In celebration of Black History Month, KEXP’s Alina Santillan interviewed numerous local and national African American artists about what Black History Month and Black Future mean to them. Seattle songwriter Olivia Thomas, who performs under the name LIV†, shares the importance of taking pride in the accomplishments of black people, encouraging black female artists, and feeling represented by artists like Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill.
KEXP: We're celebrating Black History Month at KEXP. I also want to acknowledge that we should be celebrating history and future and excellence in music and art 365 days a year, not just during the shortest month of the year. So I want to hold space and acknowledge that, but also I want to know Black History Month means to you then what does what does black future look like for you?
Olivia Thomas: I guess when I think about Black History Month, there's a lot of mixed emotions. Only just because of the whole fact that this particular time is celebrated at the shortest month of the year, however people want to look at it. But at least part of me is grateful that there is just a moment where everyone is told they need to just stop and acknowledge my culture's contribution to this country specifically. And I just like having a moment of reflection. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud to be black 24/7, but I do appreciate that there is time that's kind of put into our everyday lives that. This is our time to reflect and be proud. And for me, this month, I try to always reflect on the good things. It's really easy to get caught up in historically how we've been oppressed. But I do like to take this time to reflect and think about the greatness that is black people and how we've contributed to societies and colonies and this world since the beginning of time. I'd like to take part in that and really think about how I can be inspired from that. And when I think about the future, I definitely think we're in a time where people are seeing some shift. And don't get me wrong, we definitely have a long way to go, but this is the time where I feel like people are really starting to see us and starting to notice stuff that's been going on that we've been doing. And it feels good to get to times like this where people really are now really starting to understand. Or even be bothered by it, that we're a lot more out and proud and unapologetic about who we are and what we've done. And I believe that the future is only going to continue being like that more and more, where people who don't celebrate or people who don't appreciate what we do become the minority. And I think it's a time where we can acknowledge our history but also really focus on strengths. Sometimes I think there's too much emphasis, or emphasis that people put on us, to always talk about our struggles and talk about slavery. There's a great quote by Malcolm X that "our history didn't begin in chains." And so I think, as we get into the future, I hope that it's it's more focused on the amazing things we've done. The amazing things that came from us overcoming, not just the struggles and the oppression, but we were amazing long before that. And this is what we have to offer the world. This is what we've already given the world, so to speak. So yeah, definitely reflection and then also progression as we go forward.
What would you say to specifically black female artists who are wanting to do the same thing you're doing – who are wanting to make art and make music? What keeps you going? What's the encouragement that you'd give them?
I think number one is try to find a way to be comfortable in your own skin. And not think that representation that you see means there can only be that, there can only be one. I think with women, black women specifically, we're pitted against each other sometimes. And so it's easy to just think like, "Well because that person's already doing something great, I can't be that or I can't do that." And being afraid of our own voice and afraid of her own expression our art. And I just challenge them to think beyond that and think there's enough room for all of us. And you can celebrate and appreciate other black female artist and then also love and appreciate your own craft and believe that what you have to say and what you have to contribute to our arts culture is valid. Because I just think it's easy for them to get caught up in looking at everyone else and also looking at how are represented and feeling like they don't fit or they can't or they're not enough. And I think they're absolutely enough.
I think that's powerful and a message that young black girls and young girls of color need to constantly be reminded of especially in those developing years that you have to see is important. You can do anything that you want to. I mean, look at the Jamaican bobsled team. I watched that press conference the other day and one of them was just like, "You know, this means a lot to me because there is a lack of representation not only in black women or Jamaican women... being a part of the Winter Olympics and the bobsled team?" She's like, "You know what? If I want to be a bobsledder and I want to do that, I can do that. If you want to be a doctor, you can do that. If you want to be the first lady of the United States, you can do that. So constantly I think there's something powerful about about representation. Were there artists when you were growing up for you that that did the same thing that really had an influence on your art?
Definitely the greats. The Whitney's, the Aretha's. But when I really think about my adolescence the two female artists – just artists in general – that stood out to me that I just liked their style and they seemed different and very warm themselves was Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys. Those are two artists where I saw them and I just gravitated towards them. When I first saw the Alicia Keys video, "Fallin'," and she was wearing braids. I was just like, "Gosh, she made cornrows looks so cool." And I wore braids from fifth grade when I saw the video all the way to my sophomore year high school. That's all I wore. Just different variations of breads and cornrows because of that video. Real story.
You could see yourself in that.
That was powerful. I feel like every time I watch Alicia Keys I'm on the verge of crying because it's so beautiful.
She puts her heart and soul into that. And she's classically trained, she's a true artist. I love her.
So that kind of brings me to my it my last question. Why do you think that music matters? And that can be any intersection of your identity.
I mean, to keep a long answer short, I think it matters because it's a disciplined and an avenue where the boundaries are endless. Or there are no boundaries, excuse me, it's endless.And also, we kind of pioneered a lot of the things that are great in music. And so I feel like when we hold on to that and understand that it's intimidating but also it can be used as inspiration where it's like "This is one of our our strengths. This is one of our superpowers that our people have used to truly tell our story." And I feel like we wouldn't have been as successful if you didn't have the whole renaissance jazz era and us being able to sort of put a soundtrack to the civil rights movement. I feel we've used this medium to enhance our journey and it continues to be an amazing tool to tell our story. And I just feel like it matters because it's one of our our biggest strengths. And in general, even outside of black people, it's a tool that continues to be one of the most powerful things that brings people together from all walks of life. It's just a part of the culture in a way that would be detrimental to it if it didn't exist.
Is there anything else that you that you want to say that's important that's burning on your heart or in your mind?
I think just reiterating what I said earlier, where within your art you just gotta find your voice and do you. And the people and those who are important will follow. And don't get caught up in trying to be like everybody else. Tell your story. That's a huge thing. Whatever you're choosing, tell your story.
For more and a litany of amazing interviews featuring the incredible African-American musical artists that have shaped our lives, click here for all our Black History Month coverage.
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