♪♪ ♪♪ -Hello. I'm Audra McDonald, and welcome to 'In the Making,' a new series of documentary films on emerging cultural icons.
I remember my first time standing on a Broadway stage.
The lights felt too bright, the audience too far away, my stomach in knots.
But when the first note came out, the nerves faded away, and I felt the energy of not only those in the room, but those who had stood on the stage before me.
This series offers a behind-the-scenes look at tomorrow's masters in the making.
Like me, these artists have inherited rich cultural legacies and are now reimagining them on stage.
Two women redefining their craft are J'Nai Bridges and Rissi Palmer.
Country music sensation Rissi Palmer has performed on the Grand Ole Opry stage, but she has had to kick down a lot of doors to get there.
-♪ Like a natural one, I'm built to stay, hey ♪ -Through her resilience as a singer, songwriter, and mother, and by lifting up other country musicians of color, Palmer has charted her own path to success on the international stage.
On the opera stage, mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges had just achieved a major milestone, a debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut our stages down.
-[ Singing opera ] -But as the world also reckoned with the death of George Floyd, J'Nai Bridges reemerged as one of the most significant voices in opera, singing truth to power with a formidable new work.
Two women who are masters in the making, breaking barriers and opening doors for other artists not only here, in America, but around the world.
This is 'In the Making.'
♪♪ ♪♪ [ Line ringing ] ♪♪ -Hello.
-I'm ready. I'm about to go on in about six minutes, so I just wanted to call you and say I'm ready.
-Yeah, I've not worn this one.
-[ Laughs ] -Thank you!
I needed to hear it from my mama.
-Thank you. I actually have to go.
I gotta go. They're knocking.
-Thank you. Love you, too.
Say a prayer for me.
♪♪ -Good afternoon, everybody.
-[ Vocalizing ] -My pleasure to welcome you to this exciting event.
Those of you who may have been on another planet recently, J'Nai won a Grammy a week ago.
[ Cheers and applause ] And now it's my great pleasure to introduce J'Nai Bridges.
[ Applause ] [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -To a lover of the opera, there is nothing more glamorous or exciting than the opening of the Met.
The glitter of the upper strata of society as they dismount from their shiny black chariots, sometimes known as limousines, adds to the air of the electricity that surrounds a formal opening night of grand opera.
-[ Singing note ] It's really an exciting time in opera.
There are a lot of new works being done by new voices, especially that are not afraid to tackle difficult subjects.
And a lot of our stories have been silenced.
-♪ It's not the same ♪ -There are many Black opera singers and opera singers of color out there, and it's a matter of creating space.
♪♪ [ Water running ] [ Vocalizing ] Opera's incredible.
It's a culmination of every emotion being expressed and poured out [chuckles] through the unamplified voice.
For me, it's my best way of communication.
[ Water bubbling, Bridges vocalizing ] Mm. -It didn't -- It didn't quite get to the -- ♪ Mmm ♪ -- didn't get to the small spot.
[ Water bubbling, Bridges vocalizing ] Just go -- Just go back and forth, invert the... ♪ Oooh ♪ [ Water bubbling, Bridges vocalizing ] [ Singing in foreign language ] -You know what actually works? I think -- 'cause you seemed like you had lot of breath left, and it was the rapidity of the breath in the 16th... -Totally.
-[ Playing piano ] -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Singing a full opera, which can last anywhere from two hours, an hour and a half -- which is on the shorter side -- up to six hours, if you're singing Wagner, for instance, it is much like running a marathon.
-I'm sorry... -Yep.
That's why I brought that down here.
-[ Vocalizing ] -[ Vocalizing ] -Yeah!
-That's it. -[ Vocalizing ] The piano liked it, too, eh? [ Laughs ] -Yeah, I heard that.
I make ugly noises in the practice room, finding what works best with my instrument, with my body, my voice.
[ Singing in foreign language ] When you get out on the stage, the goal is for all of that work to come into play and the audience just never know.
[ Laughs ] Ah!
-But this was -- -I know.
-That's okay. -I tried.
-An oak barrel, the slats bursting... -Yeah. Ah!
-...because the water is so much, the slats -- you see the slats stretching... -Yes.
-[ Vocalizing ] -The human voice is very internal.
Sometimes that can actually be frustrating [chuckles] because you can't see what's going on in there.
It's all based on feeling.
-You wanna try it without a breath and just be like... -Let's try it. -...I'm going, I'm going, I'm going, right there?
And... -[ Singing in foreign language ] ♪♪ -One thing taking away the breath has the advantage of doing is it prevents you from overblowing.
-Your emotional state affects the voice.
What you put into your body affects the voice, your daily lifestyle.
So it's a very [chuckles] sensitive and demanding instrument.
Everything that I do revolves around these two little cords.
It's a very peculiar existence, [laughs] I would say.
People always ask me, 'What do you do after you wear a gown?'
And they're here. [ Laughs ] I actually wanted to sell some and give away a few, and I -- I still might.
Um, but my mom is so funny, and she's like, 'No, we have to save every gown for the archives one day when you have your museum.'
So my mom thinks big, [laughs] and I appreciate it.
So, yeah, these are, I mean, all of my gowns, and I can think of every performance where I wore them, and it brings back memories, and actually sometimes it's very emotional.
♪♪ Singing has always been integral in my life.
From a very young age, I can remember Motown in my ears.
[ Laughs ] My parents -- they are Motown lovers.
I'm from Lakewood, Washington, about 45 minutes south of Seattle.
Two parents, three siblings.
I fall somewhat in the middle.
I'm the third child, so I definitely kind of had middle-child syndrome. [ Laughs ] My mother is a great appreciator of music, but my dad -- I would say I get my musical genes from him.
He sings in the church choir actually to this day.
[ Choir singing ] I grew up in the AME denomination, African Methodist Episcopal, and hymns are a huge part of the service.
And hymns are actually very operatic.
So this classical sound was always in my ear from a very young age.
My first introduction to opera was actually through my late godfather, Dr. Edward Williams, and he used to play classical music all the time in his car.
And I didn't really know what it was that I was listening to, but I knew it was out of this world, unearthly.
-♪ Ave Maria ♪ -He took me to my first opera at Seattle Opera.
I was very young.
I sort of don't remember the details, but I remember feeling like I was in a different world.
And I remember just thinking about it, thinking about this feeling that felt really magical.
-[ Vocalizing ] ♪♪ -♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ I can remember wanting to sing 'Carmen' since I took my very first voice lesson.
[ Chuckles ] And it's now one of the staple roles in my repertoire.
[ Singing in French ] I couldn't have done this 10 years ago because it's a very vocally demanding role.
Also characteristically, it's quite demanding.
I didn't have enough life in me yet. [ Chuckles ] ♪ ♪ -♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ Now I'm at a point where I can sing 'Carmen' and it's like, yes!
I finally reached, you know, this point.
So it's exciting, evolving into this new dramatic repertoire and unlocking new places and new doors in my voice.
[ Singing in foreign language ] -This really historic production here -- It's so beautiful to behold this marriage of this staging and this music.
-I am channeling every queen with this role.
Nefertiti was a big icon in my household.
[ Singing in foreign language ] And so making my Met debut in this iconic role feels really just so right.
-Some people referred to you as the Beyoncé of opera, playing a legendary queen, but to be sure, there is no other J'Nai Bridges. I mean, you don't need a -- you don't need another title, as well.
-I'd just made my Metropolitan Opera debut.
I sang the role of Queen Nefertiti in Philip Glass' 'Akhnaten.'
I was in the middle of a run at Washington National Opera singing one of my favorite roles, Delilah in 'Samson & Delilah,' in a beautiful new production.
We were three shows in, and we had to cancel.
♪♪ 2020 was catastrophic [chuckles] on so many levels.
And it was just cancellation after cancellation.
Financially, it was a huge hit.
Every artist immediately felt it.
And then I just got really depressed because this thing was not ending.
And the murder of George Floyd... I just felt... Mm.
I felt hopeless, if I'm honest.
And I felt like, what am I doing?
Like, what -- I even questioned singing.
♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -Genius -- Genius draws no color line.
Ms. Marian Anderson.
-♪ My country 'tis of thee ♪ ♪ Sweet land of liberty ♪ -I think of the shoulders I stand upon... ...all of the African American opera singers that went through so much adversity and brought so many audiences joy and hope and audiences that didn't like them.
Yet they were able to break through those barriers and use their voice.
-[ Singing in French ] -Denyce Graves -- [exhales] Denyce Graves really exposed me to the idea that as a Black woman, being an opera singer is possible.
-♪ ♪ -It blew my mind. [ Chuckles ] -[ Sings in French ] -♪ ♪ -There are many that came before her.
I stand on their shoulders, as well.
Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Florence Quivar.
Simon Estes, Shirley Verrett, George Shirley.
I mean the list goes on and on.
I channel all of them.
So when I think of, you know, giving up -- it happens rarely, but it does happen [chuckles] -- I think of what they've gone through and what roads they've paved and mapped and what doors they've opened so that I can be here today doing what I love.
[ Plays note ] ♪ This is my commandment ♪ ♪ This is my commandment ♪ 'A Knee on the Neck' is a large choral work surrounding the life of George Floyd and others lost on account of police brutality.
The piece was written by Adolphus Hailstork... -They could form a more perfect union.
...with the libretto by Dr. Herbert Martin.
-It was the underpinning of that horror that I was watching being televised.
-♪ Moment, moment ♪ Hmm.
It's hard. There were times when I was learning the piece where I just had to, like, stop singing and cry.
-Should we do four measures? 95?
Two, three, and.. [ Vocalizing ] -♪ This ♪ ♪ This is my commandment ♪ ♪ This is my commandment ♪ ♪ Oh, they ♪ -Yeah, okay, good.
Yeah, so let's go back so we were a little bit more together.
♪ This ♪ ♪ This is ♪ -So yeah. Yeah, so get -- Yeah, get off of 'this' on three.
-Oh, yeah, sorry.
♪ This ♪ ♪ This is my comma-- ♪ -Yeah. My, two -- -♪ Command ♪ -♪ Commandment ♪ -Ay, yi. Okay. I -- -Well, let's just take a look at the beginning.
-Okay. That's why we rehearse.
-By the way, your voice is beautiful.
-Oh. Oh, thank you. -[ Laughs ] I mean, I've heard it on, you know, media and stuff, but -- -Wow. Thank you, Maestro.
I think I will stand.
-If you ever wanna do anything again, let me know.
-I feel like I messed up so many times, I got it now.
-Okay. So let's go, 'in the jail.'
-♪ In the jail I do not know what I will find ♪ ♪ This ♪ -Yeah, yeah, yeah, but -- but tempo slowly.
[ Both vocalizing ] -Oh, I'm rushing it. -Yeah, yeah, yeah.
-Okay. -Sixteenth notes very slow.
[ Both vocalizing ] Yeah, yeah. So for now let's plow ahead.
♪♪ ♪♪ -You can take, like, multiple multiples.
-Okay, there we go.
-Good. You're good.
-So you too. -[ Laughs ] -Oh, yeah, Russell!
-I love it.
[ Indistinct conversations ] -When did you know that your artistry was enough?
Like, I understand, you know, we have people that are coming and saying all of these different things, but when do you just like, 'Okay, this is what I'm gonna do'? And, yeah.
-I've always known where my strengths lie and where my weaknesses lie.
For instance, like, I always knew that singing long lines was one of my strengths.
Coloratura -- not necessarily.
I think you just have to really know yourself [chuckles], and that takes time.
But try things, you know. Don't be afraid to try things.
-Why opera specifically?
And, like, those moments where you feel like you don't want to do the art form anymore, what drives you to keep on going, doing this?
I just see the effect that it has on people.
And I really, um, enjoy that, and it makes me feel like I'm making a difference, you know, in somebody's life and in the world and breaking down, you know, stereotypes and all that.
I also just love the challenge of it.
And burnout is real. I've experienced it.
And I really actually didn't enjoy singing, but it was totally preventable.
I mean, a lot of things you just learn by doing and experiencing, but you deserve breaks. [ Chuckles ] You know?
I can confidently say that I have not had a quote/unquote 'normal life.' [ Laughs ] I mean, I watch my friends that I grew up with.
They're all married and they have children and they have a stability in their life that as an opera singer is -- is more rare.
With relationships, um... I'm single, ready to mingle.
[ Laughter ] Just sayin'. Right now, I don't have any children, and my career is my baby, you know?
So it's like, right now, it comes first.
And it's not always easy for people to accept that.
I'm essentially moving every few months to a new location and making a home wherever I am.
Opera singers are truly nomads.
♪♪ -You're gonna cook for us.
-Yeah, I'm gonna cook. -♪ It's a little treat ♪ -What is this little pouch of spices?
-It's a pouch of spices and it's my -- it's my travel pouch.
'Cause I was like, I can't keep buying spices.
They're so expensive. You buy it on the road, and then I have all these spices and I have to leave them.
-Mm-hmm. -So I'm figuring out my regimen and, like, what works.
But this is actually, like, really cool because I'm always cooking for myself and I'm alone, so it's nice to have family.
-Well, we love when you cook for us.
[ Laughter ] -That salmon looks good.
A little piece of home.
I need to read this about my sister.
-Oh, my gosh. What -- Guys.
-Don't make her cry. -And this is... Ooh, don't cry. So it says, 'In the midst of the worldwide pandemic, she emerged as a leading figure in classical music's shift toward conversations of inclusion and racial justice in the performing arts.'
-All of the panels that I've been, you know, a part of... -Yes.
-...concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion that's happening, it's always -- -What was the panel that you did?
-LA Opera? -Yes.
-Yeah. -That blew up.
-Did you see it? -Yes.
-It was necessary. -Aw!
-It was -- yeah, I sat and watched it.
It necessary. It was.
-It was, and it was kind of scary 'cause I had -- I was a little bit fearful, just, like, of being so transparent.
I was afraid of retribution, and you just never know.
-I wanted to begin today with a reiteration of LA Opera's statement in the wake of unnecessary violence.
As a community of believers in the healing powers of art, we acknowledge the longstanding pain and frustration felt by so many, especially those in our Black communities.
We stand with them in sorrow and solidarity, opposed to prejudice, violence, devastation, and inequality.
J'Nai Bridges, a supremely gifted artist and a leader in the operatic community, had the idea of hosting the discussion today about racial disparity and inequality in opera.
-I've had these thoughts. I'm singing all over the world, doing what I love, and my people are being murdered every day, lynched publicly.
I'll start off by just saying what this is.
I mean, I was asked to do a virtual recital by LA Opera and I -- as much as I wanted to accept that, I'm just not in a place right now to present in that way.
Speaking of our experiences as Black artists in the world comes with something different.
It comes with injustices.
And that's not easy for people to hear.
It's uncomfortable to hear about them, and it's uncomfortable to talk about, but it's time.
It is -- It is beyond time.
-There was something about the image of that white police officer with his knee on that Black man's neck in the middle of the street.
-You know, George Floyd -- it could be you, Morris.
It could be you, Larry. It could be you, Russell.
And it could be us women, as well.
[ Sighs ] As artists and as singers, we are required to bare our souls in front of people, in front of huge audiences, in front of intimate audiences.
That requires, um, a huge sense of vulnerability, and so how do you tune out the noise?
-It seems like we're always walking around apologizing for who we are.
It's like we have to be in an environment -- environment and try to make everybody comfortable.
-I've never been hired by a Black person.
I've never been directed by a Black person.
I've never had a Black CEO of a company.
I never had a Black president of the board.
I never had a Black conductor.
I never had a Black director.
I haven't even had Black stage managers.
-Wow. -None, not ever for 20 years.
-What have we learned, and why aren't our arts organizations ahead of the curve, leading this?
-I'm tired of having these conversations with you guys.
I'm tired of having them at all, but if we're gonna have them... -[ Laughs ] -...why not here?
Everybody can just... -Absolutely.
-...just hear us, see us.
Do what you want with this information.
I hope and pray that it moves you as much as that video did of that cop murdering that man.
And so I hope that this -- this talk definitely inspires people to make change.
The conversation was monumental.
It almost sparked a reckoning in the opera world and the classical music world at large, about how there are so many underlying issues.
I've done what I've always done, which is use my voice.
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ It's amazing to see you and be with you in person... -Hey, yeah. -...because we've been with each other... -Right, right.
-...for about two years, actually.
-Yeah, yeah, yeah. -Because of the 'Tulsa 1921.'
-Which you sang magnificently. -Thank you.
-Oh, it's a great premiere.
-Adolphus Hailstork -- he is a living legend.
He's a composer that has been composing for many years.
And he's finally being given his flowers that have been so long overdue.
I'm always asked this question, and I actually don't know the answer.
So does the music or the libretto come first?
-The -- Herb sent me the libretto.
-Okay. -And, uh, it was within a week.
I always tell everybody, at least one week passed and -- after the murder, and boom, there it was.
-Mm. Ooh. -And I said, 'Herb, do you want me to set this?' We were both -- Everybody was feeling fury who had ever seen the tape.
And I said, 'Do you want me to set this?'
And he said, 'Would you, please?'
-He's always been a champion of social justice, and I'm grateful to have worked on two of his pieces now in close collaboration.
I've learned so much from him.
This piece, 'A Knee on the Neck' -- it -- whew! -- it's emotional, you know?
-Well, it's got that big orchestra buildup.
-Yes. -And I said, 'It's gotta come.
You've gotta have a magnificent, mezzo come in on that,' because boom, after all this orchestra build up and trumpets and everything... -Yes.
-...suddenly the soloist comes in and says, 'This -- This is my commandment!'
Yes. And wow, you do that.
-I didn't know who the final performers would be, but I know I had a dream mezzo in mind, and she's sitting right here.
-[ Laughs ] Oh, my gosh. -It's true.
-Whatever you need, let me know.
You know, I'm really open to that.
I'm open to notes.
-Well, just the 'B' on buttons.
-Mm. Okay. Okay. Okay.
-If I were to pick out one thing from this morning, the 'B' on buttons.
-Yeah. Oh, wow.
See, I'm glad I asked. -Right!
Everything else was wonderful.
♪ Let goodwill be the buttons on your white shirt ♪ Okay. -Yeah.
Listen to that. Listen to that, world.
Listen to that. -Oh, gosh.
Thank you for trusting me.
-Trusting you? -With your music, yes.
-You don't know your stature yet, do you?
Or are you getting used to it?
-I'm getting used to it, really. -Okay, but -- -Yeah, it's hard for me -- -Don't let it go too much, too up here. -No.
-Don't go to your head. -Yeah, I have to -- -Stay as nice as you are.
I hope you will. -I will.
And I have a great foundation and family and village. -Good.
-If I were to get too big-headed they would say, 'Um, excuse me, girl.
What is -- What's going on? Come back down to Earth.'
-That's good. -Thank you so very much.
-Oh, the pleasure's mine. -Mm!
First of many, the first of many.
-I hope so.
-♪ Let goodwill be the buttons ♪ Ah! He wanted 'buttons.'
-10 minutes. Okay.
♪ Let -- Let -- Let goodwill be the button, button ♪ But-tens? But-tons.
♪ Goodwill be the buttons on your white shirt ♪ -♪ Let goodwill be the buttons on your white shirt ♪ [ Orchestra tuning ] [ Vocalizing ] ♪ This ♪ ♪ This my commandment ♪ ♪ Obey, you must obey ♪ Sorry.
♪ You ♪ ♪ I do not know what I will find ♪ -♪ When you go downtown, dress yourself in politeness ♪ ♪ Let goodwill be the buttons on your white shirt ♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ So I play the role of a narrator, a mother, warning my child, advising them how to behave and act if you are to be pulled over.
The subject matter is, of course, difficult.
And I open up the whole work with my voice as a warning to Black men.
Keep calm if you are to be pulled over.'
And then you have the choir who plays, like, the conscience of sometimes America as a whole, sometimes as the police.
So there are a lot of different voices that ultimately are always in the subconscious of Black people.
And I was just exhausted learning the work because it was just like, nobody should have to go through this.
-Eugene, we covered an awful lot of ground.
♪♪ -My name is J'Nai Bridges, and I will be playing three songs.
[ Singing operatically ] All artists go through phases where we doubt ourselves, we don't think we're good enough, we don't think the sound that we produce is beautiful enough.
So all of this stuff is baggage but real-life thoughts.
And I think by putting myself out there and having people support me and in my corner and help refine my gifts, it's really given me the confidence and the assurance that I have today.
[ Vocalizing ] It is my honor, pleasure, and joy to present to Denyce Graves the 2022 Opera News Award!
[ Cheers and applause ] [ Vocalizing ] And there are still roles that I am not quite ready for that are even bigger.
In, you know, 5 to 10 more years, even more repertoire will become available for me.
♪♪ [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ -...life and ministry of your daughter J'Nai.
-People want to see themselves and feel like their stories are being told.
♪♪ ♪ Here in the quiet ♪ There's a shift happening. -You got it.
-It's slow, but I'm hopeful.
♪♪ ♪♪ [ Orchestra playing dramatic music ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Music brightens and tempo increases ] ♪♪ ♪ This ♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪ Hope ♪ [ Up-tempo music playing in distance ] ♪♪ ♪♪ -In 2007, I became the first Black woman in 20 years to be on the Billboard country charts.
And to this day, I'm only one of five Black female solo artists to even chart.
So if that doesn't tell you everything that you need to know about the business, then I don't know what to say.
[ Cheers and applause ] -Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to stage Grammy-nominated artist Rissi Palmer.
[ Cheers and applause ] -♪ Hey, hey ♪ ♪ You don't have to be a Georgia peach ♪ ♪ From Savannah Beach to say ♪ ♪ From Arkansas to appreciate a Southern drawl ♪ ♪ Don't need no kin from West Virginia ♪ ♪ To have it in ya ♪ ♪ Show the world you're a country girl ♪ ♪ Ah, ah, ah, ah, oh, oh ♪ ♪ See, I'm the kind of girl that says it with a smile ♪ ♪ Oh, yeah ♪ ♪ That sweet as molasses... ♪ [ Singing softly to self ] After I put out my first independent album, I became an entrepreneur, and it's a family affair.
[ 'Country Girl' plays in background ] [ Indistinct conversations ] [ All cheering ] I am a situational writer... And a second verse.
...whether that's politics, like what's going on in the world, or, like, what's happening in the house.
And a chorus.
Life is what makes me want to write, 'cause it's so personal to me, and it started out very personal to me as journal entries and poems and that sort of thing.
So it's just kind of always stayed there.
♪ Phone rang at three in the morning ♪ ♪ Looked at the screen, it was you ♪ ♪ I was sleeping alone in the bed ♪ ♪ Wondering, what should I do? ♪ Okay, so this is done.
So then... ♪♪ This is the busiest year that I've had since the launch of my first album.
I have the radio show and other special Color Me Country events.
I am a correspondent for CMT.
-When you're not doing all this and playing with our house band, you are on the road yourself. Rissi on the road.
-I am, I am.
I just went on tour this year.
♪ Whoo-ooh-ooh, yeah ♪ And I'm a mom.
Hi, babies. How are you?
♪♪ ♪♪ How are you? -Hey!
Uh-oh. Guitars and everything. Hey.
-I feel like we should hug, as much as we've corresponded.
♪ More than you find, dear ♪ ♪ Is love, love on ya, darlin' ♪ ♪ Let me be the truth ♪ ♪ I'm gonna work for you ♪ ♪ Boy, let me love on you ♪ ♪ 'Cause that's what I'll do ♪ ♪ I'm here to be your escape, your getaway ♪ ♪ I'm here to love on you, you, you ♪ -It's phenomenal what Rissi has been able to accomplish as an independent artist.
She doesn't have to conform to corporate country.
She can really lean into her authentic voice, and not only in her singing but in her writing.
And I think that that resonates.
-♪ Boy, let me love on you, you, you ♪ So much of what we love about country music comes from people of color.
And that's just the truth. [ Guitar playing ] The first string bands in this country were enslaved people.
-Black folks have always made country music.
And to be clear, what we call country is really more accurately -- it's more of an East Coast, picking style of the blues.
[ Guitar continues ] ♪♪ Genre was always a construct of labels and radio to be able to divide and to market to different groups of people.
It was all American folk music, but they promoted this as hillbilly music.
Meanwhile, the music that Black people were making was called race records.
-The commercialization of music and this drawing of this color line where Black people do race records and then white people are over here doing this other thing -- hillbilly was always set aside as this thing specifically for white people.
And so country music, as we fast forward in time, it has grown out of that.
And the people that have been put in place generation after generation in these positions of power, whether they're at country radio stations, at the CMA, at the labels, at the publishers, they are upholding that system.
Black people that have succeeded in this industry succeeded in spite of that.
-♪ Ee, ee, ee, ah-ha ♪ We have very complex, sometimes scary, oftentimes very dark, but real history that we need to revise and that we need to be honest about.
And so I wanted to contribute to this music that I love so much and to this genre that, you know, I've dedicated so much of my life to.
I want to make sure that I'm helping and contributing and telling the truth.
So, hi. [ Laughs ] I have a show on Apple Music Country called 'Color Me Country Radio.' [ Cheers and applause ] And its named after this album that this next song comes from.
And Linda Martell is the patron saint of our show.
Linda Martell has kind of just been lost to history.
She was the first Black woman to ever play the Grand Ole Opry.
To this day, she is the highest-charting Black woman on the Billboard country charts.
She is kind of the beginning of the question, 'Why hasn't there been a huge Black female country superstar?'
This is 'Color Me Country Radio,' hosted by Rissi Palmer.
Once I started this show, I realized that what I had done was create a safe space that I didn't have in the beginning of my career.
I was 17 when I met my first managers, Dana Lyons and Leslie Leland, a.k.a. Us Girlz Entertainment.
You know, I think people saw me, this little 17-year-old girl, and they're like, 'Oh, pop star.'
That's what their wheelhouse was.
I remember we were in a hotel room in New York, and I had my little notebook, and they're like, 'What are you always writing in that notebook?'
And I was like, 'Just my songs.' And so they said, 'Well, why don't you sing a song for us?'
And so I sang this song.
It's called 'Please Don't Call Again.'
But I wrote it for Reba McEntire.
And they kept looking at each other while I was singing.
They're like... And Leslie was like, 'Rissi, why didn't you tell us that you like country and that you could sing country music?'
And they said, 'Rissi, that's your thing.
Like, we've been going about this wrong.
Like, this is your thing.'
And so that was the moment that sparked the change, the transition in our focus.
-Please welcome Rissi Palmer.
-♪ She laid down by the river ♪ ♪ And surrendered her tears ♪ ♪ Such a sweet little angel ♪ ♪ Little too wise for her years ♪ So after several years of trying to break into the Nashville industry, living between Atlanta and Nashville, we decided collectively to move to New York to see if there was a way in that way.
♪ She's got faith ♪ ♪ And it wraps itself around her ♪ ♪ She's got faith ♪ Nothing.
No interest at all.
And so I was like, 'Well, maybe you're not good enough.
Maybe you're not writing good enough songs.
Maybe you're not pretty enough.'
And so I was, like, stupid thin and working out all the time.
Like, I was really hard on myself, like, really, really not good to myself for most of my 20s.
Nothing came, for years.
I'm getting emotional. Um, I was like, [voice breaking] 'Well, clearly you're not a star.
So that's why... That's why nothing's happening for you.'
And I remember they used to say that.
Like, the girls would say it, and that would just -- it just killed me because, again, like, these are the people that are supposed to believe in you.
[ Sniffles ] So it was -- it was hard.
It was hard for a long time.
♪♪ The music industry thrives on hungry, naive artists, and I was one of those hungry, naive artists.
I jumped out of the frying pan with Us Girlz Entertainment, into the fire.
I get a phone call -- 'I know this guy.
He's based in Atlanta. He wants to meet you.'
Terry Johnson was the gentleman, and he had a record label called 1720 Entertainment.
So I remember meeting him and him asking me, 'What do you want?'
I was like, 'I want to make music that matters and be famous.'
And he was like, 'I think I can help you with that.'
And so I ended up signing the deal with 1720 and then eventually moved full-time to Nashville, and we worked on this record.
♪ You don't have to be a Georgia peach ♪ ♪ From Savannah Beach to say ♪ ♪ From Arkansas to appreciate a Southern drawl ♪ ♪ Don't need no kin from West Virginia ♪ ♪ To have it in ya ♪ ♪ Show the world you're a country girl ♪ -All right, champ, let's do it.
-Rissi is the first Black female to fight her way onto the country charts in almost 20 years.
Maybe it helps that she boxes to stay in shape.
-Please make welcome Rissi Palmer, everybody.
-From that opportunity, I got to play the Grand Ole Opry, which was huge.
And my family got to be there with me, which made it even more special.
I'm so excited to be here tonight.
I stood at the back of this theater almost five years ago, and I said, 'One day, I'm gonna play the Opry,' and I'm here tonight.
So, thank you. [ Cheers and applause ] Ooh.
Here we go.
♪ Ladies, if you understand ♪ ♪ Let me hear you all clap your hands ♪ ♪ If you hear me and you know you're bad ♪ ♪ Let me hear you all clap your hands ♪ ♪ Ladies, if you understand ♪ All these good things are happening.
And, like, in the background, I was signing documents and not understanding the ramifications of what I was signing.
I just trusted blindly and implicitly.
So, like, when I was presented with a loan application to sign, I was told that this was for -- 'Oh, it's for your record, and it's for your career.
It's for us to be able to continue to keep funding things.
And this is just a formality because we're gonna pay it back.
It's just that we had to do this in your name.'
I was signing my name to contracts that they had worked out through their attorneys, for me, that were more beneficial for them than they were for me.
-And then, um... -So they put you in things.
Oh, then they insult you, like, tell you that you're like Milli Vanilli or that you have a big forehead and the sun's shining off of it.
Yeah, so then you wait and then they set you up.
Then they make you stand there and look natural.
Artistically, I started being told what songs I would record, and I started to feel trapped, like I didn't have any control over my career or my business, and I decided I wanted to be released from the label.
But I was in so deep financially that there was, like... I'd have to sell so many records in order to pay all of that back that it was kind of impossible.
The only recourse that I had was to file bankruptcy.
And 1720 contested the bankruptcy.
And so we had to have a trial.
And I ended up winning the court case.
I got out of the deal.
I was granted a release.
I lost my masters.
I lost my website.
And so all this stuff that I had taken all these years to build... ...all these years of, like, all the no's and the rejection and all this stuff, it went away with the filing of paperwork.
It was like I hadn't existed.
♪♪ -It would've been easy for her to tuck her tail and run after her first experiences in Nashville.
It would've been really easy for her to abandon her aspirations of being a country music artist or being influential in this country space.
But instead, she used it as fuel for her fire.
-This next song that I want to do for y'all is a song that I wrote about the small town where my mother is from.
And Summerville is in the mountains, and it's just a really awesome place.
And my great-grandmother lived in a house that my grandmother was born in and my mother was born in.
Unfortunately, I've lost my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my mother since then.
But they're the reason why I'm standing here today.
And so I wanted to write this song and do this song for them.
♪♪ ♪ Running barefooted through the summertime ♪ ♪ White sheet drying on that old clothesline ♪ ♪ You'd say, 'Child, wash your feet ♪ ♪ Before you come inside to eat' ♪ ♪ I'd show up at the start of June ♪ ♪ August always came too soon ♪ ♪ As we'd pull away in our four-door ♪ ♪ You'd stand crying on your front porch ♪ ♪ Oh-ahh-oh-oh ♪ ♪ Highland Avenue ♪ ♪ Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh ♪ ♪ I left too soon ♪ I know. I hear you. I hear you.
[ Song continues indistinctly ] Hey, bud.
[ Laughs ] Hi.
I think the biggest thing that I've learned from motherhood and career is that there is no such thing as having it all.
And anybody that tells you that is a liar.
Something always suffers.
And so it's either, like, I'm super present with my girls, but, like, work is -- I'm not writing, I'm not really focused on the show, or vice versa.
Like, I'm on it and I'm just, like, sucking at this whole adulting and mothering and wifing thing.
You know, I have to try every day to take the pressure off of myself, that there is no such thing as perfect.
There is no perfect mom.
There is no perfect artist.
And I'm trying to give everything the respect and time and space that it needs so that I can give an honest assessment through song.
♪ Till I was your mother ♪ ♪ Your mother, oh ♪ My mother died of colon cancer when I was 7 years old and she was only 38.
So the idea is, I've been thinking a lot about my mom.
I just -- I wish knew her, like, as a human.
I wish I knew her, like, as a friend.
Like, I wish I could say, like, 'Were there things that you gave up to have me, and what were they?'
-I can't really 100% go for it because, like, to really go for it is to be gone all the time... -...and to be working all the time.
-I mean, I want to be -- I want to be their mom.
Like, I want to be here. I want to see the stuff.
Like, that's really important to me 'cause I didn't have that from my mother.
♪ I make mistakes and I hold in ♪ ♪ I'm growing into this ♪ ♪ Growing into this ♪ There it is.
♪ I was wealthy, running through the streets ♪ ♪ Sayin' I'd be forever 23 ♪ ♪ Something da-da-da-da-da ♪ [ Vocalizing ] ♪♪ ♪ Till I was your mother ♪ Oh, look at that -- a dimple.
Grace, this was the last trip we took as a family before my mom died.
We went to Disney World, and we were staying in a hotel and you see grandmother was very sick.
-Yeah. -Yeah. You can tell.
I didn't realize at the time. I was very -- -You didn't realize she was sick?
-No, I didn't know she -- Well... -So you never guessed... -I knew that she was sick.
Like, I knew in theory that she was sick, but, like, I was only 7.
So I didn't know, like, to the depths of how sick she was.
And, you know, we kept having to go back to the hotel and, 'cause she needed to go to sleep and rest.
And I just, you know -- I was like, 'Why can't we keep going?'
And I remember being really upset.
But I just -- I can't even imagine what that must have been like for her.
I can't even imagine.
I've thought a lot about how my mother's death at a young age affected me, and I think for a long time I was trying to use fame to fill the little hole, big hole, that my mom's death left.
♪ Up above the world so high ♪ ♪ Like a diamond ♪ I love you.
♪ In the sky ♪ [ Laughs ] It's really hard sometimes after you've been working three jobs in one day to sit down and try to write a song.
[ Indistinct music playing in background ] I would say like 80% of my writing process happens in my head.
Before it even ends up on paper, I've thought about it and thought about how to say it, thought about how to sing it.
♪ All you saints and sinners ♪ ♪ Step on ♪ ♪ Shine up your dancing shoes ♪ ♪ Then play something funky ♪ Don't like that. And I don't like that.
♪ But it'll sho' 'nuff make you move ♪ ♪ [Mumbles] playing something funky ♪ Don't like that.
♪ That'll sho' 'nuff make you move ♪ ♪ Oooh, people coming from everywhere ♪ ♪ Red, black, and white getting down tonight ♪ ♪ Down at the Sip-n-Sing ♪ ♪ Said, oh, yeah ♪ Every album is a statement.
And so I want to make sure that this is a complete statement before we go into the studio.
Two sparrows in a hurricane.
So it's easy to make that mistake.
I'm looking forward to getting on the other side of this album.
It's like a hungry child.
Like, it keeps asking for more and more things.
Um, we're doing two different things.
One, I'm gonna do vocals on a song called 'I'm Still Here.'
It's a duet, so I'm only singing the first verse.
And then just choruses after that and, like, some backgrounds.
So I guess if you give me a lead, and maybe give me three background vocal tracks.
-♪ Mmm-mm-mm-mm-mm, yeah ♪ ♪ Like a tree standing in a hurricane ♪ ♪ You can't knock me over with a little rain, no ♪ ♪ In the rolling thunder, you can hear my name, yeah ♪ ♪ Like a natural one, I'm built to stay, hey ♪ ♪ Built to stay, yeah ♪ ♪ I'll never fall on shaky ground ♪ ♪ Too strong and tall to cut me [voice cracks] down ♪ Aahh [bleep] Down.
♪ To cut me doooown ♪ That's how I'm gonna do it, I guess.
All right. Ah.
-[ Vocalizing ] -♪ Down, oooh ♪ -♪ Down ♪ ♪ I'm still ♪ So I think it's better than, instead of going up... -Go down. -...that you work down, yeah.
[ Both vocalizing ] ♪ I'm still here ♪ Like, something there. -♪ Ohh ♪ ♪ I'll never fall on shaky ground ♪ ♪ Too strong and tall to cut me doooown ♪ ♪ I'm still here ♪ -♪ Oooh, I'm still here ♪ Like, that's kind of the stuff I think you want to go for.
-♪ Ooh ♪ -Yeah.
-♪ I'm still here ♪ Yeah.
-Yeah, I think that's more of the stuff you're wanting to go for. -♪ I'm still here ♪ One more time.
Let's do it one more time.
-You ready? -Yeah.
-All right, here we go.
-♪ Never fall on shaky ground ♪ ♪ Too strong and tall to cut me doooown ♪ ♪ Oh ♪ [ Laughs ] No, no.
Let's just stop. We're gonna stop here.
-You wanna take a break? That's cool, that's cool.
[ Laughs ] -Ugh.
[ Sighs ] I'll be back. We're gonna schedule more time.
[ Walkie-talkie beeps ] [ Mid-tempo music plays ] ♪♪ ♪ Brothers and sisters ♪ ♪ Don't believe what you've been told ♪ ♪ They can bury your body ♪ ♪ But never touch your soul ♪ 'Seeds' was written in 2014, shortly after the district attorney in Ferguson, Missouri, decided not to press charges against Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.
You know, I went to school in St. Louis, and I had a lot of friends in Ferguson, so I remember seeing and hearing about this the day that it happened before it made national news.
And watching the uprisings and the protests and just people just sick and tired of being sick and tired, I wanted to say something.
I wanted to add something to the discourse, but I was having a really hard time trying to find something positive to say.
And so I found this quote, and was, 'They tried to cut us down.
They didn't know that we were seeds.'
And I thought that that was really powerful.
♪ When they bury our dreams ♪ ♪ We push 'em up through concrete ♪ ♪ We're growing where they can't see ♪ ♪ These roots run deep 'cause we are seeds ♪ ♪ When we rise up ♪ ♪ No weapon can stop us ♪ ♪ No wall can block us ♪ ♪ No hate can't stop love ♪ ♪ We are seeds ♪ When we put that video out, we pissed off a lot of people.
People were mad, like big mad.
'You... I-I-I can no longer support this.'
And, 'It's clear that you hate white people,' and, like, that kind of thing.
♪ We're growing where they can't see ♪ ♪ These roots run deep 'cause we are seeds ♪ But I kept it up because I wanted people to see, like, this is what your fellow Americans are saying about things that are actually happening.
Like, you're more mad about the video that I made than the fact that, like, there are children in cages or that young Black men are being shot in the streets.
Like, you're more mad about that.
-♪ Hey, I said we... ♪ -I saw her when she came back and did Opry for the first time in like 13 years, and she performed 'Seeds' at the Opry.
And I don't know if y'all been to the Opry, but [laughs] the audience at the Opry is not the 'Seeds' type of audience, okay?
Like, everybody's there in they jeans and they flannels and they're looking like, 'Yo, what is this chick talking about?'
-♪ I said the battle is now ♪ ♪ And we are the army ♪ ♪ I said the battle is now ♪ ♪ We are the army ♪ ♪ Said the battle is now ♪ ♪ We are the army ♪ ♪ Said the battle is now ♪ ♪ It's now, it's now, right now ♪ ♪ Hey, when they bury our dreams ♪ ♪ We push 'em up through concrete ♪ The biggest advantage of being an independent artist is that I don't have to answer to anybody for anything that I want to do.
I can just do it.
I think, like, the video for 'Seeds' is the biggest thing.
That's a video that I would've gotten the green light to do when I was signed.
♪ No hate can stop love ♪ ♪ We are seeds ♪ ♪ Hey, hey, said we are seeds ♪ I'm an artist advocate.
I care very deeply about how artists are able to maneuver within the world and within the music business.
I care very much about empowering them.
It's very exciting to see Mickey hosting the ACMs.
It's very exciting to see Jimmie winning Best New Artist on the CMAs.
It is. It's wonderful.
Next sentence -- who's on the boards of these things?
Who's making the decisions?
Who's directing the shows?
Who's doing -- Who's doing the choosing?
I think it's just, like, this generalized idea.
As an artist, it's frustrating.
And so I'm kind of at a place in my career, where I'm just trying to figure out, how do we get wins on the board?
[ Pots banging, instruments strumming ] -♪ Going 'round the country, going on a run ♪ ♪ Going 'round the country having us fun ♪ ♪ Going 'round the country, going 'round the world ♪ ♪ Going 'round it quick before you can see my girl ♪ -The Long Road festival is a four-year-old music festival in Leicestershire in the UK.
Pretty much anybody who's anyone in country music or in Americana music in the United States, as well as in the UK, has played this festival.
And they offered me the Front Porch Stage for an entire day to curate with artists and call it the Color Me Country Takeover Stage.
While coming up with the logistics and the flights and the hotels and transportation and all that stuff, we've been trying to raise money, because it was really important to me that all of these artists get to go over, free of charge, like, that they're being paid and they're not paying out of pocket to do this.
Miko, we're about to go to London!
-Aside from money, the other really big challenge was trying to decide who we were gonna take.
And so I was like, 'All right, well, if this is gonna be the first Color Me Country Stage and the first year of the show was dedicated to highlighting women of color, then why not make that the lineup?'
I've enlisted my band as the house band for this.
Brandon Williams, bless his heart, is taking up the mantle of music director for this whole thing.
-[ Playing piano ] ♪ Like a tree standing in a hurricane ♪ ♪ You can't knock me over with a little rain, no ♪ ♪ In the rolling thunder, you can hear my name ♪ ♪ Like a natural wonder, I'm built to stay ♪ ♪ I'll never fall on shaky ground ♪ ♪ Too strong and tall to cut me down ♪ I'm trying to lead by example, 'cause otherwise I don't see it.
I don't know how anybody else is gonna get through.
And so that's how I've decided to conduct this part of my career.
Like, whoever I can bring, all y'all get in the car.
Like, we're going.
I want to welcome you all to London.
[ Cheers and applause ] We're gonna eat fish and chips.
We're gonna do British things.
Be real proper-like. -Yes!
-Not use the F-word.
[ All 'aw' ] But tomorrow -- tomorrow is where we get up, we put on our fancy clothes.
Some of us will put on SPANX.
[ Cheering ] And by 'some of us,' I mean me.
And then we will go and we will change the face of country music.
[ Cheers and applause ] -Wow!
-♪ Na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na ♪ ♪ Na-na-na-na-na ♪ ♪ One more time, I said ♪ ♪ Na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na ♪ ♪ Na-na-na-na-na ♪ Long Road, how you doing?
[ Cheers and applause ] Thank you.
So, my name is Rissi Palmer, and what you are about to see for the next six artists is the Color Me Country Radio Takeover Stage.
And I created this show to give platform to artists of color in the genres of Americana, roots, and country music.
I'm so excited for you to hear everybody today.
And so the very first artist that you are going to be hearing is Miss Charly Lowry.
-♪ Ooh, ooh, ooh ♪ ♪ Hey, yeah-ah-ahhhh ♪ ♪ Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh ♪ ♪ Hey, yeah-ah-ahhh ♪ [ Cheers and applause ] -I like to be around people that build tables, 'cause I believe that that's what's necessary.
Like, we got enough established tables with not enough seats.
And I would rather be at my own table with all the people that I've assembled that I love and trust and respect rather than have the one seat at a table that I'm not sure that I can trust or respect anybody that's sitting next to me.
The first part of this would not have been possible in the first incarnation of my career.
Not only did I want to be the only, I wanted to be the top one.
And little things that happened along the way made it clear to me that, like, that's not sustainable and it's not healthy. -Exactly.
So it's actually like, no, we're building each other up.
-Yeah. -So I really appreciate seeing that and seeing how real it is.
-Yeah. -And I think it's exceptional 'cause it's a group of women, as well, and finding, you know, expressing the strength and beauty in that.
-You know, it's -- it's bigger than one of us.
And that's the thing.
If we can take that on a universal level and say, 'It's bigger than me,' then we got something.
A man couldn't keep us down. It's just not possible.
-♪ It's the way I think, not how I talk ♪ I've just learned that you have to think globally.
You have to think, 'How can I help all of these people?'
♪ Come Sunday morning, palms up in praise ♪ So I want to do something real special, and I'm gonna call up my sister-friend who you guys just got to enjoy right before me, Miss Miko Marks. [ Cheers and applause ] And we are going to world-premiere our brand-new song.
Okay, here's the secret.
So, next year, me and this chick, we're going on tour together.
[ Cheers and applause ] And so anytime you see Rissi Palmer on a stage, Miko Marks is gonna be right there with her, because that is my girl.
And that is what I'm trying to teach all these artists coming up after us.
You have to be wave makers, open up a door.
When you open up a door, leave it open so the people can come in behind you.
[ Cheers and applause ] ♪ 'Cause I'm still here ♪ ♪ Even through the mud and tears ♪ ♪ Tried to make me disappear ♪ ♪ Counting me out for all these years ♪ ♪ But whom shall I fear? ♪ ♪ I'm still here ♪ I tend to try to make my art into something that I can be proud of, something that my girls can be proud of, because I know that none of this is promised.
Like, when I'm not in the room, I want something that remains that matters.
Come on, girl.
♪♪ -♪ Mm ♪ ♪ God forgive me, couldn't see my strength ♪ Come on!
♪ Didn't know the power I was working with ♪ ♪ Oh-oh-oh-oh, no ♪ ♪ Walked through hell to reclaim my crown ♪ ♪ They ain't made nothing that can burn me down ♪ -♪ 'Cause I'm still here ♪ -♪ Even through the mud and tears ♪ ♪ Tried to make me disappear ♪ ♪ Counted me out after all these years ♪ ♪ Whom shall I fear? ♪ -♪ I'm still here ♪ -♪ Rooted in the truth I speak ♪ ♪ Like the spirits that carry me ♪ ♪ Burst out the struggle sharp as a spear ♪ ♪ Whom shall I fear? ♪ ♪ I'm still here ♪ -♪ Walked through the fire ♪ -♪ Mm ♪ -♪ To reclaim my crown ♪ -♪ Oh-oh ♪ ♪ No, they ain't made nothing ♪ -♪ No, they ain't made nothing ♪ -♪ That can burn me dooown ♪ -♪ Ooh-ooh-ooh ♪ -♪ I'm still here ♪ [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ -Miss Miko Marks!
♪♪ ♪♪ -♪ Give me that crown, give me that crown ♪ ♪ I'm still here ♪ ♪ Oh-oh-oh-oh ♪ ♪ Oh-oh-oh-oh ♪ -♪ Ooh, give me my crown ♪ -♪ I'm still here ♪ [ Cheers and applause ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Miko Marks.
♪♪ Okay, we got two more songs.
Y'all ready to dance? Here we go!
-I hope you enjoyed our two films on emerging masters J'Nai Bridges and Rissi Palmer.
If you're interested in watching more stories like these, you can find new episodes from our 'In the Making' digital series now at pbs.org/americanmasters and on the PBS app.
Each short film shares the story of creators on their journeys to becoming masters of their artistic disciplines.
-Stay tuned for a sneak peak of short films about visual artist Sydney G. James and actor Lily Gladstone from our new season of 'In the Making.'
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Crowd cheering, music thumping ] I draw my inspiration from current events, the status of the Black woman in society, in the world.
That's really what I focus most of my work on.
Right now, my favorite is mural painting because you have a bigger audience, an unintentional audience.
The one that stands out the most is literally the largest 'cause it's 8,000 square feet.
[ Laughs ] Like, how can you miss it?
It's a tribute to Detroit, it's a tribute to that area, which is the North End.
A Detroit, you know, dream, if you will.
♪♪ Hey, Ma.
The neighborhood I grew up in is Conant Gardens.
It's the first neighborhood where Black people were allowed to build and own their own homes.
Pistons starter coat.
Detroit is such a special place to grow up in because it's the epitome of Blackness and all that it encompasses, and Black love, specifically.
Like, the painting I'm painting right now, right?
It's my mom. She's one of 12.
Same parents, from the South, from Shorter, Alabama.
They grew up in a two-bedroom, and they would house people that were coming up here from the South.
That's really, 'I'm coming up here to make it, and I'm gonna help you make it, too.'
-Now, that's my oldest sister, Thomasine, but we called her Jean.
She was the one had the burden of taking care of the rest of us.
So it was really a shattering moment when she passed away, for all of us.
And I probably think that happens in every family when the first person that's close to you pass away.
You don't know what you're supposed to do.
-What I see in my mom when I look at the image is happiness in a real way, in a carefree... It's crazy because I don't know if I've ever experienced her this way, 'cause I feel like that probably changes once you have children and, of course, once you start dealing with constant grief.
I'm about to paint a mural of a dear friend of mine, Waajeed.
He recently signed a record deal, and part of the promotion is they want a mural painted of him.
And he reached out to me, and I was honored to accept.
[ Fire engine beeping ] -Our deadline is on the 18th.
-For real? -It is.
So what's -- what's gonna happen is, like, we took pictures for Sydney to do what she does, and then we take pictures of the mural, and that'll be the album cover.
So many cameras, no pressure.
-You got this.
-Yep, we got it, brotha.
-You can do the high spots, I'll do the low spots.
-[ Laughs ] -Put her up on the ladder.
-Oh, I don't work on ladders, baby.
-You just have to know how to do it, that's all.
It's all about technique.
-Oh, no. I-I operate lifts and buckets.
That's what I'm talking about. I'm not working on the ladder.
-What's the -- What's the biggest job you've done?
How high up have you had to go?
[ Bus honks ] -Hey, Syd, does that happen to you often?
Like, you've kind of got to be in a position where you got to provide a [bleep] résumé for people and [bleep]? -Literally every single -- -Why do you think that is, though?
-I'm a woman.
I'm 5'4' with freckles.
You know what I'm saying?
Like, you would be surprised.
They even ask me, like, 'Oh! Are you just -- Is this your work, or are you just -- are you just coloring it?
Did somebody else do this?'
Like, it's never me, 'cause how could it be?
-Right. -It's ridiculous.
-But I can't imagine what it's like from your point of view, but I know I've seen it.
-But it's all good.
Waajeed, I can see you!
-It ain't all good, though. It sucks.
-It does suck, but this is why we create space.
This is why you're making a school.
This is why I co-founded BLKOUT Walls.
I never created in a space like a mural festival where there was another Black woman creating a mural, I created my own mural festival, until I took on mentees and I started giving them walls.
The inaugural BLKOUT Walls mural festival came to Detroit because we all agreed that Black love resides here, Black creativity resides here.
It belonged here first.
It was conceived by myself, Thomas 'Detour' Evans out of Denver, and Max Sansing out of Chicago, basically because of our shared experience participating in mural festivals.
And there was always a lack of representation.
When kids come by with their parents and they see us creating, it's really inspirational to them because they can see there's a future in being a creator.
For many, many decades, we've seen dilapidation.
We've seen the wear and tear of the buildings.
We've seen them being unoccupied, unattended, and ignored.
So when the BLKOUT mural festivals came, it was like a type of surgery because these buildings were being mended back together.
There are people here that have been here for 100 years, and we're not going anywhere.
-I hope that this mural and Sydney's work, you know, can bring inspiration, you know, to the space.
It's her spirit that really has put her where she is and where she's gonna land.
I even notice that spirit in her mom and in her aunt.
It's the energy that... -Coming down.
-...that just represents those who have been counted out and forgotten about.
♪♪ -This is my Aunt Kathryn.
Kathy is what we call -- or Kat.
She's an artist.
But, yeah, this is just my go-to person.
She's my aunt, but she's also my person.
And I'll take off my mask-- -So you're gonna paint me as an angry Black woman?
-Yes. -Okay, that's very good.
[ Laughs ] I'm probably still an angry Black woman.
-Aren't we all? How could we not be, honestly?
-True. True, true, true.
-What made you the angry Black woman?
-Probably being a well-educated Black woman who couldn't find a job. -Yeah.
-And advertising agencies at that point... -Weren't really hiring us. -...at least around here -- Yeah, they weren't. -Nah.
-They weren't. You were the one, like, who made my mom, and my parents, period, comfortable with me pursuing art.
Like, think about it. You know it.
Like, even when that teacher said to my mom in kindergarten, like, you know, 'Your daughter has abilities.
When she gets of age, you need to get her some extra, some art class, some real art classes.'
She didn't know what that meant.
You guided her through that process.
In a lot of my most recent work, I focus on women.
[ People shouting indistinctly ] This video in particular is what changed the trajectory of my work.
-Call my mama! Call my mama! Oh, God!
-Hey! -On your face!
-Even Malcolm X himself said that the Black woman is the most oppressed person in this country, and the last few years have proven nothing else but.
Black women are treated as the doormats to the doormats.
Like, we are the last on the list.
I painted myself as a doormat, naked on the floor, and I laid it at the gallery entrance for a couple shows and I saw in real time how people interacted with the piece.
And I didn't like it.
-I felt like a first responder.
Like, I wanted to be like, 'Don't step on that!'
Like I needed to, like -- I felt like I needed to do this for the whole show, just stand here like this.
But when I saw footprints on it, I wanted to cry.
-It's interesting. It still doesn't feel good.
[ Laughs ] All of the marks came from... people's shoes, dirt on shoes, people just dancing on it, literally.
Oh, it's beer stains on it.
-When we talked about, like, how this was gonna go and what the concept was, I was like, 'Oh.'
-Yeah. -That's [bleep] brilliant.
We honestly carry that every day.
-We do. -We carry it and, like, we prepare for -- we know as Black women... -We do. -...that's what happens, and we can talk about it in different circles, about how the world steps on us or this or that... -How we move out of people's way.
It didn't feel good 'cause it's my work.
You're walking on my work, but you're also walking on me literally.
So I flipped it, and I made the decision that day I was going to paint nothing but Black women, as large and grand as I could.
♪♪ ♪♪ -Being a part of this project is more than just my face on the building.
You know, this is my neighborhood.
My family's been here for three generations.
My children are the fourth.
When I look at this mural, I see community.
-What the disruption?
-Putting a Black woman in those spaces where most people don't acknowledge her existence.
-Like, our existence as Black female creators is activism.
And that's kind of crazy to me.
♪♪ ♪♪ [ Drumming and singing ] After George Floyd's murder, a Facebook friend of mine posted an old article about Malice Green, who had been beaten to death by cops back in 1992.
We actually got a conviction.
[ Crowd chanting and shouting ] Detroit artist Benny White Jr.
painted a mural of Malice at the scene of the crime.
The article made note that the mural had been destroyed against community's wishes.
And I thought to myself, 'Oh [bleep] I need to paint another Malice Green wall.'
But at the time I wasn't painting men.
And I also don't do memorial walls, because essentially a lot of people think that that's all the public art that Black people do.
In my mind, like, I had to make it bigger -- bigger than Malice, bigger than George.
It had to be bigger.
And my idea was for the names of the victims of police brutality, from the time I was born, 1979, all the way to 2020, would go on the wall.
It was -We all fell into a puddle of tears.
-Everybody said, 'I'm tough.
I wasn't gonna let y'all see me cry.'
[ Laughter ] -They helped you on that one?
-Not -- Not even helped.
Like, they took the burden.
-Because there is no database. It doesn't exist.
-It's very hard. -Yes.
So they, along with Halima Cassells, Sabrina Nelson, they all researched and found these names of these murder victims.
Many of the victims were under age 18.
They were children.
If the victim was trans or part of the LGBTQ community, period, nobody was even looking for 'em.
Over 1,000 names graced the walls.
So, yes, I introduced men back into my work because now I'm focusing on the bigger picture, and that's creating a safe space for us.
So process is ever evolving, it's ever changing.
Today it's about family.
Family is not only your relatives, but it's community.
It's a feeling of safety and nurturing.
-What I can tell you about these 11 people -- these were my first loves.
These are the standard bearers.
-When I think of this family, they look like guardians, right?
-It is not the -- the pose of aristocracy that we know.
-Look at Kat. [ Laughs ] -That's not what -- -She got that 'whaddup doe' stance!
-That's Detroit! -That's a 'whaddup doe' stance!
But for us, like, these our postures.
That is the way auntie who is, like, holding it all down.
Don't try it.
I like that this is showing Blackness in its elegance, in its aristocracy, right? -In its fullness.
-But in its own voice.
And that's why I paint loud and large, even if I'm painting small.
I want you to see me.
♪♪ [ Women vocalizing ] ♪♪ -For me, something that is the foundation of all the acting work I do is Alexander -- and that's the technique that you see pop up in a lot of therapy.
A lot of physical rehabilitation, music training.
And it's very much about your physical form.
Finding a way to be balanced, to be centered.
And it also lends itself well to creating a home base for your psyche within your own body.
Coming back to a neutral stance, coming back to a aligned, grounded, calm place.
Your brain knows you're acting.
Your brain knows it's not real.
Your body doesn't.
It brings you home.
Because sometimes when you're playing these characters, you can get pretty far out there.
♪♪ My name's Lily Gladstone.
[ Laughter ] I think.
Most of the time, my name's Lily Gladstone.
I am from Browning, East Glacier, Montana, from the Blackfeet Reservation.
And I'm a professional actress.
♪♪ -♪ Ooh-ooh ♪ ♪ Ooh-ooh ♪ -And now we're on my rez!
[ Horn honking ] -[ Laughs ] -Oh, look at the clouds!
Ohh! Look at Chief Mountain right now!
Ohh! I'm home!
I always kind of grew up with the certainty that this is what I would be doing with my life, because my dad always spoke of it as a certainty.
It's like -- this is what I was good at, this is what I love to do.
He just said it with such certainty, and I was young enough to just believe him.
-Oh. Your nose is split, too.
Other than that, you don't look half bad.
-I feel like it's -- it's the kind of thing that you meet halfway because I love it and I always kind of direct my life toward it.
But it also has to love you. It also has to choose you.
It also has to keep demanding that you show up for it, because there have been several times where I've thought of walking away from acting altogether.
'Cause it's not easy.
It's -- You're at the whims of what the work is.
I mean, I expected if I was gonna do this as a career, if I wanted to pursue acting, I would be spending most of my time cashiering or waiting tables or something like that.
And, really, it was only the first handful of years that I supplemented cashiering, but most of my income since I've been a professional has been from acting.
So it's wild. [ Laughs ] Acting is something that you really surrender a lot of your life to if you love it and want to do it.
And there have been periods of time where I haven't always been comfortable with that, but just the motion of how those things are, every time I feel like it doesn't want me anymore and I'm ready to walk away from it, then the big job calls.
That's been pretty consistent.
-Riley! -[ Gasps ] [ Breathing heavily ] Holy [bleep] -I'm good at rising to occasion.
I'm good at stepping into form.
I'm good at collaborating.
I'm good at meeting the process halfway, which is part of what working with other creatives is about.
And then that was also reinforced by people from our community.
So that's one of the big reasons I ran back to Montana.
It's just the only place that I felt encouraged to act.
♪♪ [ Indistinct conversations ] ♪♪ [ Group chanting ] ♪♪ [ Singing in native language ] ♪♪ Spread out. Just make sure you're not touching who you're next.
You can step a little bit towards me.
Is it 'AJ'? -Yeah.
Alright. Good morning, everybody.
My name is Lily Gladstone. I'm a professional actress.
I grew up in Browning and East Glacier and then moved to Seattle when I was in middle school.
Then I came back to Missoula, Montana, went to college there, studied theater, and left Missoula about five years ago.
And I've just been bouncing all over the country doing different projects since then.
So, yeah, first thing in the morning, I'm still kind of stiff and tired.
And one of the most important things about being an actor is being in touch with what your body's doing.
So you kind of start your day accepting what you've got.
But, um, the way that I work and the way that I was taught to work in school... I think the arts, in general, can be a fairly solitary individual experience.
For me, one of the things that's keeping it -- keeping me in it now is just the continual positive reinforcement from my community -- you know, Blackfeet community, Indian country at large, especially kids.
[ Speaking indistinctly ] A way that I sustained a love of acting when it was slow for me was helping teach it and encourage it out of others.
Not everybody who studies acting or takes an acting class ends up becoming an actor, but it does teach you how to stand stronger on your own two feet, how to speak more clearly, how to articulate yourself and your presence more.
It gives you a sense of autonomy of your own story.
-[ Knock ] -Who's that?
Are we -- I forgot. [ Laughter ] -We don't drink anymore. Remember?
-That's right. I forgot. Get me a Coke then.
-That was like 200% better.
Both of you are doing a really good job trying to be respectful of each other's lines and get it correctly.
I care less about the fact that you're driving backwards.
You know, that's incidental.
I just care about what this friendship is.
And you found that really easily.
That was really nice toward the end.
On this next pass-through, find some more moments that are maybe not in the script like, uh... Indian youth more than anybody need to feel that sense of, 'I have something to say. My voice matters.'
♪♪ Modern, colonized society doesn't want us to -- to be empowered, doesn't want us to stand firmly on our own two feet, especially in communities like Browning.
♪♪ Stories are so central to our culture and our understanding of the world.
♪♪ I find myself constantly confronting the perception that I'm not really an actor, which, in a way, is a compliment.
[ Laughter ] ♪♪ [ Laughter ] -I was born for this.
-Because I think a lot of times if you're not somebody who's a filmmaker, if you're not a director, if you're not somebody who's used to working with the craft and you see somebody just doing the thing, it looks easy.
You know, I think 'Certain Women' -- a lot of people had the perception I was just a Montana ranch hand that happened to be natural on film.
But that was very, very concentrated character work that I did every day for two months leading up to walking on set.
That was a character I stepped in and out of that had a very strong physical map that was not mine.
It's really hard doing nonverbal acting.
When you're on cameras, you always have to be very, very present.
You know, when you're watching it as the audience, you're seeing the frame, you're seeing what's happening in it.
Where I'm sitting, I'm seeing Brooke, I'm seeing camera.
I'm seeing sound. I'm seeing this light.
I'm hearing the clock ticking.
There's a bunch of stuff in my view that I have to just space out.
♪♪ Acting is something where I've sacrificed a good period of my life, sacrificed any semblance of security.
And that's the breaking point.
I mean, it's almost broken me several times, but you have to be a little bit tortured and haunted by it.
Gotta look good for that.
I was expressing a little bit of anxiety about this rising star that somehow I'm stuck to, that I'm latched to -- like it's got its own trajectory and I'm kind of along for the ride.
Um, there's a sense of losing some autonomy in that.
There's a sense of getting lost in it, and I already went through it a little bit.
[ Photographers shouting ] -Lily, straight ahead!
Nope. Right here. There it is.
-Okay, Lily. That smile right here, Lily.
-So, we interviewed you last year for 'Certain Women.'
-Yes. -You're back. We're excited.
-I am super excited to be back at Sundance.
Just lucky. It's Sundance, Toronto.
Sundance, again. It's the best film festival.
This is really exciting.
Like, 'Certain Women' is -- It's such a beautiful film, and it hits filmmakers.
It hit people who love film.
It hit people who watch film the same way that I watch film.
So there was -- there was buzz around it.
There were nominations.
There was the promise of -- or the possibility of some big nominations beyond the critic circles.
There was a lot of flashing cameras.
There were a lot of red carpets.
There were a lot of things I was not used to.
And it was ungrounding. It was kind of scary.
So, just inherently, you know that the audience has a perception of you and your work that is theirs.
It's not yours.
It's really none of your business how the audience takes your work.
So I always find it really intriguing, even though it's frustrating in some ways, especially when you're being thrown into the industry and you become a marketable product for somebody, you know?
Your awards, recognition, any nominations, your reviews -- all of that makes you part of the marketing package.
Really, 'Killers of the Flower Moon' coming out I know is going to be my introduction to a lot of people.
'Cause not everybody watches independent film.
I had auditioned for 'Killers of the Flower Moon.'
Ellen Lewis, Martin Scorsese's casting director, had gone through the process, had really good feedback.
I heard rumors about the project.
And then it had been long enough that I was just like, 'Oh, it didn't go my way. I'll let it go.'
Kind of one of those moments where I'd more decidedly started trying to walk away from even the arts altogether.
It pulled me back in.
On Mollie Burkhart's birthday, even though they didn't know that, I was offered the role.
[ Children laughing ] Teachers, we have a runner.
I repeat. Teachers, we have a runner.
-Rarely do I find a Native character that's allowed to just be on screen as a human being... ♪♪ ...with wants, with fears, with nuance, with complexity, without them saying something about basically a Western perspective on colonization.
♪♪ I feel like a lot of what I strive for in my work is about having a strong sense of self as an individual is a good starting point.
But it is the starting point. It's not the end point.
♪♪ ♪♪ [ Buzzes lips ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪