The music industry is a world of headlines, four sentence bios, and elevator pitches. Meanwhile, American society at large is one of separation, boxes, and choosing sides. Taken together, that means existing as a musician with an intersectional identity can be a challenging experience. As a New York City-raised folk/Americana artist of Native American, Mexican, Japanese, and Taiwanese descent, I’ve experienced firsthand the way that possessing a unique perspective as an artist can be a responsibility and an opportunity, but also a difficult journey to navigate. Fellow artists with multifaceted identities have echoed that experience, sharing how their unique perspectives inform their work, but can also be lifted, tokenized, and used to promote others’ agendas in distasteful ways. In recent conversations with fellow artists Crys Matthews, Connie Lim (aka MILCK), and Lizzie No, we had the chance to open up a much needed dialogue on the experience of music artists living at the intersections.
According to data collected by the Census Bureau in 2017, only 13% of singers, musicians, and related workers are Black, 73.6% are white, and less than 1% are Indigenous. It is easy to see how this lack of representation can lead to tokenization in the media and onstage. Lizzie No, a Black woman and Americana artist, shared her frustration with feeling like her identity is constantly being lifted up before her music. “When artists of color are brought into festivals and media outlets, et cetera, we’re being asked to speak for all of our people … to be representatives of something,” she said. “It just hurts me to feel like outlets are seeking my opinion as a representative of Black people instead of as a representative of Lizzie No Incorporated—my music.”
Toeing the line of speaking up for your community and feeling tokenized as the one and only representative at an event can be a complicated dance. I have had similar experiences to No, and there have been times when my Indigenous heritage has been used to promote a concert in a way that has left me feeling tokenized and used. I have also sat through interviews where eight out of 10 questions are about who I am and only two questions are about the music I make. Given those experiences, for both Lizzie and I, the chance to create space for more nuanced conversations as artists is a privilege.
Crys Matthews shares our frustration with the lack of diverse representation in folk music, but is hopeful for the future. The self proclaimed “poster child of intersectionality,” Matthews uses her poignant lyrics and vintage folk melodies to tell the story of her own intersectional identity. The Bluegrass Situation describes her this way: “A native of the South and the daughter of a preacher, this Americana-creating, Black lesbian understands and appreciates the myriad ways her background informs her ability to help others empathize with those with whom they might assume they have nothing in common.” Being part of multiple marginalized communities can often feel like a daunting responsibility as an artist; but this is a responsibility that Matthews doesn’t shy away from.
“As a Black person, I have to be so good at what I do, even more exceptional, so that more people like me can come into that space. It’s not a burden, but it’s something that I am always mindful of,” she said. She explained she is always mindful of embracing all parts of herself, because it is a way of reminding all of the communities she’s a part of to hold space for others as well. “It’s not just enough to worry about LGBTQ rights, you have to still be mindful of people of color because people of color are LGBTQ and vice versa … [It’s important] to hold space for more than one marginalized community at a time.”
Matthews acknowledges that the folk music community has taken many strides to create a more inclusive space, and we both applaud Folk Alliance International for creating an Indigenous Music Summit and including panels on this very subject in their programming. But there is still work to be done. Matthews hopes music presenters will bring in more artists of color moving forward. “Sometimes I go to a folk event and I see the same group of people of color there,” she said. “The work isn’t done just because there are three of us there.”
Of course, representation issues like the ones Matthews, No, and I have seen are not confined to folk music, and Connie Lim aka MILCK’s experience as a pop artist speaks to that reality. Lim is a major label pop artist, Asian American woman, and mental health advocate credited with writing “Quiet,” the anthem of the Women’s March in 2017.
“There was tokenism and racism in the studio and productions I was asked to be part of when I first started out,” she said. She recalled how music executives would say to her, “We don’t think an Asian American artist can make it in the United States.” Much has changed since she started out in 2011, but there is still a long way to go.
“I had to navigate [racism] before in a more defensive manner, but as I and society have matured, now it’s about navigating what I choose to talk about.”
Through Lim’s social media platform and nonprofit, she has been able to use her music to further the conversation on not only representation but also mental health, sexual violence, and women’s rights. Additionally, Lim spoke about the importance of advocating for causes outside of one’s own identity. In fact, one of the organizations Lim is supporting as a part of the Somebody’s Beloved Fund, Lim’s foundation benefitting seven organizations supporting causes from racial justice to mental health, is Freedom Inc., “a Black and Southeast Asian non-profit organization that works with low- to no-income communities of color.”
Music is the great unifier and communicator, and artists of intersectional identities bridge worlds and communities through art. Music has a way of opening our eyes to experiences outside of ourselves, it has a way of opening up compassion and empathy within all of us. Possessing an intersectional identity puts an artist in a unique position to build bridges, and speak up from multiple perspectives. As Crys Matthews puts it, it is a “badge of honor.” I am incredibly inspired by these artists and the more equitable music industry and world that they dream of. Creating that world means artists existing at the intersections of historically marginalized communities must continue to sing loud.