DeLila Black is making music we should all be hearing: compositions that condemn authoritarian impulses and roar out with a bluesy twang against racist violence. While DeLila’s songs have been described as fitting into wildly disparate genres, from country and Americana to punk and alternative rock, her work ultimately defies classification. She takes inspiration from the DIY ethos of punk and instills it with the sense of shared responsibility and community resilience that accompanies folk music across the globe.
Although she’s hesitant to attach any specific identifier to her work, DeLila describes herself as someone exploring electro-mountain music, which includes a little bit of punk-country, trip-steel guitar, genre-jumping, country-noir, and mashups. Her music shows how aesthetically driven songs crafted by a performance artist can also function as politically necessary activism.
Her most recent release, Routine, is a protest bluegrass waltz created as a fundraiser for Grassroots Law Project. It’s one of DeLila’s mashups, relying on both aural and visual elements. Routine brings together music with images, reminding viewers of the violence of racist police brutality and the risks of complacency. These killings have indeed become routine as a result of their sheer number, and we must disrupt that repetitive violence before it seeps into the realm of banality. News media language continues to define murder dangerously in the passive voice, as DeLila’s mashup underscores: Ahmaud Arbery was killed/ Michael Brown was fatally shot/ Terence Crutcher was fatally shot/ Eric Garner was killed/ Freddie Gray died/ Botham Jean was shot and killed.
Language matters, and it must change. Images that dance and fade across DeLila’s Routine reveal how language can affect perception, and the ways music can be used to pursue change. Imagine, DeLila seems to suggest, if these headlines read so much differently: Ex-police officer killed Ahmaud Arbery/ Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown/ White Tulsa police officer fatally shot Terence Crutcher/ White New York City police killed Eric Garner/ Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray/ Off-duty officer shot and killed Botham Jean.
Ben Paley (son of legendary musician Tom Paley) is a guest player on Routine, working with DeLila to expand the legacy of civil rights activism through song that his father helped to shape. Like DeLila’s previous work, Routine is about storytelling. It illumines the narratives that get marginalised, covered up, and erased. With the release of Routine, she gives us a chance to learn what it means to be an active listener.
Lucky for me, I had a chance to chat with DeLila for a couple of hours about her incredible work and its urgency in our world today.
AG: I’m in awe of your work, which crosses so many genres and speaks to such a wide variety of political issues. How’d you get started?
DB: I was always interested in music. There was always music in our house. My dad listened to all kinds of music – English, Spanish, Haitian. And the radio was always playing, so music was always all around. For me, music started as a medium that was about art and expression. Then I moved to London, and I started recording and writing. I went through a lot of phases where I got discouraged. I stopped and thought, what am I doing with my life? But I would eventually come back to it, I picked it all back up again.
AG: Were there particular artists who influenced you early on?
DB: I had a boyfriend who was playing a lot of David Bowie, and I didn’t really know who David Bowie was! I knew some of the songs, and I really loved the songs, but I didn’t realise it was all the same person recording all of this music. So one day, when my boyfriend was playing a Bowie album, I said something like, Wow, this is amazing! Who is this? And of course, it was like, what rock have you been living under? This is David Bowie! You know, David Bowie?? Then I remembered The Man Who Fell to Earth, and I was like, ohh, it’s the guy from that film, but of course, before he was in the movie, he was David Bowie! So that was it. As I listened to all the different David Bowie works, that was it. I was like, I’ve gotta do music. David Bowie ruined my life! [laughs]
AG: I love that. So you heard David Bowie, and then you started a band?
DB: I fronted a band called Drill Queen, and we had a song called Born Depressed that became a kind of underground cult song. Ricky Gervais played us on his show, then this gaming guru, Jim Stirling, started playing us on his show, so all these gaming guys got into it, and a lot of people covered it. It’s as if there’s a whole different life of mine that goes with that.
AG: How’d you shift from the alternative/rock sound of Born Depressed into the punk-country music you’re making today?
DB: I’ve always been interested in so many types of music. My mother loved country music. I was never really into it. I hated country music. Then I got into the Americana scene. At the time, Kings of Leon were coming to London a lot – the audiences were great and the shows were great.
AG: And I know Tom Paley played a big role in your interest in Americana and protest music, right?
DB: Yes. I met Tom Paley, who was a prominent figure in the folk scene—a historical figure in folk-protest. I went to see him perform, and I think he was about 85 years old at the time. He played the banjo and acoustic guitar, and he was absolutely brilliant—a show stopper. It was in a little pub somewhere in North London. After his performance, I went up and introduced myself, told him I loved his set. Of course, people from that scene all knew who he was. Bob Dylan cited him as an influence! Anyhow, we talked for awhile, I gave him my number for the next time he was playing, and he called me. I went along to his gig, and that was it. We got on like a house on fire! For the entire summer, we hung out. I’d go to his house, we’d play music, and he’d tell me about his life. He had a house full of fiddles! There were hundreds of fiddles on the walls, all over the place, all these instruments. He was 85 years old, but he was very rock’n’roll. Even to this day, he was the only person I’d really go out of my way to visit and to see play. He was a very encouraging person, and he played on a couple of tracks for me. It got me more into that style of singing and what it was all about: Storytelling.
AG: Was your shift into the folk scene jarring at all, given your previous music and performance work?
DB: It was very different from what I’d been doing in the past. It was more like music for music’s sake, without the industry filter that you had to go through before you could get to the music. It wasn’t about appearance – it was purely about the music and the storytelling. It had nothing to do with how well you could sing, or how you looked. It was something like a church experience. And that appealed to me.
AG: The storytelling aspects of your work really come through, especially in your genre-resisting songs and video projects. How’d you get the idea to begin making those?
DB: I started experimenting with mixing genres, and I started mixing modern sounds with traditional sounds – mix-tapes and mash-ups. I mashed up a Kings of Leon song with a Shabba Ranks song. I learned from someone in the States that they were playing my mash-up in Nashville at afterparties.
AG: It’s incredible how songs and ideas can reverberate across time and geographic space.
DB: I’m finding over time that all of these different people from all of these different places actually have a lot in common. In the folk scene, there’s a lot that brings communities together.
AG: Speaking of your music getting played in the US, how do you see your work as fitting into this notion of Americana?
DB: It’s been called Americana, but it’s an entire folk umbrella that encapsulates people from all over the world, and people are telling similar stories that ultimately bring people together. That drew me in, and it led me to working within this genre and bringing other genres in.
AG: Storytelling seems like a way of connecting communities across seemingly disparate spaces while also demonstrating the responsibility we have toward one another. Is that how you see folk working?
DB: Folk is a root. Every place has its storytelling traditions, but the struggles are similar, the human experience is similar. And folk is the root that brings all those people together. So it’s an important place for me to anchor myself. Anybody can sing it and everyone has an experience to share.
AG: I want to shift gears just a bit to ask you about the whip you use on stage. When I first saw it, I immediately thought about an overwhelming urge to metaphorically whip the fascists (paging Woody Guthrie—this machine kills fascists). How’d you get the idea for this historically loaded weapon and aesthetic device?
DB: Sometimes I wake up and have a song in my head. First, I’ll think that I must have heard the song on the radio, but then I realise I didn’t. I’ll run to jot it down, and that’s how the idea for the whip came to me. I immediately went and ordered myself a whip. I thought, I’m going to learn how to use this thing! I was practicing in a very tiny space, breaking the light fixture, breaking things in the space. I’d practise all these techniques. Eventually, I plan to get a proper whip that will allow me to do a variety of things onstage—whip it around my waist like a belt, but just as easily whip it around my neck like a noose. But you need more space to practice these things.
AG: The image of the whip obviously has connections to racist violence in the US and across the globe, but it’s also more nuanced than that, yeah?
DB: The use of the whip is very layered, and the meanings of having it onstage. All that surrounds the image of the whip in American history, as well as the performance history of the whip. Performance troupes at rodeos used to use whips, for example, to show their skills.
AG: How does the “crack your whip” line you wrote speak to the layered histories of the object?
DB: That ‘crack your whip’ line, for me, is about reclaiming something, changing the narrative, and taking something back. There’s a lot of one-sidedness with the way histories are presented, and I want to show multiple sides of the story—the terrible things that have occurred, but also the resistance. Even if you’re being oppressed, you don’t need to feel oppressed. You can refuse to accept what is happening—you don’t have to cave under it. If you go down, you go down swinging! For me, the whip is POWER, and I’m wielding it now!
AG: The whip starts to function, then, as a tool for telling another side of the historical narrative that has been marginalized, erased?
DB: A lot of narratives are fed through one filter. We need more than one story.
AG: How does that aim – to reframe and to reclaim these histories – speak to your own understanding of identity and the genre of Americana?
DB: My mother was very determined to hold onto her identity despite the fact that she was living in the States. It’s so easy to become ‘Americanized,’ but we need to remember that there’s no single definition of being American. For me, it was a grounding. We shouldn’t be ashamed of who we are or where we come from. No society, no authority, should be able to make anybody feel ashamed about who they are. It’s part of your history. I’m into reclaiming in a big way.
AG: That notion of reclamation, and the power of performance to push back against violent histories, also seems at the heart of Decolonise Fest. Your set this year was amazing. Do you see that work as a kind of political activism?
DB: After Decolonise Fest, I got a lot of messages and requests from very young people from Ghana. I’m still getting them in my inbox. People listen to music, and it affects their choices and their ideas. So music isn’t outright marching in protest, but it’s a very powerful thing, and it makes change.
AG: Do you see yourself as an activist?
DB: I consider myself an activist, but you’ve gotta make your protest known in different ways. It’s not always a body out there marching, although that’s incredibly powerful, too. Certain times require different methods. There are so many other things that people can do, especially when being physically out there in protest is dangerous, there are other ways to take action. Those who oppose change can’t put out all the fires, so we need to do all of it, from every angle.
I. am. worried. I am worried about the future.
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor who lives in New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.