Adia Victoria Is Bringing Black Back To The Blues, And So Much More

"There's value in who we are inherently as black girls"

Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux

Adia Victoria is a rare breed. Based in Nashville, the 30-year-old creative is a singer-songwriter, poet, and guitarist. This past year, she released her stellar debut albumBeyond the Bloodhounds.Victoria's musical medium is the blues, a genre that found her during her 20s when she was questioning everything. 

"I started doing research, and it led me back to Robert Johnson and Victoria Spivey, Skip James, all these really cool black artists and I realized they'd been appropriated in the blues that's common now," she said. "It's all white men playing, and so it was very empowering for me to go back and see that this is black genius; this is black art." 

Victoria was raised in South Carolina within a strict Seventh Day Adventist church that was completely controlled by a white community. "I remember feeling that something was being hidden from me," she says. "I felt there was this sense of danger attached to blackness."

The town that Victoria grew up in has been an old mill and textile town since the early-20th century. She notes that it is located a mere 15 minutes away from Gaffney, a city known by some as the "Peach Capital," but by many others as one of the worst cities historically for lynching. Victoria tells us how this area has a history of being extremely segregated and violent, and the sense of tension amongst the population hasn't gone away. "The black population had been so brutally oppressed to stay in their spot, there wasn't a lot of fight left in them," she adds.

After Victoria's parents divorced when she was 10, her mother moved them out of the city and into the mountains on the border of North and South Carolina. It was here in the wilderness of a tiny town called Campobello that she came into full contact with nature.

"I realized what it meant for me, spiritually, to be able to look past mankind and society and to deal with nature. It's kind of like my companion, as my figure of authority, it was no longer people telling me what to do," she says. "We're so small, that mountain's so big. I'm small, I'm going to look at that mountain, I'm going to write about that mountain, and I'm going to feel my smallness and my insignificance out here in nature. That's what saved my sanity I think."

When it was time for high school, Victoria's mother moved the family back to the suburbs of a conservative, Christian, middle-class town. The environment broke her, in a way, but was also a wake-up call because she realized that she didn't want to "lead a normal life." Victoria made the decision to drop out of high school and not go to college. Instead, she started "working, hustling, and trying to put together a plan" that would allow her to truly be inspired by her life. After watching the film Amélie, she saved up her money and flew to Paris by herself at the age of 18. As she tells the story, she proudly declares that she was "the first person in my family to cross the Atlantic that way."

By the time she hit 19, Victoria fled to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, New York, where she stayed for about five years. It was the first time that she lived outside of her mother's home. Since then, Victoria has lived all over the country and traveled the globe in search of something greater for herself. "I feel like being from the South injected me with this sense of restlessness," she says. "Like I want to ramble, I want to make some tracks before they put me in the ground."

Right now, there's a new cultural awareness of black creatives following their truth. Through their chosen creative form of expression, they are saying what needs to be heard and presenting different narratives of the black experience in America. It's an empowering moment that Victoria is proud to be a part of, with the hope of continuing to expand the conversation. Within East Nashville specifically, Victoria hopes to cultivate a safe space for her fellow creatives beyond the white gaze. She's starting with the Solange-inspired event, And Do You Belong, which she describes as "a night where we celebrate black art and black genius" in the middle of her home base. 

Victoria is determined to tell her story in whatever form fits the moment. During the holidays, she plans on spending some time writing new material for her next album. Pretty soon, she'll also be dropping a music video for the track "Horrible Weather." Victoria is currently working on a series of haikus "dealing with black beauty standards, black girlhood, being black, and having mental illness struggles," and writing a book of poetry tentatively titled Black and Blue that she aims to release at the top of next year. 

It's like Victoria says, "Can you let me be a black woman and make my art and spread this message around?" Further explore the depths of her brilliant mind within the interview, below. 

Sydney Gore: How did you first get involved with music? 
Adia Victoria: I started performing when I was a little girl at my church and at my school. I sang with the choir, and I loved doing the solos, I was a little ham. I was a shy kid, but when it came to performing, it was the first time I could feel a connection to people. As far as guitar's concerned, one of my good friends left me an acoustic guitar when I was 21, and she took off for Seattle, and I was living in Atlanta and I was like, "Well, my best friend's gone, but I guess I'll learn how to play this guitar to keep me company." I was working a boring corporate job, and I became obsessed with it. I didn't go out, I didn't do anything else but learn chords, and I was able to take these short stories and poems that I was writing and use music to flush it out even more. I had these characters I'd write about. I was learning the blues at that time. I was writing about these dusty blues characters. It was a way for me to not feel so shy.
 
SG: What about the blues attracted you to it? Why did you feel so drawn to this genre?
AV: I grew up in the South, and growing up in South Carolina, I was never really told about the history of the people. We were taught history in a very sterile kind of way, like, "Oh, we settled the Carolinas and there was slavery and then there wasn't and now we're here." But, what about the people who lived under this interesting social system? What did it do to them? I was very curious about that. I had a morbid curiosity about my legacy, my heritage as a black southerner. It was very taboo, and it wasn't until I found the blues that I realized there are really interesting people and stories in this city that I live in now. The blues are a way for me to feel known as a black girl in the South, a poor girl. I didn't see myself in pop culture. I knew that I wasn't this refined sex kitten. I grew up in the '90s, so there was this coolness with R&B, like Aaliyah. I love her, but I couldn't be her on my best day. But, I could understand being poor, being laughed at and run out of town, and having a down and out time. The blues delivered that message but with humor and a sense of dignity that I really dug. 
 
SG: Critics label your music as "gothic blues," but I'm assuming that you didn't coin it as such. In your own words, how would you describe your sound?
AV: It's my story. When I went into the studio with my producer Roger Moutenot, I was like, "I need this to be sonically, like, I'm trying to represent emotions. I'm trying to tell a story." My music is lyrics first for me because I'm a writer. I can understand why [critics] say "gothic blues." I consider myself a blues musician, just dealing with the subject matter I'm writing about and who's writing it, but the gothic aspect of it, it's because I feel like the South in popular culture has always been kind of like cartoonized, bastardized. People have to defang the South because it has such a disturbing legacy. They're like, "Oh yeah, you know, we're just cowboy boots and pickup trucks and beers," and it's like, hell no.
 
I can tell you stories that can make the hair on your back curl. I've seen things and dealt with things. My people have gone through things that would send you crying into the night. So that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to put the fangs back into the blues. I wanted to take it back from these white men that appropriated it. It's like, "You don't know what the blues is. You can copy the blues, you can learn all the scales and all the solos, but you'll never be able to understand it." So, I want to make the  blues dangerous again. In my opinion, it's the original punk music. It was people singing songs about messages that they couldn't speak because they'd be killed. That's punk, it's the transmitting of very important very dangerous social messages, and that's what I do with my music.

SG: Could you tell us about how your Beyond the Bloodhounds album came together, and talk us through some of the topics you're addressing on it?
AV: Well, I'd been writing [Beyond the Bloodhounds] for a few years. I started writing these songs when I was 25, and it was [from] a need to make sense of the experiences that I was going through as a 20-something black girl. Like, what is going on here? What is my life leading up to? It's like chaos. I'm in Brooklyn. I'm in Tucson. I'm in Atlanta. I'm in Nashville. I'm in South Carolina. What's going on here? What's the common thread running through my life? I wanted to sit down and tell my story. What have I been through? Who have I met? Who had left an imprint on me? I'm a shy girl and a lot of times in these moments that I'm writing about, I'm dealing with people that I didn't know what to say. I didn't have the words until I went back into my journal and wrote about it and I got to my guitar and started singing about it. I wanted to be very honest and forthright for young girls, young women. I have little sisters and I have little cousins. I wanted them to know there is value in our experience. There's value in who we are inherently as black girls. That we matter. Our lives matter.
 
I decided to release my first song "Stuck in the South" two years ago. It was right around the time when Trayvon Martin was happening, before Mike Brown, it was that summer. I was sitting in New York when the song came out, and I just knew I needed to tell my story right now. I needed this to be spoken, what it feels like to live under racism. I didn't have a record label. I knew that I wanted to pay homage to black women that came before me and survived and thrived. I didn't know how I wanted to sum up this whole album, and last year I read this book called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. She was a black slave on a North Carolina plantation and she had a master that was brutally obsessed with her—sexually terrorized her. She knew she had to get away from him or else he was going to destroy her. So her grandmother, who had purchased her own freedom, had a cabin on her master's plantation. She came up with this plan where she would hide in her grandmother's crawlspace, like a 7x7x7 attic, so she was living in what felt like a casket. This went on for almost 10 years, but she stayed there because she has children on the plantation and she couldn't leave them, but she knew they couldn't make the journey to the North. So, she had friends that had gone North and she would have them write letters from New York and Canada and Boston so her master never knew where she was, but she was in his front yard the whole time. She said the only thing that kept her sane and alive was knowing that she had to get herself and her babies beyond her master's bloodhounds, and that sense of salvation on the horizon is what she dreamed of.
 
I just remember sitting there, and I took out my highlighter and my pens, and I scribbled that phrase, "beyond the bloodhounds." That's what I felt like, that was the perfect semination of what I felt growing up in the South. It felt like everything on God's planet has been arranged to destroy me. There was never a safe place for me to rest. I knew that I could create that for myself and that's what kept me alive when I was wandering around New York at 19. It's the one thing that kept me from it all. I knew there was something I needed to do, that I needed to accomplish. I needed to tell my story. That was the title. That was the theme of staying alive in spite of everything.
 
SG: Could you discuss some of the insecurities that you had as a young child based on the "NOWNESS" video? 
AV: I wrote that little short story about eight years ago when I was finally beginning to establish a sense of self-esteem. I knew I couldn't go through my life hating myself and the way I looked much longer. So I started keeping this blog called How Do You Do on Wordpress. It was totally anonymous, and I would just write about what I was feeling and dealing with, and I remember as a little girl when I first started getting into fashion magazines... white supremacy, it told you that you are not desirable. You have no value.
 
People think racism operates where it's just people outright calling you a nigga, but, no, it's smarter than that. They don't have to tell you you're trash, all they have to do is tell you that you're not valuable. They can do that by the images that they deem worthy. I loved Vogue, Teen Vogue, Elle Girl, and I loved fashion. I still do, but I remember the feeling of self-hatred when I would finish the magazines. I would look at it, then I'd look at myself in the mirror, and I was like, "Wait a minute something ain't adding up here." I knew this is what our society said we had to aspire toward and it looked nothing like me. In fact, it was the exact opposite. So I internalized all of those messages. I listened to them, I obeyed what they told me and I loathed myself. I don't know, it led to issues with eating and intimacy, and it hijacked my internal life. It was the narrative going on inside of my head. I didn't trust myself. I only trusted what the world told me about myself.
 
I see it with my younger siblings. I see them struggling with it even now, and it's just like, I just wanted to have the opportunity. My label asked me, "Do you want to do any creative writing?" and at first I was like, "Hmmm, not really." But then I remembered my blog, and I was like, "I would like to put this out in the world." I don't care if it's not huge, if one girl sees it and it's her big "Oh, I'm not a terrible mess" moment, then that was enough for me

Tina Vaden: I read that people tried to lump you into the "pretty girl" trope and you've pushed back against that, rightfully so. I wondered what is your favorite part of yourself? The one that you embody, that has nothing to do with the pretty. 
AV: My nerve. It allowed me to tell the world to fuck off. Starting from when I was in high school, I realized that I wanted nothing to do with what was being sold to me. Authority figures, they'd tell me things like, "You need to learn this equation" or "you need to learn how to do this." I'd just be like, "Why should I?" I was a terrible student because I didn't believe in the bullshit. I knew I had a greater purpose. I had to go out and figure out what it was; it wasn't just going to come to me. I don't mind working hard, it just depends on what I'm working toward. I wanted to be the person that decided what I was going to use my brilliance on; I didn't want it wasted on some stupid job getting approval from people. 

It was my nerve that allowed me to drop out of school. It was my nerve that said, "You know what? I'm going to save up money and go to Europe. I don't know anybody there, but I'm gonna go." It's allowed me to see the world and walk through this world unafraid of everyone else. There's the Kanye West lin—I love, I love Kanye—and he says, "I'm the only thing that I'm afraid of and no matter what, you'll never take that from me." It's just so empowering to hear a black person say all this other shit that you are going to use to make me afraid, and therefore control me means nothing. I am my own standard bearer, and you will never change that. I will never be your prisoner, no matter what you do. I had to adopt that attitude in life. You can't make me jump, I'm not your monkey.
  
TV: What does the term "black girl magic" mean to you?
AV: I think it's the audacity to thrive in the face of a world telling you, "You can't." It's that nerve to excel and to express and to create in spite of everything else. It's one thing if you excel and you have a whole system and a whole network set out and you have people telling you, "Oh, you're great, you're beautiful Becky, just go on girl!" When you have people telling you the exact opposite, there's something even more exciting and thrilling about sharing your art in a hostile environment and being like, "Fuck all of you." That's black girl magic to me.
 
 
 
TV: What encouragement do you have for other creatives, especially women of color that are living in the South and coming into their own?
AV: I would tell them to tell your story. You have to tell your story, and it doesn't have to look like anything that you've ever seen before. It doesn't have to look like anybody out there in pop culture. That's not your power; your power is your experience. What have you done and what have you felt while you walk this earth? We need to know, we need to hear it from your mouth, with your art. You need to make us feel that because there has been so much invested in silencing black southern women because we are the truth. We stand in opposition to the status quo, our very existence and there's a power there. There's a subversiveness there, so don't iron out your wrinkles, don't let them soften your edges. Don't become blunted to fit in. That's something that took me all of my teenage years and all of my 20s to own that about myself. Stop trying to make myself look like what I saw all around me. It was breaking down the stuff that I needed to make art.
 
TV: You already use poetry and music as a form of self-care, so what else do you utilize to get through?
AV: My family. We're all in Nashville. My mom, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. Families are important for me. When we get back home to tour, I go straight to my grandma's house out in the country. We fry chicken together, and we do arts and crafts. I tell her stories, it roots me. Being with my mom, working with her and the community that I can see myself in her. I can identify with her and being with my sisters. Spending time in the library writing, finding new authors, finding new people's stories to kind of dig through, and that for me is a huge method of self-care. Going through my vinyls when I get home and just laying on the floor. Being in my own company. I think that that's something that as we get more attached to screens and likes and comments and what have you with our phones, it takes us further away from ourselves. And it's fun! I like social media, I like doing that stuff, but it's a certain kind of theater, like a circus where people are masquerading and it's like, who are you beyond all of that? Who are you outside of your Instagram? That's why I have to continuously go home and do and become that girl who's just her plain old self. Sometimes it's uncomfortable you're just like "I can't do this," but you have to. That's the only place I want to make art from. If I can't make art from that place, then I don't have any business calling myself an artist. Then I'm just a celebrity.
 
TV: I feel like we don't hear the stories of black women who aren't deeply established in their 20s as actresses or models. You're a creative person doing so many different things, and clearly, your first album was very much about your 20s, but what are you excited about for your 30s? 
AV: I'm really excited about the dawn of the decade where I have more self-love. I started my 20s here, but in my 30s, I'm at a place of peace that in my 20s I was so anguished about. It's like "Okay, I've done this work, now what?" My whole life, all I want to do is to keep learning and keep growing. I'm excited to see where my journey leads me now that I have this sense of confidence in myself. Like, you can go out without makeup on, you don't have to please anybody. What am I going to have the audacity to do next? I'm really looking forward to surprising myself and knowing that I can.