“I started writing songs during a time when I was dealing with a lot of social anxiety,” Amythyst Kiah began.
Raised in Johnson City, Tennessee, the time Kiah’s alluding to is a time that’s difficult for a lot of folks: the early teenage years. “I suddenly went from being this happy-go-lucky tomboy to being like, ‘Oh, I’m 13 now and in order to be a girl, I need to do this and this,’” she said. “I couldn’t relate to that.”
So, Kiah did what most 13-year-olds do when they don’t fit in: she began searching for her identity and, ultimately, found it in music. She finally felt like she wasn’t alone, that her experience was actually a part of a wider phenomenon with a deeper meaning. “I was able to connect with the stories,” she said. “It was my little world where how I presented myself or what color my skin was didn’t matter.”
Years later, Kiah is still grappling with what it all means. Rising to prominence in 2019 as a member of the roots group Songs of Our Native Daughters alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell, she’s known for her unique point-of-view as a writer and her goosebump-inducing skills as a performer. And with the release of her debut, Wary + Strange, this June, she cemented herself a pivotal role in the conversation she’s been wrestling with since she first came to music as a teen.
What makes Kiah such a formidable musical force is her ability to synthesize. Drawing inspiration from everything from Radiohead to old field recordings, her particular sound speaks to a nuanced American identity that often gets left to the cultural wayside. And coming to that identity as a Black woman, Kiah personifies many of the country’s complex dualities.
“Growing up, I was the only Black kid in an all-white neighborhood,” she said. “There was this layer of me not belonging because I’m Black, but also not fitting in with the Black kids because I acted ‘too white.’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t act how girls are supposed to act, and I’m not acting like a white person, but I’m not acting like a Black person either, so… where am I supposed to fit?’”
Searching for the answer brought Kiah to East Tennessee State University, where she studied roots music and started getting into those aforementioned field recordings. “A lot of these recordings are from penitentiaries or old farms—they weren’t traditional performances,” she said. “Then, after digging into the history and learning about the influence that West African culture had on bluegrass and old-time and country… I realized that, for my whole life, I was fed a lie that banjos and all of that stuff were only for white people. The music industry segregated music the same way they segregated everything else, and it took away the opportunity for people to be unashamed about what they love.”
This was where Kiah really started to develop her signature sound. “I had been a big alternative music fan,” she said. “Usually, people who are in that scene grow up not fitting in. They end up spending a lot of time by themselves and, through that, they come up with a sound or an idea that’s authentically their own. So, in a lot of ways, that same sort of authenticity that I heard in those field recordings was very similar to what I was hearing in alternative music.”
Yet, it still took Kiah some time to feel comfortable confronting these dualities, especially in regard to race. In fact, for years, political music was something she “made a point of not participating in.” It wasn’t until she joined Native Daughters that things began to change. “I had the opportunity to really express my opinions on things with people who really get it,” she explained. “That was a really powerful moment for me.”
In response, Kiah wrote arguably her most powerful tune to date: “Black Myself,” a highlight on Wary + Strange that looks at the personalized trauma of racism. “When I wrote that song, it felt like all of the things I ever wanted to say just fell out,” she said. “I feel like I’ve finally found a way to use my music to bring awareness to issues in a way that is helpful and still feels authentic to myself. That’s a hard balance, but I’m starting to get my footing with it.”
And with the release of Wary + Strange, Kiah feels like she finally has the opportunity to give back, to offer sanctuary to all the 13-year-old misfits out there. “To know that there are people hearing these songs is very humbling,” she said. “I get DMs every day telling me how much people love my music, how it’s able to heal them. I think that’s always been my No. 1 use of music: healing from past traumas. When you’re feeling lonely or if you’re depressed or whatever, being able to have music is invaluable.”