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Adia Victoria Blazing A Trail Grandmother Could Only Dream Of

Adia Victoria headlines the GLT Summer Concert June 8
Red Light Management
Adia Victoria headlines the GLT Summer Concert June 8

South Carolina native Adia Victoria is often described as a blues woman with elements of punk, gospel, and goth. Not unlike Flannery O’Connor, one of her favorite authors.

“I think I had a lot of ideas and inclinations Flannery had growing up in the deep south, and growing up in a highly structured religious community” said Victoria, hinting at the Seventh-Day Adventist religion she was born into.

“Once people start filling their heads with these wild ideas that they ‘know the truth,’ that they understand what this is all about, they’re ripe for the artist and writer to come in and subvert them.”

The 2019 GLT Summer Concert headliner believes artists need to alienate themselves from institutional structures in order to focus their venom on those oppressive systems. And as Victoria pointed out, O’Connor often did it with humor.

“I think she was able to gather, refine and distill my hunches as a kid into something artistic, and in a way I was not able to,” said Victoria. “These are just ideas I had about my bible school teacher, preacher, and all the adults around me who were very, very scared.”

Of what?

“The loss of control. The unbridled truth that nobody knows what’s going on. Why we’re here, what happens after we die. And I think this truth can drive men wild and drives people insane if you need that control to say concretely, ‘This is what it is, this is God’s will.’ You have no idea what God’s will is. I guarantee you it’s not capitalism or the American dream. But there’s a fear of losing power to people that have bought into that,” said Victoria.

“Pacolet Road” from her latest album “Silences” declares her desire to leave her home state, which she eventually did, landing in England, Paris, Brooklyn, and now Nashville.

And not a woman nor man, hunt after me I'm gonna take the first train I can catch Straight out of Caroline

But she also references her Grandmother in the song

I'm goin' up them stairs I'm gonna pack a bag I'm gonna do everything in the world that my grandma ever wish she had

She said that was both literal and symbolic in recognizing the many black women who had to hide their “brilliance.”

“My grandmother was one of the hidden figures. She worked for G.E. during the space mission in the 1950s and 60s when they were trying to put a man on the moon. She was a brilliant secretary to these engineers whose work would go into getting these men to the moon. She married young and had children, and that became the center of her life,” said Victoria.

But she said her grandmother was also a brilliant artist and instilled in her the value of education and learning about the world around her.

“She taught me how to read. My grandmother used to let me drive her car around the country in South Carolina when I was like seven. She’d pull over and let me get in the driver’s seat and say, 'You drive us home,'" recalled Victoria.

Seven? Really?

“She was trying to tell me, ‘You need to know where you’re going, you need to know how to get around in this world,’” said Victoria. “She came up in a time when it was not easy for women, let alone black women, to have that sense of autonomy. So her journey was stifled.”

That is, until Victoria’s grandfather died. It was then her grandmother began to paint voraciously.

“She’s had this in her the whole time, and it’s like, ‘What could she had been if the world had nurtured her brilliance and recognized this woman is a genius,” said Victoria.

The granddaughter has forged her own artistic path with blues music, which she discovered in her early 20s after being introduced to the guitar. She was especially attracted to the call and response nature of the music.

“The blues is about building community, it’s about recognition, it’s about being seen and giving voice to the unheard. It’s a collective exercise. For me growing up in the church and the south, there was no chance for response.”

Yes, pretty strict rules on what will send you to heaven and hell. So for someone looking to break out conformity but still find community, it was like a gift from heaven itself.

“Someone held space for me at the end of their lyric to say, ‘Ain’t that right?’ That’s what the blues did to me … it gave me a chance to respond and sing along with somebody,” said Victoria.

Not unlike the now legendary artists she grew to love once she dove headfirst into blues. She came to admire Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who would go out and sing their songs about sexual liberation, and women being able to decide things in their lives for the first time ever.

“These women were one generation removed from slavery. And what did they do? They started singing about the way their lives looked. So the blues allowed me to feel a part of something, to be somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter that had walked before me and now she was passing on the benefit of her life experiences to me. That’s what the blues is,” said Victoria.

The GLT interview with Adia Victoria.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.