by Beverly Aarons
“I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I really did,” said Lady A during a telephone interview with the South Seattle Emerald. The Seattle-based Black blues singer has been embroiled in a year-long fight over her name with the white country band Lady A (formerly known as Lady Antebellum). “I was not well when this all started and I didn’t know what I was going to do … I was praying and I said, ‘I am going to stop worrying about this. God has a plan …’”
On June 11, 2020, just as explosive Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, the country band Lady Antebellum announced on Instagram that they were inspired to change their name from Lady Antebellum to Lady A because “… our hearts have been stirred with conviction, our eyes opened wide to the injustices, inequality, and biases Black women and men have always faced and continue to face everyday …” There was just one problem — the Black blues singer Lady A had been performing under that name since the 1980s as reported in the Emerald in 2020.
To understand the ironic significance of this battle over the Lady A name, we need to look at the history of country music and the meaning of antebellum. Antebellum is the period in Southern U.S. history before the Civil War whose defining characteristic was slavery and the oppressive slave culture that regarded Blacks as three-fifths a human being and demanded that their labor be for the sole benefit of whites. If you were Black, “you had no rights a white man was bound to respect” as stated in 1857 by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney in his opinion on the Dred Scott v. Sanford case.
For many Southerners the antebellum South is a place of nostalgia which is returned to again and again in some of the most famous and beloved country songs such as The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane performed by Fiddlin’ John Carson, a song that romanticized slavery but exploded in popularity when radio was still a new technology. As a matter of fact, the country music scene is known for its love of the antebellum South characterized by the proliferation of Confederate flags at country music concerts and as an accessory for some musicians. And this is despite the common origins of both blues and country as integrated and creolized folk (American vernacular) music:
“Before it was called folk music, American vernacular music was much more racially integrated than the society around it, creolized across a spectrum from predominantly European to predominantly African influenced, but with most exhibiting both. Before the era of commercial recording, Black and white musicians sang the same music, learned techniques and songs from each other, and shared a social world of performance.” (Source: Aesthetic Identity, Race, and American Folk Music by William G. Roy)
So when country music band Lady Antebellum (now known as Lady A) and blues singer Lady A met to resolve the name conflict and possibly play music together, for a brief moment it seemed that both country and blues music would experience a modern convergence that honored their pre-radio race-defying roots. But that wasn’t to be, and one year later the battle seems to be headed to court. The country band Lady A has officially rebranded, and the blues singer Lady A says she is being erased.
“I go on Spotify and I go on Amazon and iTunes and I look for my music,” the blues singer Lady A said, “and my name will pop up sometimes, but it’s all their music under me.” She added that some of her fans have to search for 20 minutes to find her music online. The Emerald has confirmed that searching the blues singer’s name on Amazon shows only the country band’s music, even when clicking the name Lady A while already on the blues singer’s product page.
The experience hurt Lady A’s spirit. “I was starting to think, ‘Wow, everything I did for all these years is for nothing? Really?’” That’s when she leaned heavily on her faith, her belief in God, and the power of prayer. “And ever since then my health has been better, my mental state has been better, and for everything that I think may go wrong or that they try to pile on me, something good always happens.”
The blues singer was upbeat and even laughed at times during the interview despite being in a fight she described as “mentally exhausting, because it’s not just a battle over my name. It’s a battle for doing what’s right. It’s a battle over big money and yet another white artist trying to be performative” in their support of Black lives. But even as this legal conflict consumes her energy, Lady A the blues singer hasn’t slowed down. She produced several CDs in 2021: Satisfying, My Name Is All I Got — Part II, My Name Is All I Got — Part III, and a Christmas CD scheduled to release in December 2021. She’s also scheduled to perform live in 12 shows around Washington State this year.
An impressive itinerary for a 63-year-old independent artist who books most of her own shows, does all of her own marketing, and has no desire to sign with a music label.
“I don’t think I would be the artist that I am,” the blues singer Lady A said, describing how a partnership with a major music label might have impacted her career. “I really don’t think that I would realize my talent or the gifts that I have if I had all this big money behind it, if I hadn’t struggled to get what I got. When things are handed to you, then you know, then you do exactly what these powerhouses are doing.” She quickly added that she “has nothing against them [country band Lady A]” but that she doesn’t understand why they would “take something from an independent artist.”
The blues singer Lady A isn’t singularly focused on her legal battle and her music career. She’s been involved with the Rhapsody Project as a youth vocal coach for the past four years. And she encourages young artists to “go to business school to learn all aspects of the [music] business.”
“You need to learn all aspects of being an artist,” the blues singer Lady A said, “from producing, to being a vocalist musician, to working with musicians, to trademarks, to the contracts. … There’s so much to that, I wish that I had learned when I first started singing, but I was just eager to sing. That was 30 years ago — there’s a lot more information out here now.”
In our 2020 Emerald interview, the blues singer Lady A said that she couldn’t face her students at the Rhapsody Project knowing that she had allowed someone to take her name without a fight. So I asked her what she would do if she got her day in court but the court didn’t rule in her favor.
“I really haven’t thought that far about that,” she said. “These are the things we talk about every day — race and social justice. The laws are not written for BIPOC people. They never have been. We see what’s going on with voter suppression now — the performative way of making Junteenth a holiday is if we needed another holiday. What we need is, you know, anti-voter suppression laws, we need critical race theory. … We need police reform. So the laws are not written for us. … I leave it in God’s hands because I’m hoping that somebody — whether it’s the judge, whether it’s [Lady] Antebellum — that somebody will actually do [the right thing], because that’s all you can hope for in this world is that people do the right thing. We would all get along so much better if we were just kinder to each other …”
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 writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as 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.
📸 Featured Image: Lady A during a 2017 performance. (Photo: Susan Fried)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!