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Members Lockdown Stories, Episode 9: Carmen Phelan, Misty River

3 Jul 2020 8:58 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Lockdown has been intense.  Intense highs and intense lows.  

We are preparing to release our first record but of course the gigs we had lined up to support the release are cancelled, so the focus has had to shift.  We just released a track to Spotify which has done amazingly well for us with some brilliant reviews and industry support. Yet the Black Lives Matter protests have loomed large and forced me to reflect upon my own experiences in the music industry.

With a black Trinidadian mother and an Irish father I have been witness to racism many times, if not always intentionally directed towards me.  But then there are the times it was, like the time I was detained for many hours in isolation (without explanation) at the American border as the only person of colour performing with a famous international artist, or when Finland border control told me I just didn’t look like a violinist.  There’s countless times I’ve played a gig as a fiddle player only to be told what a wonderful singer I was (very kind but irrelevant as I hadn’t sung a note all night). I still recall with some dread, the promoter abroad who complained to the musical director of a show because I had worn my hair curly, and that made me look more black.  

With my fellow musicians and the surrounding community I have always felt comfortable and welcome.  Having lived in Ireland I was always accepted as an Irish musician regardless of the colour of my skin (thanks for the help Phil Lynott!) so this brings me to what I really wanted to say; the importance of representation over words and intent.  

Having just seen the nominations for Americanafest I’m happy to see it’s the most diverse line up yet with nominees including Yola, Black Pumas, Our Native Daughters and Brittany Howard. The current push for gender balance in the music industry can help provide a model for improving diversity for people of colour too, ensuring that the Americana genre reflects its own roots. I was delighted to have the opportunity play an AMAuk stage that promoted gender balance and thought it a very positive step in the right direction.  We should expect promoters to provide more diverse programming overall. Equality does not have to mean compromising on quality, its just harder work in the beginning.  

BLM reminds us of the necessity of challenging predominant narratives. That needs to include the idea promulgated that Americana and Country music originated solely from white hillbilly musicians in the Appalachians.  And whilst it's important to read about the music’s origins, the music itself tells this story as clear as day; It’s there in the Bluegrass tunes based on Scots and Irish melodies, and in the unmistakable black spirituals performed by early white adopters of the music such as the Carter family. If a platform for people of colour in the Americana community is demanded that will result in a more diverse audience and that would be a really great thing that can only go towards strengthening the music and the community.  

My Irish musician dad introduced me to Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band but its my Trini mum who plays the Dixie Chicks non stop in the car, in our family thats the norm. I’d like it to be the norm for the music family around me too.  I want to see equality for all under represented groups in the music industry. 

Carmen Phelan, Misty River







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