Priscilla Renea Refuses To Be Quiet About Racism In Country Music

Jun 24, 2018
Originally published on June 23, 2018 2:43 pm

Priscilla Renea has just two solo albums, but she's written chart-topping pop songs for years: Rihanna's "California King Bed," Pitbull's "Timber," Fifth Harmony's "Worth It" and dozens more.

It was always Renea's goal to make her own music, she says, but she wrote for six years to sustain herself to the point where she could do what she wanted. Nine years after her debut album, her second solo album, titled Coloured, is out now.

Coloured is a return to the genre Renea feels most comfortable in — country. She grew up on a farm in the same Florida city as country star Jake Owen. In fact, the two graduated high school together. When people doubt her being a country singer, she asks them what the difference is between him and her. "They can't be on record saying, 'Well, you're black,'" she says.

Renea talked to NPR's Michel Martin about being a black woman in country music and breaks down songs on her new album. Read their edited interview highlights below and listen to their full conversation at the audio link.


Interview Highlights

On the album's title

I grew up in the south — a very small, predominantly rich, white town called Gifford, Florida. I've walked into place and people have been like, "Are you lost, honey? Do you need help?"

It's a very real thing for me to have experienced people calling me names. I've been called monkey, and I've been called the N-word and all kinds of things. To me, when you don't allow a negative connotation to be attached to a word ... if you don't talk about it and if you don't put it in people's faces, people have a tendency to pretend like it's not happening. A lot of people say that racism is dead, slavery is over. That's not true.

On pursuing country music

People always ask me why I chose to go down this route. I grew up on a farm. I had a pet hog. We had peacocks, chicken, geese, a pond, all types of fruit trees. This is just what comes out when I naturally go to sing ... I would always have this country twang.

On country's predominantly white audience

If you think about the kind of people that consume country music and tailgate and go to these concerts, it's not an environment where black people feel welcome. So I don't think it's that black people don't like country music or that they wouldn't like to exist in that space, but I'm not going somewhere where I feel like I'm going to get beat up. It's an ugly truth. It's something that's my dream to eliminate or dissolve.

On being a black woman in country music

Dolly Parton is one of my favorites, and she makes it very clear, "If you want to be in show business, keep your mouth shut." Which, I agree, to a certain extent, but I think people like her and who look like her have that privilege. As a black person singing country music, the essence of country music is talking about your experience as a human. And this is a part of my experience, the black experience. There was a young kid who just got shot in Pittsburgh. We wasn't doing anything. He was scared.

There's so many instances of black people getting pulled over and getting shot, so If I'm going to be honest about what it's like to be a black female country singer, I have to talk about it.

On leaving a legacy

I went to the Grand Ole Opry. Backstage, there's two black people: Chuck Berry and Darius Rucker. I want to be on that wall and I want to have my costumes behind the glass case for, in 50 years, another little black girl goes back there and says, "Wow, if she did that, I could do it."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, even if you don't know her name, you probably know Priscilla Renea's work from the lyrics she's written for stars like Pitbull and Rhianna and Fifth Harmony over the past decade. Now you can hear her words in her own voice on her new album, "Coloured."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENTLE HANDS")

PRISCILLA RENEA: (Singing) I don't mean to interfere if it ain't in your plan, but I want a big strong man with gentle hands. He drives...

MARTIN: This is actually Priscilla Renea's second album and it comes nine years after her first. So when she stopped by our studios in Culver City, Calif., I asked her why she decided to get back in front of the mic now.

RENEA: I've always wanted to make music, and the reality of it is - is that this industry is incredibly competitive. When I first got my first deal in 2008, I was signed to the Capitol Records. And that was in like the Katy Perry phase when everybody was doing like that dance music. And so that's what my first song sounded like - "Dollhouse" - it sounded basically like a leftover Katy Perry song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLLHOUSE")

RENEA: (Singing) Cause I ain't a doll, this ain't a dollhouse. You're way too old to be puttin' me down...

RENEA: It went to 33 on Top 40 charts, and everybody expected it to go, you know, to No. 1 or at least top 10. And it just didn't work for me, and I think the reason why is because it wasn't genuine. It wasn't - I was 18. I was trying to live up to the expectations of these major-label executives, and I was afraid to speak up for myself. So, when it fell through, I was like, oh, no. What am I going to do? I can't go back to the dirt-road country and prove my parents right, and they're going to make me get a job and go to school. So I decided to start writing songs for other people.

MARTIN: The new record is titled "Coloured." What's behind the name?

RENEA: Well, there's plenty of different angles and perspectives. I'm a very colorful person. I love rainbows and glitter and sparkles, and things like that. And I grew up in the south, very small predominantly rich, white, town called Vero Beach - actually, it's called Gifford, Fla., where I'm from. And I've walked into places and people are like, are you lost honey? Do you need help? And so it's a very real thing for me to have experienced people calling me names. I've been called monkey. And I've been called, you know, the N-word and all kinds of things. If you don't talk about it and if you don't put it in people's faces, people have a tendency to pretend like it's not happening. And a lot of people say that racism is dead. Slavery is over. That's not true.

MARTIN: Wow. You've got a lot to chew on here. So let's take it piece-by-piece. The record has a really deep kind of country feel to it, but it's its own style. Let's listen to "Family Tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMILY TREE")

RENEA: (Singing) I have a mother. I have a pa. We look pretty in that picture on the wall. I love my brothers and my sisters too. Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do.

MARTIN: Did you always sort of hear yourself as a country singer even though you had that detour into pop when you were first trying to make it?

RENEA: I don't think I ever categorized myself. The first song I ever wrote when I was eight years old - I was vacuuming the floor and I just started singing this song. And it was like - (singing) walking down the highway, looking at the skyway. And my older brother was like, what song is that? I'm like I just made it up. He was like, no, you didn't. I'm like, yes, I did. And so I went and I sang it to my mom, and she goes, I never heard it before. She probably did make it up. And she bought me this notebook. And so I started writing these songs in this little composition notebook, and I didn't think about it.

You know, people always ask me, why did you choose to go down this route? And I grew up on a farm, I had a pet hog. We had peacocks, chickens, geese, a pond, all types of fruit trees. This is just what comes out when I naturally go to sing. I used to sing the national anthem at every military ceremony. My father was in the Navy for 25 years, and I used to sing at every baseball game. And I just naturally - you know, when it comes to like - (singing) and the rocket's red glare - I would always have this country twang. My uncle is a black cowboy. He used to force us to watch CMT. He makes whips. He lassos and rides bulls and all that kind of stuff. So this is just what I grew up around.

MARTIN: And when you were trying to get into the business - we started talking about this a little bit ago of how you kind of had to fight for your own voice. Is this something that you had to fight for and - particularly because you're an African-American artist. And it is not a genre that we associate with African-American women, has that been part of the struggle for you?

RENEA: I'm not really encountering too much struggle because when I open my mouth and I sing, especially "Family Tree," people just - their jaws drop. Some people cry. I think the only challenge is when you tell somebody, you know, yeah, I'm a country singer. Whether they're black or white, they all - they are - they're like, no, you're not, yeah, right. The way that I combat that - and thank God this is actually my truth - Jake Owen is a huge country star. We graduated from the same high school. We grew up in the same town. So, if Jake Owen is a country singer, why am I not?

If you think about the kind of people that consume country music and that, you know, tailgate and go to these concerts, it's not an environment where black people feel welcome. So I don't think it's that black people don't like country music or that they wouldn't like to exist in that space, but I'm not going somewhere where I feel like I'm going to get beat up. You know, it's an ugly truth that this is something that I'm trying to - that's my dream to eliminate or dissolve.

MARTIN: Well, you do go there in your music. I mean, you've got a piece, a track on the album called "Land Of The Free." And one of the reasons it stood out is that whether it's fair or unfair, a lot of people think of country as a genre that is much more pre-occupied with the personal than the political.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF THE FREE")

RENEA: (Singing) Little Jimmy grabbed his toys, went outside to play. How was he supposed to know he might die today? Officer, he told the judge, Jimmy had a gun. Now another mother will be burying a son. If you don’t believe it’s true, I guess I wrote this song for you...

MARTIN: That lyric in particular, you know - if you don't believe it's true, I guess I wrote the song for you - you know, really stood out for me. Tell me what inspired this piece, and I'm curious to know what reaction you get when you perform it.

RENEA: First, let me start by saying, you know, Dolly Parton is one of my favorites. And she makes it very clear - if you want to be in show business, keep your mouth shut, which I agree to a certain extent. But I think people like her and who look like her have that privilege. And I think as a black person singing country music, you know, the essence of country music is talking about your experience as a human, and this is a part of my experience - the black experience. You know, there was a young kid who just got shot in Pittsburgh. He wasn't doing anything. I mean, he was scared. There's so many instances of black people getting pulled over and getting shot, you know. So if I'm going to be honest about what it's like to be a black female country singer, I have to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF THE FREE")

RENEA: (Singing) I’m not going to be quiet. Make a little noise and they say that it's a riot. Ain’t no...

MARTIN: I'm going to play one more song - and just to show just the range that you demonstrate on this album - it's called "Heavenly."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVENLY")

RENEA: (Singing) Simply incredible, natural - this love is heavenly. This love is meant to be. Bigger than you, bigger than me. This love is heaven, heavenly...

MARTIN: It's such a gift to be able to have all these different - different sounds and voices in your head. But do you ever worry that you're not going to find your place?

RENEA: No, I mean, I'm not really interested in sitting in one seat. I've had country number one with Carrie and Miranda. I've had pop number one. I've had R&B No. 1. I love the fact that I can span across so many genres and do so many things. I feel comfortable in the country space. I feel like that's when I'm at my best. I'm not trying to be super sexy, and I'm not trying to be like a rock star. I'm just a storyteller. It's not about who's around right now to consume it. It's about who's going to be here for 50 years, 100 years listening to this music when I'm gone.

You know, I went to the Grand Ole Opry backstagers - two black people, Chuck Berry and Darius Rucker. I want to be on that wall, and I want to have my costumes, you know, behind the glass case. You know, and in 50 years, another little black girl goes back there and says, wow. If she did it, I could do it. I'm not really concerned about what people think about it right now because this is temporary.

MARTIN: That was singer-songwriter Priscilla Renea talking to us about her latest record, "Coloured." It's out now. Priscilla Renea, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RENEA: Thank You.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT COLOR")

RENEA: (Singing) What can I do when the world got me so blue...

MARTIN: For Saturday, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. We'll have much more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.