In 2020, with the release of first “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and then “Black Like Me,” Mickey Guyton changed course as an artist. For years, she’d been struggling to make a name for herself at country radio, a platform that has never been very welcoming to female artists — let alone Black female artists.
Again and again, Guyton tried to find her lane in mainstream country music, and to a certain extent, Nashville recognized her talent. She was the only Black female solo artist to chart at country radio, though she scarcely cracked the Top 40. But when she tried to rise through the ranks of country music, she was met with a level of criticism and doubt that a white artist in her place would not have encountered.
“I was doing Nashville the Nashville way, and I was seeing so many artists come out with songs, with trap beats in their songs, and flat-billed hats and Timberlands, and calling it country,” Guyton recalled during a recent interview with CBS This Morning.
“If I tried to just put out any kind of song, it was overly scrutinized, and it was really, really difficult for me to navigate that. It was really, really hard. And I felt trapped within myself,” she adds. “Part of that was my doing, because I could have easily said, ‘Enough is enough, but I didn’t.”
Something changed about a year ago, when Guyton wrote “Black Like Me.” Though the singer has long been vocal about the racism she faces in the country music industry, this song marked one of the first times that she truly took listeners inside her experience of growing up Black, detailing how discrimination continue to affect her both in her everyday life and in her musical career.
Writing that song was part of her journey towards speaking her truth as an artist, Guyton continues.
“For so long, I was living with somebody else’s truth, and I wasn’t living my truth. And this song is an example of that,” she reflects. “You know, country music is three chords and the truth. And people have so much pride in country music because it’s honest music. But I wasn’t being honest And this is the first real time that I’ve been honest with my words and my lyrics and my message.”
Though Guyton wrote “Black Like Me” in 2019, she decided to share the song amid this spring’s growing civil rights movement, as protestors called for justice in the face of racism and police brutality. Galvanized by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, protests ramped up to demand an end to inhumane treatment from the police against Black people.
In its real-world context, “Black Like Me” is a powerful and long-lacking statement in country music, a genre that for far too long has prioritized white artists’ stories and careers over those from artists of color. Guyton knows her song’s message of shining a light on inequality is still a controversial one in mainstream country music, and she says that she had some trepidation about releasing “Black Like Me.”
“Absolutely I was nervous. There were even possible talks about me getting security, just in case I started getting threats from people. And that was scary for me,” she remembers. “When I put the song out, you know, we’re all stuck in our homes, and I stayed in my bed the entire day because I was nervous. I didn’t wanna let anybody down. I didn’t know what the response was gonna be.”
When reactions from fans started pouring in, however, they were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “It was so positive and loving. It was like people were waiting for that from me. It was beautiful,” she adds.
It remains to be seen if country radio will play “Black Like Me.” Guyton dropped her new single in early June, and according to Mediabase’s Country Aircheck, it garnered only one radio add during the week of June 15, and zero adds the following week. As someone who’s been working in the trenches of the music industry for years, Guyton is intimately familiar with the slow and often unrewarding work of trying to find radio success as a woman, and particularly as a Black woman.
“If you look at the charts right now, there are still not enough women on the charts. And if there are women on the charts, they’re getting played at night [and not during peak listening hours],” she explains. “I have seen first-hand the discrimination that is happening against white women in the industry. And as a Black woman who knows first-hand what discrimination feels like, I can’t sit here and not say anything.”
Country music is, as Guyton says, the three-chords-and-the-truth genre. If she is a country artist singing her truth, and garnering an overwhelming reaction from fans, then country radio has a mandate to give her the opportunity to be heard — and the singer is ready to call the industry to action.
“We’re always told why we will fail, but we’re never told why we’ll succeed,” she continues. “This industry, from the top down, whether you’re in the radio world, whether you’re at a record company, whether you’re at a publishing company, these companies need to actively, truly give women and people of color opportunities.
“We don’t want handouts, but we want opportunities. Equal opportunities,” she says.