Singer-songwriter Ashlie Amber is on her way to the top of the country music charts, witnessed by her debut single, “Almost Love.” Yet climbing to the top wasn’t easy. In fact, it was tantamount to scaling Mount Everest in the dead of winter.
Ashlie is female and black in a genre dominated by white male artists. Female country artists receive 11% of airplay on the radio. And right now, black female country artists receive 0%. In fact, the tacit rule of country radio has always been never play two songs in a row by women, based on the country radio fairytale asserting, incorrectly, female listeners prefer male voices.
In other words, there is a glass ceiling in country music. Yet change is slowly but surely taking place, as more and more female artists speak out about the gender obstacle. Ashlie Amber is one artist who talks openly about gender/racial issues in the country music industry.
We decided to interview Ashlie Amber about country music’s “snow white” problem, i.e. the governing “bro culture” of country music. What she had to say was both enlightening and inspiring.
You’re a black female singer with a fro-hawk and curves. Do most people automatically assume you’re a rapper? And why can’t country singers be voluptuous?
I wouldn’t say that people automatically assume I’m a rapper, but when I say I sing country there is a look of surprise followed by curiosity. It’s as if someone who looks like me couldn’t possibly sing anything other than R&B/Hip-hop. Media has a powerful influence on today’s society and that’s only getting stronger as social media grows in popularity. Unfortunately, it has a lot to do with the stereotypes that we face today. So it will continue to be an uphill battle trying to break certain stereotypes but at the end of the day, I am who I am and I’m proud of it! I’m of a mixed race. My mom is white and my dad was black and this is something I fully embrace. I’m proud of my black roots as well as my white roots. I feel as though I’ve been given the best of two worlds.
And women CAN be voluptuous in country music and any other genre for that matter! Unfortunately, the industry has decided that in order to be a successful artist you have to be extremely fit and/or slender to be desirable. This is something that’s really unfortunate as the average dress size for women in America is a size 14 and yet the average size of women in TV/film and the music industry is a size 0-6. This is 2020! How is this still a thing? Don’t get me wrong there are some powerhouse women that are definitely representing curvy women but this is something where the industry overall needs to evolve and progress with the times. Women of all colors and sizes deserve to be represented.
The absence of black women in country music is astonishing. Is this racial issue, a gender issue, or both?
This is definitely both a racial and gender issue. There have been multiple articles and stories published recently expressing the lack of women in country music right now but honestly, the lack of diversity isn’t something that’s mentioned as often. Anyone that looks at the genre with open eyes can see that the lack of diversity within the genre right now for both women and women of color is shocking. According to a recent article by NPR, women only make up 16% of the market and as of now, black women make up zero. As far as I know, there’s only one black female country artist signed to a major label, Mickey Guyton and she’s incredible. Honestly seeing her is what gave me the courage to turn my dream of being the “Beyoncé of Country” into reality. I saw her and said to myself if she can do it then so can I!
Representation matters. If you’re a person who grew up seeing people that look like you on TV or radio, of course, it’s possible. This isn’t something that ever crosses your mind and that’s fine. But when I was growing up there wasn’t a lot of me on the TV. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood in the suburbs of Colorado. So I spent a majority part of my adolescence wishing I had straight hair, and even lighter skin color than what I already have, as well as a slender figure. Growing up I never felt like I fit in and watching TV didn’t really help either. I never felt pretty. It wasn’t until I hit my 20s that I started to embrace who I am. At the end of the day, what message are we trying to send to all the young women in this world? What, that you can only follow your dreams if you are of a certain gender, skin color and build. EVERYBODY deserves representation.
To what extent has pursuing racial or other types of equity and inclusion been a priority in your work, and how did you approach it? Why was this important to you?
Once I started pursuing music full-time is when I realized how many fewer opportunities there are for women and even fewer for women of color. Since then it’s been my mission to change this. I’ve seen first-hand how gender and race affect getting booked for jobs. It’s standard to book multiple male headline acts but only one female. It’s happened to me in several situations where I won’t get booked because they already have a female act booked or they’ll say we already have our “black girl,” as if we are all the same. So this issue is something I had to come to terms with but instead of excepting it and adapting, I say “F that!” I’m going to continue to stay true to who I am and if you don’t want to hire me for a gig or sign me to your label just because of how I look, then fine. I’ll keep knocking on that door until you have no choice but to let me in. I guess you can say I’m a bit stubborn (I’m a Taurus lol). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again women and women of color don’t want more opportunities than everybody else, we just want the same.
Can you talk about a time you navigated tricky dynamics around race or other identities in your work? What did you do?
My journey to becoming a headliner/guest entertainer was not an easy one. It took me 2 ½ years to get the gig! I had put some serious sweat and tears into my product. I had my show, charts, showreel, costumes, and a website. Literally everything you could need and more. When I submitted to agents, not a single response. Then speaking to a good friend of mine, a very good-looking talented white male who had no actual show, charts, showreel, or even website, just some basic footage singing some songs with a band. He submitted that footage to only one agent, one of the same agents I submitted to and literally got signed – just like that. He submitted it on a Friday and was signed on a Monday. He DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A SHOW! This was the first time I really felt how unfair the industry can be. I was happy for him of course, but I couldn’t help but feel defeated. I later found out that most booking agents won’t hire women or if they do, it’s one female headliner to every 2 or 3 male headliners.
Apparently this is because women are the ones who fill out the ratings and women don’t want to see other women, which is just ridiculous. Girl power is real and women do want to see other women excel. This whole Babes Support Babes movement is real. I was shocked! When I realized this was the reason why I was having such a hard time finding representation, I refused to believe it and I refused to give up. Instead, I went back to the drawing board and worked even harder. I invested in better charts, better footage, better photos, continued to perfect my show and simply refused to take no for an answer. Until one day a WOMAN saw my show; she also happened to be the head of entertainment for the company I was working for. She was so moved by my story, voice and the presentation of my show that she pulled me aside after and asked me what I wanted. I said “I want to be a headliner” and she said “ok.” She made one phone call and shortly after the top agency for Guest Entertainers contacted me and BAM! Just like that, I was signed. Keep in mind that I had already submitted to this same agency two times prior. I am forever grateful to Becky. She literally changed my life with that one phone call and all it took was one person. ONE person to say I’m looking for something different and this is different, this is unique and this is something that people need to see.
Why, in your opinion, do most people perceive country artists as male and white?
There is no opinion or perception here, it is simply a fact. Just listen to the radio. There are radio stations that still won’t play two women back to back but will play 5 males in a row. Over 80% of country music artists are white males from the artists, to the songwriters, to musicians, to even the producers. Without a doubt, women are under-represented in this genre of music. This is something that has recently been getting more attention. People are definitely aware and female artists are speaking out. Jennifer Nettles’s famous statement at the 2019 CMAs and just recently, Kelsea Ballerini also spoke up. The industry is slowly embracing change but this is an area where huge strides are needed.
There’s only one black female country artist signed to a major label. Do you see this as a blatant attempt by the gatekeepers to exclude black females?
I don’t think this attempt is necessarily on purpose. I just don’t think black performers see country music as even being an option for a career in music, so they don’t even try. In my opinion, the labels have no choice but to be more inclusive because people are fed up and speaking out. Good music is good music regardless of race, age, gender or sexual orientation. Change is coming and I believe country music fans are ready!
Two black male country artists, Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown, recently achieved success in country music. Do you think this will open the door for black female country artists?
Absolutely! Both of these artists are incredible and proof, along with a few others that black artists in country music ARE successful and country music fans are already embracing change with arms wide open. One of the things I love the most about these two artists is that they are staying true to themselves. Neither of them looks like your typical male country star but their music speaks for itself. At the end of the day, good music is good music and these two men are putting out GREAT music.
Do you see yourself as a role model?
A role model? That’s a lot of pressure and a huge responsibility. If you would have asked me this 5-years ago, I would have probably said no way, but right now at this moment, I would say yes, I definitely consider myself a role model. I think anybody in the public eye should. I’m far from perfect, but I have a voice and I’m not afraid to use it. I’ve been through a lot, which I’m finding people relate to. People want to see real people. Somebody who isn’t always picture-perfect, someone who has experienced more than just cupcakes and rainbows their whole life. How many people can honestly relate to that? Most people have had their heart broken, come from broken homes, lost loved ones, are dealing with self-esteem issues. They want/need somebody who’s been through/or is going through the same things and isn’t afraid to talk about it. All I can do is just be myself and hope I inspire other people to do the same and to take their life and their dreams into their own hands. We can all work together to break down these barriers and re-write stereotypes.
What will it take to kick the door wide-open?
Well, I’m already kicking on that door and I won’t stop until somebody opens it. So until then, I’m working harder and stacking my deck of cards so high that when that door does open the gatekeepers have no choice but to say yes.
At the end of the day, it’s going to take the people at the top who have the power to make real change, actually want to see that change and then do something about it.
If I were speaking to them right now I’d say, “What side of history do you want to be on? The side that creates it or the side that watches it?”
Let us know what you think @CelebMix