EXCLUSIVE: Singer/songwriter, Priscilla Renea on confronting racism in country music
Even though she may not be a household name yet, Priscilla Renea (Priscilla Renae Hamilton) has been penning hits from some of your favorite pop stars for years. She’s the woman who wrote Rihanna’s 2010 hit, “California King Bed” and Kesha’s 2013 single, “Timber,” and now she’s readying her country album, Coloured, for release on June 22.
I know what you’re thinking…a black woman singing country music? First off, it’s not that weird and second, she’s damn good at it. In fact, her distinct sound is not a big departure from offerings from the likes of Janelle Monae and Beyonce, but her unapologetic approach to the country music world is rare and remarkable.
When we think of country music, we don’t imagine a beautiful black woman strumming a guitar in a fur coat, but that’s exactly the picture Priscilla Renea paints in her music video for her single “Gentle Hands.” In it, she describes her ideal man and shows off her serious singing chops in a sequined ensemble more fit for a Hollywood hotspot than a barn.
While her unconventional sound channels elements of blues, R&B, and soul influences, it’s undoubtedly country and that shouldn’t be surprising considering her background.
“Every summer, Christmas, holiday, we would go to my grandmother’s house in Florida on a three-acre farm. We grew up in a little corner down a dirt road and I had a pet hog and peacocks and geese and chickens. We grew our own food and had tons of fruit trees, so that’s also how I grew up. We lived about 20 minutes outside of Myrtle Beach. There are all these cow pastures and orange groves there,” she said in an exclusive interview with TheGrio.
“My uncle Kenny is a cowboy. He’s a black cowboy. I have to make that designation because its not popular. He does bull-riding and lassoing and he makes whips. I learned how to crack a whip and shoot and throw a hatchet from him and his son. He’s a six-foot tall black cowboy and he looks like John Wayne. He used to make us watch CMT.”
Renea is still thrown by the notion that country music is not for black folks.
“It’s funny because a lot of country music comes from the blues and the black church, but when I show up and say I’m a country singer, I literally can hear the air in the room change. It goes from people breathing normally to gasping,” she explained.
“There are all these black women who sang country music and who country music was influenced by, but we don’t know their names. All those black people who live in the south, what type of music do you think they were listening to? I think people forget we all coexisted in the same circumference, black and white people.”
Still, the Renea admits there are some key differences between blacks and whites even when they come from the same area.
“Culturally, it’s different. Black southern country families don’t do the same things as white southern country families. I’m not taking myself out into the mud to go mudding. That’s not something I’m interested in. I’m not rolling around in no mud, but I will go line dancing with you or we can go fishing together or go see a rodeo,” she said.
“There are some big cultural differences but I feel like that’s the case in any scenario. I feel like it’s a cop out when people say that cultural differences should be allowed to divide people when music is the universal language.”
The singer/songwriter is still troubled by the permeating idea that the country music world is only open to white people.
“There are all these negative connotations when it comes to black people and their music. It’s as is we can only have a pallet for R&B and hip-hop. I listen to classical music. I listen to heavy metal, I listen to country, and I have made pop music. That’s what I’m most known for writing,” she said. “When people find out that I have a country music No. 1 and I have worked with Miranda [Lambert] and Carrie [Underwood] they’re like ‘Oh, what?’ In reality, every song I have written is a country song. “California Kind Bed” is a country song and Rihanna performed it. “Timber” is a country song. I don’t think it’s far-fetched when you consider the reality of where I came from and how I grew up, that I would be into the same things as some of my white counterparts. It’s just that when they do it, it’s accepted and when I do it, I get looked at like, ‘You are NOT a country singer.’ I have had people say that to me and I wonder, ‘Why? I have written these songs for the white country artists you are listening to.’”
The racism Priscilla Renea faces doesn’t stop with sideways glances and puzzled expressions at her music style. It has surfaced in the form of fans being shocked when they learn a black face is behind their favorite tunes.
“I would hear the radio DJs saying they thought I was white as soon as I would leave the station from doing an interview with them. I have had meet and greets for my own shows and two times when people walked out when they saw me,” she explained. “One white grandmother said, ‘We’re not sticking around for this,’ even though her granddaughter was begging to stay and meet me. When I was in Kansas or Oklahoma, there was a white father who turned bright red and grabbed his daughter and pulled her out of the meet and greet because he didn’t expect me to be black.”
She has experienced racism from white people who didn’t even realize they were fans of hers.
“I realized, ‘Dang, y’all are really racist for real! This isn’t just on TV.’ Since I’m married and successful and financially stable, people don’t even realize that I could probably buy the restaurant whose employees are discriminating against me in some cases. I literally could own the place. You’re playing my songs in your restaurant!”
Renea didn’t always recognize the racism she faced and admits it wasn’t until her teen years that her eyes were opened to way this country works.
“I was so unaware of racism as a kid. I was so oblivious to all of that. We were well-off, my dad was a high-ranking officer in the military, I was in all AP and honors classes, and I didn’t hang out in the crowd that was always harassed. I grew up with two different lifestyles. My dad was in the Navy so I was back and forth between all those Naval bases,” she explained.
“When I moved back to Florida at 14, it was a whole different world. I went to school in a black area and would walk through Section 8 housing to get to my grandma’s house and hearing and seeing the things I saw blew my mind. I had no idea it existed before that. I didn’t listen to my first rap song until middle school. A lot of kids where I went to high school would wear T-shirts with the Confederate flag on it. There were certain groups and parts of campus we stayed away from.”
Even after moving to Los Angeles and scoring a record deal from Capitol Records as a pop singer, Renea never shook her southern roots and now she’s making music on her own terms without worrying about the public’s perception or their inability to grasp the concept that a black girl can kill it in the country music game.
“If white kids can run around singing Migos and Drake, then why is it still crazy to see black people listening to country music? I have come full circle. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I just want to make the music that I want to hear.”
That’s a good thing for music fans because we want to hear it too.
Check out her video for “Gentle Hands” below:
Coloured is sue out June 22.