It’s been a long decade for Mickey Guyton, but nothing has ever felt quite as long as the past two weeks. As one of very few black voices in mainstream country music, Guyton has spent the days following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis carrying an unthinkable burden as she leads a larger conversation about widespread racism in the genre.
“It’s been heavy, it really, really has,” Guyton says of the past week. “But it’s been heavy for a long time.”
On Tuesday, she released “Black Like Me,” a plainly stated first-person ballad about racial inequality that Guyton says has received the strongest outpouring of her entire career. But instead of focusing on promoting her own single, Guyton has spent much of the week attending industry panels on Zoom, decrying her peers’ silence, and trying to educate and speak to her own fans.
Rolling Stone Country spoke with Guyton about “Black Like Me,” country music’s response, or lack thereof, to the nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death, and the long road she’s taken to becoming more comfortable with being herself in the genre.
Where did the initial idea for “Black Like Me” first come?
There’s a book called Black Like Me that I read in black history in college. The book is written by John Howard Griffin, a white man, and he darkened his skin through radiation to look like a black man in the 1960s to see what it would be like to be a black man living in the South during Jim Crow. Being in country music I wrote down the title, and I thought, “There’s no way that somebody would ever let me release a song like this.”
You wrote the song about a year ago?
Over the last couple of years I’ve changed my whole way of thinking to try to be as truthful and honest as I possibly can, about my life and what I’ve gone through, and about my feelings. For some reason in country music, they want just everything to be light and fluffy, but my world isn’t always light and fluffy. So I had a writer’s retreat last spring. It was two white guys and a black girl named Emma DD who is from the U.K. I said, “Hey guys, I’ve got this title, it could be crazy, but the title is ‘Black Like Me.’” And we just went there. We wrote it and we were all like, “There is no way that anybody is going to accept this.”
And so, I turned it in and I got a lot of, “This is amazing, but I need a minute to digest this.” And over the past year since I’ve written it, I kept pushing for that song, because it’s so important.
How did the song end up getting released this past week?
We didn’t even decide, it was asked. Spotify came to us and asked us if they could have this song. I guess Cindy Mabe, the head of Universal, played it for them back in January. It’s crazy how God works to create these spaces for you. Last Friday, I was talking to my manager Erik [Peterson] saying, “I really think we need to think about releasing ‘Black Like Me.’ Because right now, people are hurting.” He was like, “We’ll talk about it on Monday.” Monday, Erik calls me and said, “Spotify asked for ‘Black Like Me.’ We want to release it Tuesday. Honestly, I’m having to take CBD to calm my nerves. I’m not sleeping anymore because there’s such a heavy responsibility with this song. And it’s not a song to capitalize off of people’s pain, because it’s my pain.
What has the response to the song been like so far?
I’ve been around this industry for a long time, and I was already seeing the response with [Guyton’s gender discrimination ballad] “What Are You Gonna Tell Her” when I released that a few months ago, but “Black Like Me” is on a whole different level of anything I’ve ever seen. My inbox, my Instagram, I can’t even get to all of the messages. There’s tears of joy, tears of sadness. There’s a guilt that I’m feeling. I keep thinking, “I don’t deserve this.” There’s also guilt when I see the pain other people are feeling as their eyes open and see the oppression that I’ve experienced, having to see that pain in them as I’m talking about it. It’s all so heavy. I’ve been talking to so many of my black friends in the industry. We have to call each other and cry to each other just so we can get back up in front of audiences and educate and tell them what’s actually happening. There’s an overall feeling of heaviness. People are not OK. Black people, especially, are not OK. Brown people, especially, are not OK.
I can’t imagine that level of burden: to be holding other people’s pain as they finally open up to seeing yours for the first time.
It’s hard. And then seeing other people that you love, hoping that they’ll post about it and publicly denounce racism in a strong way. And knowing that if they don’t, things can’t be the same between you.
Have you been surprised by the response, and in many cases, the lack of a response, of your peers in country music to what is going on in the United States right now?
I have been surprised by some big names, yes, of outright saying something. I have. There have been some artists I was not expecting to be downright saying, “No.” Morgan Wallen publicly said it on his page. I respect that. But I have been surprised by the ones that I thought would be a little bit stronger in their stance. It’s sad that it’s scary for people to publicly denounce racism. I hurt for them, the fear that they are feeling. So yes, I’ve been surprised. I’ve been surprised on both sides.
“Who wants racist fans? I certainly don’t.”
When you find yourself congratulating someone for denouncing racism, you realize it’s such a low bar.
But I really do appreciate it, every single post, whether it’s strong or not. I must say, I do. Cancel culture might’ve started with the Dixie Chicks. There’s so much fear about being canceled by their fans, so I understand the fear. But we don’t want those fans anyway. Who wants racist fans? I certainly don’t.
And yet, simply saying “Black Lives Matter” seems like it’s still a third rail in country music.
Oh, they hate it, because they think we’re saying that all lives don’t matter. No one is saying that. You have to find a balance because our point here is not that we’re trying to cause division, we just want people to see us, to step outside of their world and see the rest of the world. Because the rest of the world sees white people. We’ve been seeing white people our whole lives.
On Tuesday, you were one of several speakers on a Zoom panel presented by Middle Tennessee State University about what it was like to be African-American in the Nashville music industry. Did that feel like something new?
It absolutely felt like a new thing. I thought it was beautiful. It was beautiful seeing other black people that I don’t always get to see, because there are so few and far of us in the industry, especially in the country music industry. So to be able to see the presence of other people that look like me, it was a beautiful thing. And to see how strong and resilient and kind my peers are was a beautiful thing.
On the panel, you talked about your label giving you criticism of songs you were handing in, while, all around you, you were watching artists make country music with trap beats, and artists like Sam Hunt take “Mario songs” to the top of charts. What was it like to watch all of these appropriative styles and sounds go to Number One while you’re being told you can’t release any new music?
It was a mindfuck. I had to sit with that. I was so confused. There were many, many sleepless nights of trying to think, “How do I break through in this industry?” Me, crying to God, like, “Why the hell did you put me here? What exact purpose did you have for me here?” I felt like the only black woman visible in the industry, and I felt completely silent. I was alone. I was sleeping with my dogs and my cat. My husband was living in California, because he’d started a law firm, and I had sacrificed everything, for this? For Nashville? It was like Nashville’s door was closed on me. It was a very difficult time in life. I had developed a drinking problem. I had to start working on myself and facing my demons, and taking blame for my part in it, because I allowed it to happen to me. I didn’t have to put up with any of it. So I had to come to grips with a lot of things, and once I did, everything changed.
When was this happening, roughly?
It was a couple years ago. I remember I was in L.A., with my husband, and we were having a very, very honest conversation, because we had been going to marriage counseling. I’ll never forget, I just asked him, “Why do you think that this isn’t working for me?” And he said, “Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different.” It was a gut punch. I had to go through my whole time in Nashville, every song I was writing. I was writing other people’s songs. I wasn’t writing my songs. Just because my story is different, doesn’t mean it isn’t country. They say country is three chords and the truth, so I’m going to write my truth. Isn’t that what the world praised Johnny Cash for? So, I looked at myself, looked at what my stories are, what I have gone through, and I started writing about it. All of a sudden, people started listening to me.