Amber Woodhouse is exhausted. The Nashville-based singer and musician, who joined Steve Gorman’s roots-rock band Trigger Hippy last year, is tired of being your token black friend. Woodhouse plainly says as much in a first-person poem that the Minneapolis native wrote after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
Woodhouse happened to be visiting her parents’ when Floyd was killed and was out for a bike ride in Minnehaha Park, not far from where he died. When she returned home and heard about the incident, she was shaken.
“You turned the news on and every 10 minutes they’re playing the video [of Floyd’s death]. It needs to be seen, but as someone that has witnessed this throughout my life, seeing it and hearing the audio over and over again, it was traumatic. To hear him take his last breath, to call out for his mother,” Woodhouse says.
Angered over witnessing another black person killed by the police, the Berklee College of Music graduate vented her frustration in her poem, loosely titled “Exhausted.” With help from her friend, the director Jenna Winstead, she adapted it as a performance-art piece, retitled it “A Message From One of Your Black Friends,” and forcefully recited it in a striking black-and-white video filmed by Froy Madrigal.
As Woodhouse delivers the poem — “we are tired/and we won’t take it anymore” — explosions of white powder go off behind her against a black background.
“It started with me being exhausted by having to explain that Black Lives Matter too. The idea is that there is an implied ‘too’ at the end of those words, but so many people seem to not understand that,” Woodhouse says. “It’s also from the perspective of your black friend, whose voice has been silenced for so long. There are a lot of people out there who say, ‘I have a friend who’s black’ and I personally have had some friends that were using me as an example of why they’re not racist. I’ve had to go back and say, ‘Look, you can’t use me as your shield.'”
Woodhouse has been bolstered by seeing positive changes in her friends’ behavior and in the music industry at large. She cites the campaign to phase out “urban” as a synonym for “black” in music categorization as a step in the right direction, but says the word “gospel” carries the same connotation in Nashville. She recalls being in sessions where the producer would ask a white drummer to “play more gospel.” The word can also be used to dismiss a musician’s training under the assumption that they learned to play in church.
“It’s implied that if you’re a gospel drummer or a gospel musician, you’re self-taught, and you haven’t spent the time to go to school and learn your craft and your instrument,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times someone has come up to me and said, ‘Did you start playing saxophone in church?’ I went to Berklee College of Music and graduated.”
Woodhouse raves about the warm reception she received from roots-rock fans upon joining Trigger Hippy in 2019, but admits there were a few awkward moments. The vocalist was replacing Joan Osborne, who exited the group to pursue other projects. (Osborne will release her solo album Trouble and Strife in the fall.)
“Most people were super, super sweet, but then you have people here and there that say, ‘Oh, is Joan in blackface?’ Or one person said, ‘Is Joan Osborne doing the Rachel Dolezal thing?'” Woodhouse says. “But overwhelmingly everybody has been so supportive.”
With live music on hold, Woodhouse is remaining creative. There’s her poem, of course, but she’s also been doing some cursory exploration of her ancestry. She says she’s charted her family tree to “a few years before slavery ended.”
“I know off the backs of who I stand and I take pride in that,” she says. “The fact that my ancestors made it to a point where I could be here today as a homeowner, as a self-employed individual, as someone that has a voice that can share it with an infinite amount of people? That is the American dream.”