NPR's Noel King talks to musician Amythyst Kiah, who deals with tough subjects, like being "othered" as a Black woman on the bluegrass and folk circuit.



Amythyst Kiah's new album has a telling title. It's called "Wary + Strange." It's the way she felt after losing her mom to suicide and almost losing her dad to addiction when she was a teenager. It's the way she felt studying bluegrass and American roots music, which she loved, even though she was often the only Black person in a classroom or in the club. Here's how she writes about that experience on the song "Black Myself."


AMYTHYST KIAH: (Singing) I don't pass the test of the paper bag 'cause I'm Black myself. I pick the banjo up, and they sneer at me 'cause I'm Black myself. You better lock your doors when I walk by 'cause I'm Black myself. You look me in my eyes, but you don't see me 'cause I'm Black myself.

KING: Amythyst Kiah says "Black Myself" was a song she needed to write.

KIAH: I'd gotten involved into a genre of music that has had a reputation for not being inclusive. So for me, when I first started playing old-time music and playing different traditional folk festivals and venues, there was several years in my life where I felt like I needed to keep - I guess I felt like I needed to shut up and sing, if you will. So I kind of just stuck to talking about music. And as I've gotten older, every time I've opened up about something, whether it be my sexuality or my social or political leanings, for any person that I might have lost, I've gained so much more.


KIAH: (Singing) I don't creep around. I stand proud and free 'cause I'm Black myself. I go anywhere that I want to go 'cause I'm Black myself.

KING: I had this image of you at a show, and you were singing "Black Myself," and it occurred to me, you would often be singing this in front of or to audiences who are, if not predominantly white, like, a good part of the audience would be white.

KIAH: Yeah.

KING: And one of the joys of a live show is singing along - right? - to the stuff you know. Do white audiences sing along to "Black Myself?"

KIAH: Yeah. There have been some instances where people have been singing it. I remember distinctly - and this is the first time that I ever really fully noticed it - I was at the Cambridge Folk Festival in Cambridge, England. There had to be, like, at least 500 people under that tent. Every single English white person under that tent was singing "Black Myself" back. And we were looking at each other on stage like, what is happening right now? Like, we all, like, just - we were living for that.

Like, what made "Black Myself" such a different song for me is that, you know, because I know what it's like to be othered and alienated and feel in between, I wanted to write songs in a way where anybody can put themselves within the song. However, what's just as important as including everyone is for me to tell my story specifically of being othered and the history of why I have been othered.

KING: Yeah.

KIAH: And I make sure to say this at most shows, that, like, just because you're not Black doesn't mean that you can't relate to the song or that it has nothing to do with you, because this is a story about your fellow Americans being treated in the most horrific ways. From that standpoint, you can sing "Black Myself" 'cause you're celebrating the triumph over tragedy.


KIAH: (Singing) Black myself.

KING: There is this remarkable thing you do where you have both the universal and then also the entirely, entirely personal and individual, down to things that very few people will have experienced or can relate to. And I want to ask you about the song "Wild Turkey," which is about your mom's death.


KIAH: (Singing) Late at night when I feel alone, I cry in darkness and scream into the unknown 'cause she's never coming back. No, she's never coming back.

KING: Tell me about your mom and what happened.

KIAH: My mother is kind of a mystery because I, to this day, don't really fully know. There's just a lot of what-ifs that we're probably never going to know. But what I learned with suicide is that it's not about they don't love the people in their lives and they're trying to escape from them. It's they will be better off without me. But I didn't understand it at the time. I understood that as if my own mom won't stick around to be with me, then what's the point of having - what's the point of developing close relationships with people? So I developed very strong, like, rejection and, like, abandonment issues because of that. And then I myself didn't go to therapy to talk about any of this stuff until, you know, about five years ago.


KIAH: (Singing) When I was 17, I pretended not to care, stayed numb for years to escape despair.

And I know that I'm not the only person that's had a loved one, you know, die of suicide, and knowing that, you know, my song is something that maybe people can hear, maybe can heal from.

KING: Does the music help you get better, or do you have to be better to write the music?

KIAH: Wow. That is maybe the most amazing question that has ever been asked of me. I think with therapy and, you know, actively making an effort to talk about how I am feeling, which is something that is still something I'm learning to be better at every day - that was kind of, you know, the beginning of being able to forgive my parents for their mistakes and to be able to forgive myself for the mistakes that I made, you know? None of that - this album probably couldn't have happened if it wasn't for me being able to do all that work.

KING: Amythyst Kiah, her new album is called "Wary + Strange." Amythyst, thank you for being with us. We appreciate it.

KIAH: Oh, yeah, thanks so much for having me. This was an absolute pleasure and joy. Thank you so much.


KIAH: (Singing) Melancholy always seemed to work for me. Wistful and uncertain are my dreams.

KING: If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are free trained counselors available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. You can reach them at 1-800-273-8255.


KIAH: (Singing) How many spirits does it take to lift a spirit? I don't know. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.