Adia Victoria grew up in Campobello, S.C., a town whose name translates roughly to “beautiful countryside.” Like many picturesque Southern places, though, Campobello — and Victoria’s current hometown of Nashville, Tenn., for that matter — have a darker story to tell, and it’s one you’re not likely to hear at the Bluebird Cafe. Victoria relays a chapter or two of that story from her debut album “Beyond the Bloodhounds” with a talk at the Clinton School of Public Service and a performance at the White Water Tavern on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Here’s our conversation ahead of her return to Arkansas, in which she recited an entire hymn from memory, spoke about the cultural dominance of patrician noses and explained her sense of artistic kinship with Nina Simone.
When I was preparing for this interview, I’d just heard a story on the radio about an exhibit at the Getty Museum, and one of the artists who had taken this blood-spattered photo of a Vietnamese man holding his child from Life magazine and superimposed it onto the staircase of this pristine 1960s living room, one that might have appeared in that same issue of Life. And maybe because your music was in my head, I thought, “Well, I’ll be damned, that’s not entirely unlike what Adia Victoria is exploring with the South.”
Right. Right. The South, for me, is probably one of my most difficult relationships. Living in Nashville, you kind of see how this culture’s been appropriated by a whole bunch of people who aren’t from the South. It’s just people moving down here and acting silly. There’s no real truth to what they’re saying. It’s like, they’re singing these songs so loud that no one will talk about the things that actually happened, and the ground that they’re actually walking on. So, the past few years while I was writing this album, I started to go back and read all these Southern authors that I admired, like Lillie Smith, Carson McCullers, W.J. Cash, people that really held a mirror up to the South, and explain why the South is the way it is right now. And I see nothing of that in the music that’s coming out of Nashville. So I sort of took it upon myself. I can’t ignore a history, or what’s currently happening. I can’t sit on a stage and sing to you about country roads and beers. It’s fake. It’s phony. It’s trite and done.
You have a short, journal-style animated film series called “howdoyoudo.” In the first chapter, “Riding Lessons,” you talk about the ways in which we’re socialized to associate beauty with wealth — as demonstrated to you by Seventeen magazine — and about noses and photogenic angles and superficiality as a formative experience. Who are these for? Is there a subject you imagined speaking to?
Absolutely. I wrote those pieces of prose in my early 20s, and I was really speaking to my younger self. My high school self. My middle school self. Back in those days, there was no social media, so there were no girls that looked like me anywhere. Even the black beauty role models had very Eurocentric features. And I, being a poor kid from South Carolina, there’s no way I could keep up with that. So, you just kind of read the underlying message, which is, “Well, the reason you’re not here is that you don’t belong on the cover of a magazine. You’re not worthy of that. You’re not worthy of praise or celebration.” I internalized that. I think a lot of girls do. I don’t want to preach to kids, I want to talk to them like they’re human beings, but I kind of just wanted to walk alongside some of those young black girls right now that are comparing themselves to the Kardashians or the Jenners and just be like, “I’ve been there, I’m with you and you’re not alone.”
You were raised in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition. Is there a beloved hymn from the hymnal you grew up singing from, or one that still haunts you?
I’d say the one that still haunts me is one called “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” It’s a song that’s in, like, A minor and we sang it at my grandmother’s house — because at this point my mom had left the traditional church, and we held our own Bible studies every Saturday morning with our family and a few of our close friends in the Adventist community. We were in the mountains, completely isolated. We’d sing this song about the second coming and I remember just feeling absolutely terrified. The words were “Jesus is coming/morning or night or noon/Many will meet their doom/Trumpets will surely sound/All of the dead will rise, righteous meet in the skies/Going where no one dies, heavenward bound.” It’s supposed to be a very uplifting message, like “Jesus is on his way!” And I remember when we’d sing it, me and my little sister would just look at each other like, “Fuck.” Like, what if one of us got saved and the other one dies?
People really seem to love quoting the line “I don’t know about Southern belles, but I can tell you something about Southern hell,” but they almost never finish the sentence: “When your skin give ’em cause to take and take.” You’re out there singing these lines on the road, and every day the news cycle’s reminding us that black bodies are still being targeted and taken from. Has the meaning changed at all — or intensified — as a result of this administration?
I mean, it’s as intense as it can get at this point. For me, that line kind of reached its apex with the killing of Tamir Rice. That’s when I realized, like, no one is safe — they’re killing 12-year-old babies, because they’re afraid of him. That one is almost unspeakable in my house, because you look at pictures of him and he looks … he looks like my brothers. He looks like my cousin. He looks like children that we know. Then you look at someone like Sandra Bland. I mean, here’s a college-educated woman, driving, who is beaten and killed for daring to speak up for herself. That’s when I realized that as a black woman, I’m not safe. There’s nothing about me that’s safe, ever. A few years ago, I cut off my hair. I used to have very long hair and I cut it off pretty short. And when I did, I looked more identifiably black. And I remember feeling for a moment, like, anxiety about that, because of what was happening to black people. I remember wondering if I was gonna be presumed guilty for something, or if some police officer was gonna bash my head into the sidewalk for sassing him? I feel a little ashamed when I think about it, but these are hard feelings that I have. I don’t have bodily autonomy in this country.
I want to ask about this sort of PR dance you’re being asked to engage in now, and of which this interview is a part. I think listeners (and maybe especially music journalists) express their admiration in an odd way, which is to immediately compare beloved artists to someone else. Is there someone you’ve been compared to that especially pleased you, or someone in particular you channel when inspiration runs low?
I don’t read a lot of things about myself, so I don’t know what people are saying. I have some drunk fans that come up to me after my show, and they have all these ideas about who I sound like. But I would say that someone I try to channel with my voice as a musician and as a citizen is Nina Simone. She’s someone who I look up to as a role model. She’s from Tryon, N.C., I’m from Campobello [S.C.], so we actually grew up about a 20-minute drive away from each other, and a lot of things that informed her music — a few decades later, I was walking through that same stuff. She’s the one that reminds me that you have a duty to speak up, speak out, especially as a woman of color making music. Sometimes I’ll get shy, and not want to make a noise or a fuss about something, and I immediately think of Nina Simone. I know that there were times when she was punished for speaking out, but she never stopped, and for me, there’s no reason why I should, either.
In partnership with the Oxford American magazine, Adia Victoria speaks at the Clinton School of Public Service at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15. Reserve seats at email@example.com or 683-5239. Victoria follows that talk with a performance at the White Water Tavern, featuring an opening set from Joshua Asante, 9 p.m. $10. For tickets, visit lastchancerecords.us.