This article was originally published as a part of the UNC Media Hub program in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and has been republished by The Daily Tar Heel.
Camille Parker’s childhood was characterized by summertime fish fries, visiting Coleman’s food truck on Roxboro Road in Durham and listening to The Temptations in her grandfather’s beloved red Buick.
From Fayetteville Street Elementary School’s talent shows to watching “The Wiz” at Hillside High, Parker is Bull City bred.
An inaugural member of Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country” Class of 2021, Parker pulls her authenticity and inspiration from her Durham roots. Raised by her Jamaican grandmother and African American step-grandfather, she represents a new wave of Black women in country music.
Parker’s love of music started in the home.
“We listened to a lot of Charlie Pride, a lot of Pointer Sisters, a lot of Linda Martell,” Parker said. “There was no idea that was put in my mind by my grandfather, or by anyone in my community of elders, that country music wasn't for us. I was raised to understand that it was ours and I still believe that.”
Parker went to the Hayti Heritage Center and annual jazz festivals each summer accompanied by her grandad, whom she calls “Mr. Charles.”
“He was a trumpet player, down through the Chitlin’ Circuit through the Bible Belt, in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Parker said. “Then, he was drafted into the Vietnam War. (The draft) changed the trajectory of the career that he wanted to have. Mr. Charles was just so great at showing me that (artists) start in small places. It's the reason that I'm able to create what I feel is like really authentic music because of my connection to my hometown.”
Parker now lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, but she carries the artistic spirit of the city with her.
A little more than a year after posting her cover of Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted” on Instagram, Parker released her first original single called “The Flame” in March 2021. Weaving together country music and soul, among others, Parker is helping to make space for Black women.
From an early age, Parker recognized that music meant more to her than it did her peers. She attended Talent Unlimited Performing Arts School in New York City. Upon graduating from her arts high school, she couldn’t immediately afford college.
Parker refers to the next era as “the blackout years,” a blur characterized by survival. From being a receptionist at a bottle cap company to selling bras in retail to dealing blackjack in Vegas, she worked various jobs to survive. Eventually, she graduated from George Mason University, but Parker established a reputation as a reference singer.
“Before I knew it, the assumption about me is that I was an R&B/pop singer,” Parker said. “To be very transparent with you, I kind of let them believe that because I wanted to continue working. I didn't know that if I said that I really liked country music if those people would still want to work with me.”
As a young girl, she remembers turning on CMT and watching Rissi Palmer’s “Country Girl” music video, which depicted Palmer running through a dirt ranch with her big, natural curls. People not only doubted Parker’s ability to succeed in the country music industry as a Black woman, but were confused by her interest.
“The idea of country music does not pull in this kind of monolithic entity that's the same all the way through,” said Dr. Jocelyn Neal, a professor in the UNC music department. “There are very diverse audiences within country. There's no uniformity in what a country fan might also align with in terms of their political views, family background, life experiences, socio-economic positioning. That's actually been one of the themes of country music all along.”
Neal said that despite stereotypes regarding country music fans, the genre’s roots are intermingled with populism. In the 1930s and 1940s, country music was born out of protest music, spurred by labor activists in Appalachia challenging authority and vying for community needs.
UNC professor Tressie McMillan Cottom rejected the notion that Black people exclusively don’t like country music. Cottom said that Black people are primed to like the themes of country music, such as family, home and nostalgia.
“The problem is country music themes are overtly mostly about being white,” Cottom said. “They say that they are talking about class, about being rural, but they're not. They're talking about being white and rural, white and working class. What I really think is happening is that Black people are so attuned to hearing what's unsaid when white people talk because our safety depends on it.”
Cottom studies technology, higher education, work, inequality and public life. She wrote about her love for Dolly Parton, watching her become this larger-than-life charismatic star. In an essay titled “The Dolly Moment,” Cottom wrote that she is not the only Black woman with a Dolly Parton love story in their hero narrative. The same can be said for Rissi Palmer and her own pupil Parker.
“Dolly is still queen in my house as well,” Parker said. “I've gone back and I've studied a lot of the interviews and the show footage of Dolly. I noticed how provocative it was of her to talk about things like suicide, depression, her place in the workforce at the time that she did it. I look at her as another masterclass in having a voice, not backing down on your position, but finding a way to meet people where they are.”
Inspired by the rebel spirit of The Chicks, Parton and Palmer, Parker knew she had to pursue what she genuinely loved. She refused to give up on her dream of becoming a country musician.
While Parton may have set the tone, Cottom believes that country music is bound to have its own Whitney Houston. Though she thinks a Black male will be the first to fully integrate country radio, due to sociological and gender biases in pop culture, she wants Black audiences to be trained and ready to support and protect the Black woman who comes. The question is when.
Despite the distinctly African roots of the banjo and rhyming patterns and song forms that came from enslaved Black people, Neal noted that the commercial success of many white voices often came off the backs of Black musicians. While blues singers such as Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne inspired Hank Williams, Black artists did not have the same industry access and didn’t receive the same kind of ownership over their music.
Today, country radio’s stronghold on the dissemination of music is both white and male-dominated, hence why white female artists are often seen as progressive if they speak up. For Black women artists, the burden is twofold. Parker agrees that there is a disparity in getting a fair amount of airplay, but that does not equate to a shortage of Black country talent.
“The hurdles and roadblocks that somebody like Camille or that Rissi Palmer described so articulately come from is a lack of awareness or willingness to confront on the part of the country fans,” Neal said. “These completely cognitively dissonant moments that they are watching Jason Aldean performing a rap song in a style that has absolutely been appropriated, borrowed and reconditioned as country.”
The landscape might be changing. From Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to Breland’s viral TikTok song “My Truck,” Black artists are using other avenues to be heard. Parker said the uproar surrounding Lil’ Nas X was confusing, considering it’s not new to hear trap beats in country music.
“It made me think about what it means to be ‘country music,’" Parker said. “It's important to me to always make music that is authentically me, but I don't aspire to replicate things that have already been done. I always want to make my community proud, my family proud, but in the same breath, I have no interest in playing it safe.”
Parker’s first single, “The Flame,” has been featured in several Apple Music playlists, and despite being released in the middle of pandemic — with no tours, no press junkets, no signings — it has received more than 100,000 streams. Although Parker isn’t signed yet, she feels supported and embraced by the community of Black women in country music, such as Mickey Guyton and others.
“A part of the reason we wrote ‘The Flame’ was I was having a conversation with my co-writer and I told her that I'm a person who has big goals, a big dreamer,” Parker said. “I believe in myself, and I want to show other Black girls that they should believe in themselves, too.”
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