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Turning the Beat Around: Music City Welcomes Artists of Color With Open Arms

Nashville's music scene has plenty of room for artists of all kinds

By Teree Caruthers on October 29, 2015

Kyshona Armstrong moving

Nashville has long been a mecca for country music – and mostly white – artists, but in recent years, the city has attracted a growing number of artists of color, such as NeoSoul recording artist Kyshona Armstrong, who left a music therapy career in Georgia to chase her dream of stardom.

Finding Her Rhythm

Eighteen months ago, Armstrong was a music therapist and part-time performer in Athens, Ga., “touring for the college market, playing colleges around the country as a singer/songwriter and sharing the stories of my patients and clients,” when she says she was led by God to quit her job, pack up her belongings and move to Nashville, Tenn.

“Nashville was low on my list,” she admits. “It was not a desire. I always considered [Nashville] to be just not for me. It was known for country music, and I thought, ‘I don’t think there’s a place for a black female singer/songwriter to really exist there.'”

Armstrong says she thought about relocating to New York City or Los Angeles. She even considered Boston, Mass., and Ann Arbor, Mich. But a tugging in her gut kept bringing her back to Music City.

“I kept meeting people and kept being brought back to Nashville. When I was touring, it seemed like every flight I ended up on, I would be sitting next to someone, not necessarily in the industry, but someone who lived here. It didn’t matter where I was, I was finding other artists, creatives, even a few politicians who were from here. Every day I was meeting somebody who was connected to this town. So I just took that as ‘okay, I guess I’ll check it out,'” she says. “It was not a desire [to move here], but you got to follow whenever you’re told to go somewhere. So, God said ‘go’ and I came.”

Noteworthy Connections

Even though Armstrong moved to Nashville without a job or even a plan, she says she was pleasantly surprised at how easily she was able to connect with other musicians of color.

“What surprised me was that there was actually a scene for soul and blues music. I didn’t think there would be,” she says. “Jason Eskridge and Clay Evans invited me to Sunday Night Soul [showcase for NeoSoul artists], and it was just like ‘oh my gosh, here we are.’ But the thing that really impressed me my first time going to Sunday Night Soul was how diverse the room was – young, old, white, black – all kinds of folks. And I really love that because that’s more like my music [aesthetic]. Granted, people still try to label me as country, just because I’m playing acoustic guitar, but people have been much more receptive than I thought they would be.”

Shifting Pitch

Aleta Myles, an African American singer/songwriter and actress, echoes Armstrong’s sentiment, but says when she moved to Nashville in 1999 from Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend Belmont University’s School of Music, Nashville’s music scene looked quite different.

“I was a little bit hesitant because I’m like, ‘This is the South. This is not going to be good.’ Of course, this was back in 1999. I was really expecting a not-so-pleasant experience off the bat. I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t as terrible as I thought,” she says with a chuckle.

Myles says when she first arrived in Nashville it was more difficult to find other artists of color and to make connections within the mainstream music industry.

“I didn’t come upon networks of [black] people until later on, after college. I guess it was kind of hard. Maybe if I had gone to a historically black college or university, it would have been different. I was fortunate to get to know other black creative students – people like Melinda Doolittle – so I got to be around people who were doing a lot of great things. It’s almost like I didn’t really know what I was lacking until I found it. Now my eyes are open, and I look for it now,” Myles says.

Perfect Timing

She says she’s glad artists like Armstrong who are newer to town have many more outlets for their craft.

“Nashville changes all the time. There are a lot of people moving in and out. I’ve been here long enough to see the waves of different artists who have gone their way,” she says. “There’s the Hype Artist Collective, which me and my friend TaRee Avery started to give artists opportunities to perform, and She Hype, which promotes diverse female artists. There’s also Sunday Night Soul and the artists who spring out of that – Mike Hicks, Jason Eskridge, Kyshona – all those people. That’s the group of new artists that is emerging now; they call themselves New Nashville.”

Both Armstrong and Myles agree that one of the features that attracts musicians and artists from all backgrounds to Nashville is the industry’s sense of community.

“I honestly feel like [Nashville] is a musicians’ town,” Armstrong says. “Because there are other writers here, you know when they come to your show, they are going to listen and respect what’s happening on stage. It’s more than just about being entertained. It’s about respecting the art.”

“Nashville just has that homey feel,” adds Myles, who hopes to perform on Broadway soon. “That does not mean that I will stay in Nashville, but it’s definitely a place I can always come back to and always feel at home. Even though it’s growing, there’s still this sense of family and community.”

Author’s Note: Listen to Kyshona Armstrong’s debut album Go at kyshona.com. Check out Aleta Myles’ music and alter ego Judith on her YouTube channel or at aletamyles.com.

I honestly feel like [Nashville] is a musicians’ town. Because there are other writers here, you know when they come to your show, they are going to listen and respect what’s happening on stage. It’s more than just about being entertained. It’s about respecting the art.

Kyshona Armstrong
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