DeLila Black's Country-Punk Vision
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
In a little club in London, DeLila Black marches on stage in a dark, honky-tonk western shirt, slacks with an oversized belt-buckle, and dreadlocks. She brandishes a whip and flogs the floor as her two bandmates unleash a soulful, pop-punk, guitar-driven, garage-rockabilly musical assault. Then she sings and shouts:
“This ain’t no joke y’all. Your momma told you right!
You gotta cut those demons down
You better fight, fight, fight, fight
Smash their jaws, bust their lip, crack your whip
Show who’s boss, fuck those demons up
Fight ‘em! Fight ‘em!
Fight, fight, fight, Fight ‘em!”
Black wrote the country-cowpunk anthem while “frustrated with the (music) industry and life in general, (with) just being a woman and being Black and just realizing your vision,” she said. “There’s a catharsis when you get out the things in your head, and it feels damn good. Everyone should do it.”
Black’s look, sound and message speak to history, her own personal and artistic story, and these peculiar times, whether in west London’s gentrifying city blocks or the backroads of the American South where her roots run deep.
After years of tinkering with various styles of music, Black, who’s working on a new EP and more video singles, may have finally found her voice.
“I kind of went down this Americana route” in recent years, she said. “I’m not sure why I hated country music growing up. A lot of West Indian people—people from the Caribbean—listen to country music. … A lot of people don’t seem to know that.”
Black’s musical vision is global, incorporating folk and protest music, rustic twangs and deep soul, and a new angle on power and injustice. Her take is emerging even as she admires other Black “country” voices such as roots-and-blues queen Rhiannon Giddens and rising pop-country star Rissi Palmer, on whose new podcast series Black plans to appear and discuss the lack of diversity in the country tradition.
Black refers to her own style as part of the broad roots-music genre known as Americana “because when I’d say ‘country,’ people would look at me like I’d just fallen out of a tree,” she said.
“I do feel it’s country,” she added. “My mother listened to country music all the time, and her friends as well.”
‘It’s her music’
Born in Haiti, Black grew up mainly in the U.S. with many people from the islands, including lots of families from Trinidad. “They all listened to Johnny Cash and Tanya Tucker and watched Hee-Haw,” she said. “My mother loved Bobbie Gentry. We were always playing Bobbie Gentry in the house,” and Glen Campbell, too.
“It was the blues, and it would tell a story," she continued. “Everything goes back to the blues. People start singing because they’re miserable about something they can’t control,” she continued.
“It all comes from there (the Caribbean and Africa) anyway. Really, it’s their own story that they’re listening to,” Black said. “It’s still Black music. What evolved to what is Americana has its roots in African instruments and old blues songs and old folk songs.
“It’s her music,” she said of her mother’s love for country. “That’s why she was listening to it.”
Black's family migrated from Port au Prince to New York. Her mother was a gifted seamstress. Black played in the high school band, then ended up in Tallahassee, Florida, mainly to attend Florida State University.
“I made some friends and met some people, well, they’re kind of like extended family now, I’ve got friends in Tuskegee (Alabama),” a brother in Dayton Beach, Florida, and a sister in Atlanta, Black said.
“We were in New York and moved down to Florida, and… there was always music in the South,” she said. Her father had a huge record collection: “Spanish music, French music, mostly those—a lot of creole, Haitian music, and then there was Top 40, listening to the radio.
“There was always music,” she added. “The whole Haitian community was very musical and very social as well.”
She returned to New York City as a young adult to attend fashion school—she still makes her own stage costumes—and fell in love with what was happening in music.
“I had this boyfriend who was playing a lot of David Bowie—they were cassettes at the time,” Black said. After hearing a few of Bowie’s albums from different eras, she was stunned to learn they were all by the same artist.
“I was so just enthralled with all the different music and the styles and what he was saying. I think I was trying to do the same thing with fashion,” she said. “For me, it was about having something to say.”
After moving to England, Black would often the only female musician in bands or projects she’d join—not to mention the only Black person. “We’ve already got one sister,” she joked, mockingly of the message she heard over the years. “There’s only room for one Black one.”
She’s been in several musical projects, including a band called Drill Queen that had an underground hit known through video gaming.
Then about a year ago, she started playing gigs with guitarist Justin “Mr.” Buckley, who’s also the lead singer of a melodic-rock band, The Life and Death. The duo had good responses and landed more gigs.
Around that time, Black wrote “You’re So Common” and other songs that began to turn the white appropriation of country music on its ass.
“The things I’m thinking, I’m not the only one,” she said of the song. “Normally, I would change the words so that they would be a bit more polite maybe… more civil, without the swearing. (But) I said, ‘You know what? I’m just actually going to say what’s in my head. … There’s always some cunt trying to fuck you up.”
Black directs her own videos. The arresting one for “You’re So Common” was shot during the COVID-19 quarantine, with Buckley on guitar, and percussionist Desiree Sanderson, who goes by “Dez,” recording their performances individually on their mobile phones.
For the video, Black brought out the whip, of course. She admits feeling a bit of trepidation before she first introduced it on stage. “They’re going to hate it or they’ll be indifferent to it, or they’ll like it and I’ll just get off stage and have a drink,” she recalled thinking.
To her surprise, “the women were intrigued, and the men all sort of sat up at attention,” Black said. “I said, these guys are really into it—they want me to whip them! ... I got the whip in there because, yeah—whip the fuckers!”
Now, fans have begun to ask, “Will the whip be making an appearance?”
Making new music
After the English government lifted some COVID-19 restrictions, Black’s trio gathered in early for a video shoot and to rehearse songs from her forthcoming EP. Ian Caple, who trained at Abbey Road Studios and has worked with Tricky, Kate Bush, Simple Minds, Adam & The Ants and others, will produce the album, she said.
“We’re really excited, because it’ll be the first time we’ve all met up since the lockdown,” Black said just before the rehearsal. “We had a gig in April to open up for James Brown’s ex-wife,” Tomi Rae Brown and her band, on April 10, but it had to be cancelled.
“We’re going to do another video-single thing … that’s got a political message as well,” she said. “I’ve (also) written an acoustic song, more traditional with some sampled drum in it… another bluegrass number.”
Proceeds from Black’s singles go directly to her band and sound engineer, she said. She's just begun a group of Patreon followers. The demo of "You're So Common" is available and also will help fund the new EP.
All of her music is visual. “Cain’t Get None” is Black’s raw, punk-rock answer to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (once covered by Otis Redding) but with a video full of gothic imagery: the Confederate battle flag, happy white country two-steppers, a small Black boy playing the fiddle, bluegrass father Bill Monroe and folk-bluesman Leadbelly, and a white snake-handling Southern preacher and faith healer.
“I am tryin’ to get some comfort from you boy—but you’re so dumb,” Black sings blisteringly to all the patriarchy.
Black also has spent time in London’s folk-music clubs doing “floorspots,” traditional acoustic gigs that shaped the folk-music side of her writing and influences. “I like old-time (music), as well… sea songs” and some originals, she said.
She found her way to this scene through her late friend Tom Paley. Once a member of The New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger, Paley’s group was a key influence on Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. He played regularly with Woody Guthrie. Paley passed away in 2017 at the age of 85.
“I met Tom when I was coming out of a kind of depression,” Black said. “We’d hang out, he’d talk about his music, talk about his life… tell me stories about places that he’d played. He’d say well, I’m going to be playing at this club, just come on up. He was the only American.
“I was the black one,” she added, smiling. “It was just brilliant.”
Then she recorded with Paley. “I had a little digital, eight-track (recorder) I would take up to his house,” Black said. “He had all of these violins all along his back wall … more than a hundred.”
Black’s song “Stillness” begins as an old fiddle tune, led by Paley, and then a choir rises, drawing on sounds of Appalachia and Black gospel choirs. Black’s friend Sean Dillon added mandolin. (See video below.)
It’s a “tomorrow is a new day kind of song,” she said, adding that Paley’s son, Ben, will play the fiddle on a folk tune with a political message on Black’s new EP.
Famed producer Tony Visconti has become a fan of Black’s music and offered to take a photograph for one of her future projects. “Crikey, you can sing, girl!,” he told Black.
“If he likes (it), then I know I’m doing the right thing,” she said of Visconti, producer of some of David Bowie’s most influential albums, including Black Star, Bowie’s final album while living, for which Visconti won two Grammy Awards. Visconti also produced classics by T. Rex and The Moody Blues and more recently worked with Esperanza Spalding and the Foo Fighters.
Like Bowie, Black’s look and music is full of gender-bending statements and style. Despite a recent interview in the online magazine, Country Queer, Black says her sexuality doesn’t define her at all.
“I don’t feel that it’s important,” she said. “You could say anything.”
Black still works a day job and loves it, at her neighborhood community center in what she describes as the “wild, wild west” of London. The area, once was home to The Clash, is gentrifying. Her community center offers programs for the elderly and young, people learning to speak English, those experiencing domestic violence—and when COVID-19 struck a distribution service for fresh-cooked meals.
“Even if I don’t make tons and tons of money, I can still lead a decent life here,” Black said. “Back where I was (in New York), I would have to work two or three jobs … if I wanted to do music,” which she wants to do “in my heart.”
I interviewed Black as some of the memorial ceremonies for the late Congressman John Lewis (my own representative here in Atlanta) were broadcast live on television. His casket was carried by horse-and-wagon across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—where Lewis and other peaceful protesters were beaten by state police in 1965, about 250 miles northwest of Tallahassee, where Black once lived. Black’s music and the inventive work of other artists also could help rewrite history. For her part, Black describes her style in a number of ways: alt-Americana, country-noire, Afro-billy, electro-mountain, roots-rodeo-rock ‘n roll.
Whatever it is, it’s poignant and it rocks. With a whip in her hand, Black is reclaiming her mother’s music, with country at its core.
She laments that country only seems to make space for a handful of “other” voices. “It’s a shame because it robs the audience of some really interesting music and some really interesting people as well.”
Music “heals people, I think, and it grows people in the same direction. If you’ve got nothing else in common, you’ve got that in common,” Black said. “That’s a very powerful thing.”