KYSHONA WANTS US ALL TO 'LISTEN'
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
As Nashville singer-songwriter Kyshona Armstrong begins touring again, she won’t quite be the same dynamic singer as before. She won’t be the same songwriter, either.
After the past 18 months of pandemic and protests, she’s often not writing the same types of songs as she did before. And she doesn’t want her audiences to be the same. She wants them to look more like her.
The South Carolina native (who uses only her first name as a performer) wants to reach “communities (that) aren’t aware that people like me are showing up to sing songs about them and for them.” The practice will “hopefully change the face of who the audiences are,” she said.
She wants people of color to know: “There is a message for you in these walls and on this stage.”
And for white audiences and club owners, “I’m hoping it will kind of open people’s eyes as to who they live with and who (they’re around).”
Her newest albums—Live from the Sanctuary, released in March—and the preceding studio album, Listen, released in February 2020 as the pandemic began and named best protest album of 2020 by Nashville Scene, also are a bit unlike her earlier albums.
“Listen almost feels like a new beginning,” Kyshona said, noting that so much has happened since the album’s release. “I see it differently now that I’m witnessing society this way.”
Kyshona produced Listen in Nashville with Andrija Tokic, a producer and engineer who’s worked with Alabama Shakes, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Margo Price and others.
For the new acoustic record, Kyshona and her band masked up and ventured into a formerly sacred space in Nashville to record live versions of some of Listen’s songs and a few others.
Both records are filled with beautifully performed, memorable songs that would work on the radio but also make passionate demands for justice.
Other artists are becoming more prone to call on Kyshona to sing on songs with social messages. “How I’m walking through the world has also guided people on what people are calling me for,” she said. “It also guides me to what I say ‘yes’ to.”
One of the most striking of the R&B-meets-folk songs on both new records is “Listen.” The original version is light funk with a hint of trap, while the live version “Listen” is simpler and more somber—with just Kyshona’s voice, guitar, keyboard and bass. Her delivery is more intentional and knowing, a slow burn approaching a whisper:
“I’m sittin’ right in front of you tryin’ to tell you my truth
the only thing I ask of you
Don’t try and say that our struggle’s the same
Don’t lie and tell me you’re ready for change…
Why won’t you listen?
Why won’t you listen?
Why won’t you listen?”
“That particular line is from a conversation I had with someone about the ‘Me Too’ movement,” said Kyshona, who wrote the song with Emma Lee.
Men can’t feel what women do in this society—and others can’t understand the circumstances for Black Americans, she said. “We can only hear one another and find the similarities in our stories.”
“If you can relate, then change your behavior,” she said. “And I say that line to myself, too, because I have to check myself often when I insert myself into someone else’s (story).
Kyshona is admittedly more blunt on “We the People,” an intense, groovy lament of progress too slow to arrive:
“We the people, always sitting below equal
They stripped all of our power away…
They say one nation, but we’re all divisible…
The rise is so slow…
It’s our right to be right…
We had the key along….”
While Kyshona tries to write songs and approach life in an “open-handed” way, recent times called for something different.
“‘We the People’ is a tight fist, and it’s important that people see us walking with a tight fist” when necessary, she said. Kyshona co-wrote the song with Christina Harrison, who also sings many of the backing vocals on both newer records.
When Kyshona went on the road with Harrison, she realized that she was touring solely with another musician of color for the first time. Finally, there was someone who understood life as a Black American and could understand the awkward, heavy moments for a performer—like when a white person decides to disclose all of their racist guilt from across the merchandise table.
Even in Nashville’s generous and bountiful songwriting community, Kyshona’s sometimes found it difficult to meet similar performers of color. “I was finding it hard to find people like me to write with,” she said. She turned to Atlanta songwriter Micah Dalton to work on songs for television and film.
Fortunately, Nashville’s rich diversity in other corners of the arts and the progressive songwriting and community often provide a “safe space” for Kyshona. That includes writers such as Simon Gugala, who co-wrote “Too Much, “Marching On,” and “More in Common” on Listen.
“Simon was able to listen to me cry and vent and then take that that and make it the most beautiful lyric,” Kyshona said. The approach led to songs more “open-handed and (with) less of a tight fist.”
“Too Much” is an upbeat number laced with gospel-style organ that looks for a little silver lining around the weight of history and the present day:
“How you gonna keep, keep on…
It’s just too much
Hold on, your luck is about to change…
you got more bend before you break…
This weight is too much.”
“No matter how much Nashville changes and doesn’t look as familiar as it used to, the thing that is still constant is the tribalism and the connections,” Kyshona said. “It’s like everyone is reaching their hand behind them to pull you up.”
“That’s the only thing that keeps me here, honestly, aside from my family,” who now live nearby, she said.
Kyshona makes an important contribution to country-roots artist Kelsey Waldon’s outstanding recent album of protest songs, They’ll Never Keep Us Down. (See the SoulCountry feature on Kelsey Waldon and that album.)
Waldon invited Kyshona and Nashville gothic-blues artist Adia Victoria to sing with her on a bracing version of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn.”
“Adia Victoria is always whispering my name in people’s ears,” Kyshona said. “I don’t know if Adia did that in her quiet angel way,” or if Waldon came up with the idea her own.
“Nina Simone is honestly kind of my motivation of how I’m doing my music now,” Kyshona said.
And rising Nashville R&B star Devon Gilfillian invited Kyshona to duet with him on “God Is Love,” a track from Gilfillian’s impressive remake of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On album in its entirety. The album was a benefit for political and voting rights groups that Gilfillian supports.
It’s “the artist’s duty to reflect the times,” Kyshona said. “It is on us to write about what we are experiencing, the way we experience it.”
Kyshona takes after her guitar-playing father and her grandfather Hawthorne “HT” Armstrong, both of whom have played in gospel groups all over South Carolina.
“My freshman year, my Dad bought me a guitar and it sat in the case that entire year,” she continued. “I was like 19 or 20 before I picked up a guitar for my first time.”
Kyshona had to learn guitar as a music therapy major. Professors forced students to learn hundreds of songs, often folk tunes and songs for children. “We had to learn as many songs as we could, from the 1800s all the way to then the early 2000s,” she said, from The Rascals’ ultra-smooth “Groovin’” from 1967 to Bill Withers’ 1972 classic “Lean on Me,” to “My Wild Irish Rose.”
“It was great though, because it taught me so many different styles,”said Kyshona, who originally wanted to pursue a doctorate and become an orchestra conductor. “That just influenced what I listened to and what I wrote about.”
She became a music therapist instead and loved it, but the intensity of the field led her to a little different path.
“I didn’t realize, man, this is exhausting,” she said. “I started writing then as a way to kind of give me some sort of separation.”
After touring with her own music for several few years, Kyshona made the move to Nashville seven years ago, thinking it would be a short stay. She’d learn a little about the music business and move on.
“And when I got here, I found out, gosh, there’s a tribe here,” she said. Artists who could share in the ups and downs, invite each other to writing sessions, hire each other for shows and studio work. “That was so easily accessible here.”
She also found diversity in that community in other ways. Part of walking through the world for Kyshona is living out the diversity and freedom she claims to demand in her songs—including as she chooses musicians for her band.
“I want people who understand the message of what I’m doing. I have members who are part of the LGBTQI community or have a different faith than I do. They may be younger than me, older than me, Black, white, vegan, curvy, thin. We’re very intersectional,” she said.
“It’s my own Rainbow Coalition in a way… (of artists) who are also marginalized in their own way. I feel like I am bringing diversity into spaces that normally wouldn’t” see that talent and representation, she said.
Yet Kyshona also sings on her new albums about facing “Fear,” a song she wrote with her brother Kelvin Armstrong. Built on a bluesy groove, the lyrics speak to the real problem for so many:
“Don’t call it being cautious when you know the way…
You better call it by its name
Call it by its name
Call it by its name.”
Kyshona slows it down a bit on “Fallen People,” a 1970s-style soul number written with Jenn Bostic and Maureen Murphy that feels like a socially conscious take on the Commodores’ sublime, “Easy”:
“We can blame it on religion
We can blame it on the president
Blame it on the way that we were raised
Blame it on the government…
Sisters and brothers, when we gonna come together?
We’re fallen people
Living in a fallen world
We’re fallen people
People who hurt, who hurt, who hurt.”
Building on her experience as a music therapist, Kyshona now uses songwriting in work with veterans, the incarcerated, and young people—“people who’ve never written but who have a story to tell and I’m finding that brings me a lot of joy.”
She’s even started a project called YourSong, focused on therapeutic songwriting. She writes with women in drug and alcohol rehab, writing lullabies for their children. Some of the sessions are online.
“I really enjoy just listening to people talk and list to the words coming out of their mouth and then putting that into lyrics,” she said.
Kyshona also is incorporating this work into her touring schedule. Performing arts centers can bring her into town a day early and connect her with a local organization that could use her talents and experience. Then she spotlights local performers and non-performers, too, who develop the courage to tell their stories.
“I want to be the thread that connects the music community to people who live in the margins of a community,” she said. “The hope is that I can write a song with community members and then bring the song and the songwriters on the stage with me to perform their song in front of a captive audience that may have never gotten the opportunity to hear these people’s stories.”
In her own music, Kyshona aims to speak truth to power while fighting the urge to become bitter.
“I’m always trying to find the bright side, and maybe that’s my faith—and part of watching my grandma Eva,” she said, who told Kyshona “stories of people who’ve done her wrong and that she’s forgiven, and how she’s always benefitted from that forgiveness.”
“Sometimes when you lean into your anger, it’s hard to get it back.”
Kyshona also leans on her faith. “I honestly invite God into everything that I do. Before I walk on stage, I say a prayer that God gets me out of the way… and that if I am to receive something from an audience, let me receive it,” she said. “The moment that… I invite my faith into a writing space, I am always amazed by how a melody and chords just come. I can’t do that by myself.
“I’m just a storyteller,” she added. “I try not to tell people how they should be. All that I know is what it is for me.”
MORE ON KEYSHONA: See our earlier review of Kyshona’s show with Mary Bragg as both former residents return to Georgia to play Eddie’s Attic.