Anita White has spent decades singing the blues as Lady A. Weeks after Grammy-winning country trio Lady Antebellum changed their name to Lady A to acknowledge the former name’s racial connotation, she worries she’s being erased.
The black Seattle blues singer has been in talks with the band for weeks about using the name, maintaining that she doesn’t want to share the Lady A brand and that she shouldn’t have to fight to keep a name she’s used for more for 20 years. With a newly filed lawsuit from the band, she now may have to fight in court for it.
After getting new legal representation, White sent a revised settlement offer to the band this week, which included a demand for financial compensation for the first time. White asked for $10 million, which she says would have been split between herself and donations to Black Lives Matter, a charity for seniors and youth in Seattle, and musicians in need of legal counsel. Country trio Lady A, who’s had a registered trademark on the name since 2010, responded by suing White over the name rights on Wednesday, asking for no monetary damages but for a declaration that they aren’t infringing on a trademark in using the name and that both parties can “continue to coexist.” In their suit, the band called White’s financial demands “exorbitant” and noted that “prior to 2020, White did not challenge, in any way, Plaintiffs’ open, obvious, and widespread nationwide and international use of the LADY A mark.”
White says that while the band told her they’d ensure she doesn’t get buried behind the group, she thinks the damage had already been done. She claimed it was harder to verify her name to upload her new single “The Truth Is Loud,” a few weeks ago, and that it’s more difficult for fans and new listeners to find her on streaming services like Spotify.
White spoke with Rolling Stone after the band filed the lawsuit about the weeks leading up to the suit, her frustrations about feeling unheard and being an ally to the black community. “They want to change the narrative by minimizing my voice, by belittling me and by not telling the entire truth,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as a victim, but I’ve worked too long and too hard to just walk away and say I’ll share the name with them. They want to appropriate something I used for decades. Just because I don’t have 40 million fans or $40 million, that should not matter.”
At this point, I’m not surprised by anything they would do. When they talked about how talks broke down, they never talked outside of trying to get me to do what they wanted me to do, which is coexist, and that’s something I never wanted. I stand by that. I’ve said it so many times. And in our conversations, I told them, I didn’t think coexistence would work. They said they were going to do their best efforts at insuring that my name could stay out in the forefront [with SEO and streaming services]. Before them, my name was under theirs; I could find myself easily, no problem. Now you can’t find me anywhere, so their ability to keep their word was false. Their best efforts were hollow; they didn’t mean what they said. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been erased. I have new fans sending me emails asking how to get my music because they can’t find me anywhere.
The shifting of their name follows the trend of many other groups and organizations working to distance themselves from racist undertones in the wake of the uprisings in this post-George Floyd world. Not wanting a name that is a reminder to many black folks of how so much was taken from us: our freedom, languages, families, and even our names makes sense. However, to do so by taking the name on which I, a black woman, have built my career in the music industry for over 20 years is ironic. Lady Antebellum to Lady A didn’t change the connotation or yield to them being inclusive. They are yet again using their privilege to take because I don’t want to share in the name. They brought this to the forefront. I didn’t. If they had been true to their word, their name would have completely changed. They have the means and the power.
They claim to be allies and that they wanted to change their name out of the racist connotation, and then they sue a black woman for the new name.
[Band member] Hillary [Scott] kept calling my producer in Jackson, Mississippi wanting to talk to me. Finally I said, “O.K., I’ll talk to her.” When I talked to her, she immediately went into tears. She was apologizing saying she didn’t mean to cause any harm. I asked about changing the name to Lady A and told her it still has the same racist connotation since it’s just an abbreviation. How do you change that, I’d asked, and she never answered.
“They claim to be allies and that they wanted to change their name out of the racist connotation, and then they sue a black woman for the new name.”
Next thing I knew, I had a call with [Lady A members] Hillary, Charles [Kelley] and Dave [Haywood]. We were on the call with our teams and had some ideas. I could be “Lady A the artist,” they could be “Lady A the band”; that way, we could let people know that works. They didn’t address that. Then I said I could change my name, but I don’t want to; I want to keep my name. Then they said we can coexist. I told them I just didn’t see that happening. I let them talk it out; they talked about me coming out to Nashville and us doing a song together. They talked about doing a documentary, but that wasn’t what I asked for.
Charles sent a text with a piece of that song to myself and my producers. They were working on it and I didn’t respond at first. I let them talk about it. My producers started sending some music back to sort of beef it up and make it so both of us could do it. I said it’d be nice to do a song together — to do a documentary on allyship and how we could come together on this — but I still didn’t think coexistence could work. I said that from the beginning and I’ll never change my view on that.
“They wanted me to make them look good in the eyes of the public.”
They came back with their agreement, which didn’t address my concerns, and I knew what they wanted. They wanted a story that showed us getting along. They wanted me to make them look good in the eyes of the public, and that’s why that Zoom call was so important to them. It wasn’t important to me. I went along with it figuring maybe they’d keep at their word, but that didn’t happen.
After the many personal discussions, texts and insincere phone calls, I decided the best thing for me to do is rebrand myself, which is one of the reasons I asked for anything monetary. It’s only right that I should be able to rebrand myself in order to continue to serve my fans, my community and the artists and upcoming artists I mentor and teach along with my other community activities as an activist.
I’d never asked for a dime, but they weren’t listening to me, and I knew they weren’t being genuine. With being a real ally, you put your money where your mouth is [and] you put your words into action. They tell a story that I asked for $10 million, but they didn’t tell the true story, and they didn’t say why I did it. I saw this wasn’t going anywhere and they erased me. So what do you think I’m going to do? I have to rebrand myself. I don’t want to have to share a name with you. And you shouldn’t be allowed to just get a slap on the wrist. I wanted my name. All I ever wanted was to keep my name in the blues genre doing what I did. I should not have to bend to [the band’s] will because they’ve got money.
“Their advantages let them do whatever it is they want to do.”
So if you’re going to appropriate my name, I thought it was only fair I could rebrand myself with $5 million. I could help my community, I could help my church, I can help other artists. And that other $5 million was supposed to go to Black Lives Matter to help other artists with this very struggle. And it was for my seniors and youth. I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing, but I’m not going to allow you to take something from me. I didn’t ask them to pay for it, but if you’re going to go that far and just disregard me altogether, then yes, I want to be compensated for it because I think they’re wrong.
They do this to make me look bad, like I’m just out for the money. I didn’t need their money before. I have a job that I’m retiring from, and I have music that I do. My life was happy before I met them. I do community work. You need to understand if you’re going to be an ally, you need to speak up bravely about what is going on. And if they’re saying they’re an ally, they are lying to the American public.
How would I have thought to look at the trademark? Why would I have challenged them? They were going by Lady Antebellum before; they weren’t going by Lady A. Anytime I went on Google, I only saw Lady Antebellum; I never saw [them referred to as] Lady A. I was Lady A for 30 years, regardless of whether I have a trademark. This is what kills me about white privilege. Their advantages let them do whatever it is they want to do. They have people in their camp to go out and get these trademarks. I never had that. I managed myself, I booked myself, I put my brand name out there. “Lady A” has been tattooed on my shoulder for over 20 years.
“Am I an angry black woman? I’m angry because of the lack of consideration for me and my people.”
I have worked hard to get where I am. I didn’t have all the accoutrements, all the lawyers or anything like that. Everything I had, I made myself with the help of a few people who loved me, who supported me and believed in me.
You look at privilege. Even now when talking to you, I have to hold back and watch myself with what I say. I can’t be my authentic self because If I am and you write something I say, it can blow back on me. They don’t have to think about what they say; I have to think about everything. There’s such white privilege that when a person of color, an indigenous person or a black person calls them on their crap, they’re so offended by it that they don’t see. They’ve been allowed to have that privilege. Am I an angry black woman? I’m angry because of the lack of consideration for me and my people. Like I said, this isn’t just about me. I didn’t ask for that money just for me. If I give up my name or share my name, I’d be a sellout to my people.
I still need to talk to my attorney. The ideal situation right now would be for them to change their name. If they are in fact allies, they have the resources, they have the money, they can change their name. It wouldn’t cost them a dime. We have to remember the reason for the name change. If that wasn’t the true reason for the name change, none of this makes sense.
As told to Ethan Millman.