One year ago, the black Seattle blues singer had to enter an unexpected battle over her own name when the country trio formerly known as Lady Antebellum announced they’d change their name to Lady A to distance themselves from the former name over its reference to the pre-Civil War, slavery ridden American South, unintentionally co-opting the name from her.
While the band and White had amicable conversations in the days following Rolling Stone breaking the news, the two parties couldn’t reach an agreement on the name’s use. The band had previously registered a trademark to the name, while White’s claiming common law ownership given her use of the name for nearly 30 years. The band would file a lawsuit against White in Tennessee asking for legal documentation verifying their rights to the name alongside White, who herself feels she shouldn’t have to share the name that was already hers. White later filed a countersuit of her own in Washington. The court denied White’s request to dismiss the band’s suit, and proceedings will begin in Tennessee if the two parties cannot settle by next year.
“They get to make their music, tour as ‘Lady A’ and get to continue to use that name without any regard to hurting my brand,” she says. “I said it was going to happen and now I feel myself getting erased.”
The name dispute is a microcosm of the music industry’s and country music’s broader attempts at handling racial injustice over the past year. Brands and corporations were quick to make promises and donations in the name of racial equity, but now that tensions are lower than in 2020, the question is becoming how much change will happen without the heavy pressure?
As she looks back on the fight with the band — born out of racial tension amid the murder of George Floyd — White is determined and hopeful. She’s doing what she can to keep a name she’s used for almost 30 years; she’s readying three more new music projects for this year, and she’s determined to see her day in court too. But decades of witnessing and experiencing racial injustice herself has also left her skeptical of how much society has changed.
With Friday marking one year since the band changed their name, White spoke with Rolling Stone about performative activism, continued racial injustice and why she won’t back down on her claim for the name anytime soon.
You’ve spoken on the name dispute quite a bit to the media since first speaking with us last year. Do you feel you’ve been heard in regard to all the issues and concerns you’ve raised?
Exactly what I said would happen is happening, I’m being erased. And that is something that this country is good at doing: Erasing black folks and disenfranchised people they feel do not matter. I think that [the band] thinks I’m irrelevant, and that is a mistake. Just because I don’t have the same amount of fans that they have does not discount the fans I do have. It does not discount the hard work that I put in over all these years. So do I feel like I’m being heard? Not by them, no.
The folks who made the statement that black lives mattered to them and the reasoning behind changing their name, I don’t want anybody to ever forget that. That is another reason for me to stay in my position and stand up for myself. It’s an insult to me as a musician and as a black woman that you would say that black lives matter and that you’d change your name but you didn’t really, and after a year we’re still in the same position.
“That is something that this country is good at doing: Erasing black folks and disenfranchised people they feel do not matter.”
What do you think is needed for you to get justice? Has that changed since last year?
Real justice would have been very simple for them to just change their name. That would have been simple for both of us. It really doesn’t cost them a dime, doesn’t cost me a dime.
What I ask white allies and what I encourage to think about is “What have you actually done?” You’re upset and want to make a change; change should be very simple for us. All you have to do to make a change is do the right thing by people. We make it so hard. We spend money to research the research that we’ve already researched just to try to get to a decision about something that’s so simple as just doing the right thing.
Most often, cases like these don’t go to court and end with a larger party giving some generous settlement to the other. You’ve remained adamant that this will go to court. Why?
What’s generous? Think about it. People have already said in the papers with the $10 million — really the $5 million I asked for me and $5 million for charity — they’ve already painted me as the angry, greedy black woman. What’s generous? Who’s going to tell me what I’m worth or all the suffering that they’ve already put me through over a year that they didn’t have to.
They have dug their heels in. I’m waiting for my day in court because that’s all I can have. In the meantime, they get to go out and continue to use the name that I’ve used for 30 years. Why would you want to do that to another artist when you have the means to do something else? Those are the questions that I have for them. All that crying and blubbering and they were doing and talking about how much they didn’t want to harm me, that doesn’t speak true.
“I’m waiting for my day in court because that’s all I can have.”
You also say you believe there’s a reason this is happening. What legacy do you want the story to leave behind?
I would like all the young people I’ve been talking to about my name to believe in themselves and to know that even if you’re the only one who’s standing up and you know that you’re right, continue to stand up, no matter what. It means a lot to me that they understand that they can stand alone, that it’s okay to stand alone.
And I think of all the musicians and singers that came before me, who played the chitlin’ circuit and who couldn’t go into hotels, couldn’t play in places. My mom, my grandmother and my great-grandmother who all sang, I owe them something, I owe them that respect because they instilled strength and encouragement and inspired me. Those women in my life and singers who came before me, Denise LaSalle, who was one of my idols in blues, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, they had it rough but still made it. They made it doing what they loved despite the odds. I want young people to know that I can be like them and they can be like them. I don’t need a million fans. I need the people who really love what I do. That’s all I really need.
You’ve talked about performative activism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder before. Do you think people still care about stories like these that arose last year as tensions came to a head?
In general, unless it affects you, their care disappears. That’s how I feel about it because I live it every day. I am a black woman, a black musician, a black human being walking the Earth. George Floyd was murdered, [Derek] Chauvin is now in jail, but it doesn’t mean that black people aren’t being murdered in the street still. Everybody wants to be woke in the moment and then it doesn’t affect them anymore. So until the next murder happens and becomes big news, people will again be oblivious to the racial injustices that go on. I don’t think it’s a malicious thing. I think it’s just how society has become.
I wake up black every day, and yes, life continues on. However, we as black people in this country are still dealing with trauma, loss, and for myself and I know of others, erasure. Allies have to understand that thoughts and prayers are welcome, but what are you really doing to change the systemic oppression BIPOC people deal with in your community, on your job, in your daily dealings with someone who does not look like you? For me, this has been a hard year; one of reflection and one of watching my musical career be slowly and systematically erased by big business simply because someone decided not to change their name, but shorten it and claim it was because “Black Lives Matter.” So is it that some black lives [matter] but doesn’t include mine? It’s a serious question. When does my life and what I’ve worked for matter?