The black artist's ringing anthem finds its moment amid the growing national movement for racial justice. "As long as I can spark conversation," the singer says, "that's really all that matters"

By Nancy Kruh
June 15, 2020 02:30 PM
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Mickey Guyton
Chelsea Thompson

Mickey Guyton wrote her song "Black Like Me" because she needed to — not because she expected anyone else to ever hear it.

In fact, she assumed nobody ever would, the 36-year-old singer tells PEOPLE. As the only black female country artist signed to a major label, she's well acquainted with the hardships of breaking into a predominantly white male genre, let alone with a song that has a racial theme.

After the writing session early last year, Guyton recalls, one of her three co-writers, Nathan Chapman, said he feared the song might be too provocative for country fans.

"Yeah," she says she responded, "there's no way they're going to ever let me play this."

Even after recording it, she says, there were still lots of label discussions about "what the hell are we supposed to do with it?"

But then a shocking chain of deadly violence against black people occurred — Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. In grief over Aubrey's death, the 36-year-old singer posted on Twitter in early May: "I don't have words but I have songs that express my heart." She accompanied it with a snippet of the soaring anthem: "Now I'm all grown up and nothing has changed / Yeah, it's still the same / It's a hard life on easy street / Just white-painted picket fences far as you can see / If you think we live in the land of the free / you should try to be black like me."

"I didn't have a discussion with my label," says Guyton about her decision to post. "I was just, like, 'Here.'"

The response wasn't much more than a ripple. Then, two days after Floyd's death on May 25, as outrage was reaching critical mass and protests for racial justice were spreading across the country, Guyton reposted the snippet on Instagram. "#justiceforgeorgefloyd," she simply wrote. This time, the song had found its moment.

Within days, Spotify came calling, asking Guyton's label, Capitol Records, to release the song as a single. Guyton insisted it be done without promotion. "This isn't a time to capitalize off of people's pain," she says. "It's rude, it's tacky, it's classless."

As it turns out, there was no need: "Black Like Me" immediately rose to the top of Spotify's Hot Country List. It has since been featured on other popular country playlists curated by Amazon, Apple Music and YouTube music, and it's also begun to attract radio attention. Comments on socials have been affirming and supportive, and media reviews full of praise.

"I'm still just shooketh," says Guyton.

Of course, she says, she braced for a strong reaction to the song, but she was expecting the pushback that Chapman had predicted. Some on her team even raised fears for her safety and discussed the possible need for security. "It terrified me, just the thought of that," says Guyton, who has been quarantining with her husband, attorney Grant Savoy, at their Los Angeles home.

Instead, Guyton says, "it was the exact opposite. It was almost like an awakening. People have been able to hear the song."

It's a message of painful truth. But the lyrics also arc toward hope, ending with Guyton's rich, powerful voice proclaiming, "Someday we'll all be free / and I'm proud to be black like me."

If it hasn't generated any venom, perhaps that's because it's not an angry song, just as Guyton intended. "God put it on my heart to write it," she says. "It was really a healing song for me."

Guyton actually has been doing a lot of healing over the past couple of years as she has questioned whether there is even a place for her in country music. Though the genre's roots run deep in black history — emerging in the early 1900s out of a mingling of slave and immigrant music — white artists have long dominated country, with rare exceptions.

Guyton hoped to be one of them when she signed with her label in 2011, but once she joined a pool of white female artists already scrapping for radio play, she quickly felt pressure to fit into a certain mold. That included pressure, she says, to not be black.

"I wanted to prove that I was country," she says, "and prove that I could be in this space of people that I don't look like, and that they would feel comfortable and they wouldn't see that I was black, but just saw that I was a great country singer. And doing that, I lost who I was, to be honest. And it took a long time for me to find myself."

Over the years, her vocal gifts were leaving an indelible impression on listeners, but her releases weren't generating much career momentum. "I was writing other people's songs," she says now. "I was being somebody else that was not me."

A turning point arrived, she says, about two years ago when she and her husband underwent marriage counseling.

"I started looking at myself as an artist, and what exactly did I have to offer?" she recalls. "And I started thinking, what can I write and sing about that's true to me? So I started just singing everything about my marriage."

Mickey Guyton
Chance Edwards

Another turning point came when she asked her husband why he thought her music wasn't connecting. His response, she says, was immediate: "Because you're running away from everything that makes you different."

"After he told me that," Guyton says, "I was, like, oh my God. Okay, well, I need to just write about being a black woman. That's my story."

Pointed conversations with label execs left her believing they "want to join the cause," she says, leading her to record "Black Like Me." The same support went to another one of her co-writes, "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" a heart-wrenching indictment of gender and racial disparities. Released to streaming platforms in March, it received a rare standing ovation from radio broadcasters at their annual national convention in Nashville a few weeks before. Both singles will be included on Guyton's project set for release sometime in the fall.

Guyton looks back on the dreams that brought her to Nashville nine years ago. She wanted to record hits, headline tours, win awards. Today, she has other goals: to be herself, to express herself and to inspire little black girls who want to make their own music.

Freed from old expectations, she's been putting another kind of pressure on herself as she's absorbed the positive reaction to "Black Like Me."

"When you're releasing music and you're seeing such a beautiful response, I thought I was going to be on this emotional high," she says. "Instead, I just don't want to let anybody down, and I don't want to disappoint anybody."

And yet, Guyton says, she knows she also has found a new measure of peace. She is ready, she says, to go wherever her new dreams take her.

"As long as I can spark conversation, that's really all that matters," she says. "All of this music was created from love. And that's what my message is. It's spreading truth and love."