamroll me because your privilege allows you to do that.”
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently working on a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration.
Featured image by Susan Fried.