This week’s Southern Gothic siren blends the traditions of folk music with contemporary lyrics to create a unique new rock sound. Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Amethyst Kiah has spent most of her life east of the Smoky Mountains and a glimpse of them always makes her feel at home. Kiah’s one-of-a-kind style, however, is heavily influenced by her mixed experiences growing up Black and queer in the South.
Her parents bought her first guitar when she was thirteen at which time, she quickly learned her first song, “Good Riddance” by Green Day. It wasn’t until Kiah, a predominately self-taught musician, discovered the storytelling power of Tori Amos that she felt inspired to write her own songs. Kiah confesses to her fans, “I wanted to be a guitar-playing version of her,” and as a tribute to this inspiration, Kiah released this month a rock-driven cover of Tori Amos’s song, “Sugar, which began as a reflection on a lover that didn’t know how much sugar the artist liked in her tea.
An unexpected tragedy, however, struck when Kiah’s mother drowned in the Tennessee River. Singing at her mother’s funeral was one of Kiah’s first public performances. She shared the impact of her mother’s suicide in an interview with the New York Post.
“I interpreted my mom’s suicide as that she didn’t love me and she didn’t want to stick around. I now know that that’s not how suicide works, but I was 17, so my coping mechanism was to keep my distance from people.”
The loss of her mother and the spiral of depression would become a major theme in Kiah’s music. In her 2019 Grammy-nominated song, “Tender Organs,” Kiah describes her personal struggle with depression and the difficulty she faced in reaching out for help. For Kiah, the song describes her moment of awareness that something was terribly wrong, and in the chorus, Kiah sings, “Notice here, notice here/These tender organs rotting inside me.”
After her mother’s death, Kiah and her father (who had recently won his own battle with addiction), made a fresh start in Johnson City, Tennessee. That’s when she stumbled on a Bluegrass guitar course at East Tennessee State University which kindled a new love of old-time music and the role of Black Americans in country music. “I have a tendency to be really guarded,” Kiah states, confiding that her father’s unwavering support is a crucial part of her success. Growing up, in an all-white suburban area, Kiah recalls frequently being the only Black person in a room. But it was through her music that she came to realize, “I’m not alone on an island. I have a culture. I have a heritage.”
Kiah gained confidence in her message as a member of the supergroup, Our Native Daughters. Formed by Rhiannon Giddens, this quartet of Black banjo players, including Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell, set off on a journey to explore the impact of the transatlantic slave industry and ultimately, to pay tribute to the struggles of Black women throughout history.
In one of the slave cabins the group recorded in, Kiah wrote her hit song, “Black Myself” which went on to win a Grammy Nomination for Best American Roots Song in 2019. “Being in that project is the reason I had the courage to write that song,” Kiah states, adding: “I ended up trying to cover 400 years of history in three minutes.” Quite a feat, which Kiah describes as an “outpouring. Something that needed to take place, even if nobody else liked it.”
The songs opening lyrics confront the issues of hypocrisy and ignorance that surround racial prejudice: “I wanna jump the fence and wash my face in the creek/But I’m black myself. I wanna sweep that gal right off her feet. But I’m black myself.” Kiah rerecorded the song in 2021, amping up the melody and adding guitar and drums.
Kiah’s journey to find her place in the music industry hasn’t been without moments of uncertainty. “A couple years using my credit card to buy groceries thinking, I may have to get a full-time job, I can’t do this,” Kiah said. However, her 2021 debut rock album, Wary + Strange proves that perseverance pays off. Addressing hidden pain, systemic racism, and white supremacy, Wary + Strange boldly addresses both trauma and triumph.
Kiah’s message is clear: “We all have the power to continue to learn from one another and to understand each other and to continue to push for equality for all people.“ Despite any obstacles, Kiah assures us that she will continue to strive for the greater good, and this is what her music urges each of us to do. Be sure to visit Jam Base to catch this artist live in concert this season.