THROUGH THE LENS: Lady A’s Truth Rings Loud and Clear
Lady A - Winthrop Rhythm & Blues Festival 2018 - Photo by Peter Dervin
Following the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve experienced a reckoning on race relations in the United States unlike any in the recent past. In the midst of that, and the deadly coronavirus pandemic, many “brand names” have been reassessing their racist origins. One in the music world has been Lady Antebellum, whose three members have a combined net worth of $41 million, and a likely corporate value of over $100 million, who said they were previously unaware of the racist connotations associated with their name. In order to distance themselves from it, they decided to adopt the abbreviated name “Lady A,” while again being unaware that a Black woman artist had been using that name for over 30 years.
Thrust into the limelight, we have two truths: The truth of a Black woman blues artist who still works a day job and the truth of a white trio that’s made a lot of money in the behemoth world of white country music. One could view this as a prime example of Black Lives Matter versus white privilege: a Black working woman versus a $100 million corporation.
Anita White took the stage name Lady A in 1987 after a friend began calling her that. She’s been a fixture in the Pacific Northwest blues scene for the past 20 years, and has been actively involved in her community during that time. She’s a working-class Black woman who works a day job while making a name for herself in the roots music world. She’s toured with Bobby Rush, Shemekia Copeland, and Little Milton, among others.
Known as “The Hardest Working Woman in Blues, Soul, Funk & Gospel,” Lady A has four albums to her credit. Her latest, Lady A Live in New Orleans, was just released. Her music has been available at all the major outlets as well as at least one streaming service, Spotify, and she was nominated for Blues Performer of the Year for 2020 by the Washington Blues Society. She hosts two radio shows, “Lady A’s Gumbo & Gospel” and “Black N Blues (the B side)” and has a production company, Lady A Productions, that specializes in blues and gospel artists.
Most recently, Lady A released the single “The Truth is Loud,” which addresses many issues facing this country today, such as the killing of Black people in the streets, immigration, homelessness, and poverty.
In other words, even though Lady A could be viewed as a “regional” artist, she’s had a national presence, an internet presence, and a dedicated following for many years. She’s also got a “Lady A” tattoo on her arm for all to see.
Lady A’s truth is loud and clear.
In 2006, Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood, and Charles Kelley were forming a country band but had difficulty coming up with a suitable name. In a 2011 NPR interview, Haywood explained:
“And we were taking some photos one day in front of one of these old antebellum homes and, you know, one of us said the word and we all kind of stopped and said, man, that could be a name. There could be something with that word. It just feels kind of country and nostalgic and we thought that it had a unique sound to it. It had a lady in the group, obviously, and threw Lady in the front of it for no reason.”
The operative word here is “nostalgic.” Nostalgia for a myth without any thought to what those homes represented: 350 years of slavery.
Thus, without any regard to history or context, when two minutes of research would have revealed the true nature of the antebellum South, on a whim it seems, they chose the name Lady Antebellum.
As of Nov. 25, 2019, they had won countless awards, had nine No.1 hits, sold more than 18 million albums and 34 million tracks, had over 4 billion digital streams, and had the nine-times platinum hit “Need You Now,” the highest certified song by a country group ever, according to their label, Big Machine.
Lady Antebellum’s truth is loud and clear.
Black Lives Matter
On June 11, in response to Black Lives Matter and the killing of George Floyd, and in an attempt to blunt their band name’s racist connotations, Lady Antebellum announced via Twitter it had abbreviated its name to “Lady A.” They said their eyes had been “opened wide” to the injustices Black people face and had been unaware of “blind spots we didn’t even know existed.”
Some reacted with skepticism, along the lines articulated in American Songwriter: “Given that the world knows what that A stands for, to many this change does little more than add extra insult to this ongoing injury.”
Additionally, if their eyes had been “opened wide,” surely they would have been opened wide enough to do a 10-second internet search that would have revealed that the name “Lady A” had already been taken, actively used by a Black woman musician for over 30 years.
As Jeremy Helligar wrote in Variety: “In a country where whites have been taking from Blacks for centuries and an industry in which white artists have been adapting the artistry of pioneering Black talent for decades, it’s a move that reinforces how much things haven’t changed. ‘Lady A’ is still acting like Lady Antebellum. There are shades of spoiled Scarlett O’Hara all over their actions.”
If you’re white you get to be nostalgic, whimsical, and unaware. If you’re Black, get back. So much for the Nashville trio being woke.
The Value of a Name
On July 8, the Nashville trio formerly known as Lady Antebellum sued Lady A, alleging they had the name first and that White’s purported $10 million pre-litigation settlement offer was extortion. Lady A has said that half of any settlement would go to the Black Lives Matter movement and other social causes.
Lady A further said, “But here we go again with another White person trying to take something from a Black person, even though they say they’re trying to help. If you want to be an advocate or an ally, you help those who you’re oppressing. And that might require you to give up something because I am not going to be erased.” (emphasis added)
What is the “value” of giving up a name? As an attorney who has dealt with similar issues, I can tell you the “value” is not so much what Lady A would be giving up, rather it’s the “value” to the Nashville trio that seeks its use, to make even more money from their business enterprise, and to further their brand identification, that is determinative.
Based on former-Lady Antebellum’s reported net worth, number of albums and tracks sold, and their touring and merch revenue, I suspect they have grossed over $100 million, and stand to rake in plenty more in the immediate future. Thus, establishing their corporate value at $100 million would not be unrealistic. Once you make it big, really big, you are no longer a band, you become a corporation, an ongoing business concern whose aim is to further that business — i.e., to make even more money.
In this light, Lady A’s $10 million offer is quite fair and reasonable. If the Nashville trio formerly known as Lady Antebellum wants to put their mind where they say their heart is, they should be prepared to “give up something” to get the something they want. The something they’d be giving up is slight compared to their present net worth and the future earnings potential of one of country music’s most lucrative acts.
Otherwise, the band can adopt a name they had originally considered, “something like Springdale.”
Now, let’s look at some photos of the real Lady A.