2021 is turning out to be a career defining year for country music artist Miko Marks and now she has gifted fans with an EP titled Race Records, released on October 1.
In 2008, Marks developed a significant following and was making strides toward long term success, but one thing stood in her way: the color of her skin. Country music refused to allow a Black woman the success she deserved within the genre and so she was pushed out of the industry.
Marks, though, has done what not many people do in the face of such devastating rejection: she made a comeback. Early in 2021 Marks released a new album, Our Country, that was welcomed by critics and fans alike. Marks is once again carving out a space for herself in a genre that has made her feel unwelcome.
Still talented. Still a masterful songwriter. Still harboring a warm spirit. Though the industry may not have changed much in her time away, the thing that’s different now is that she’s not willing to back down.
Tell me why you chose the name Race Records.
First of all, I didn’t know I was doing another project so soon after Our Country so that was a surprise in and of itself. We started listening to music from the early days. 1920s and 1930s, and we found all these different cover tracks that were basically recorded by white men or The Carter family. We decided that we needed to highlight the separation where the genres started to emerge, hillbilly music and race records.
“Race records” was what black people made early on in country music, then hillbilly music was what white people made. But really, it was all rooted and grounded in gospel and in the church. A lot of Black musicians helped these white musicians who recorded the music to gain their sound. So we were the originators of the music and I thought it was important to highlight that.
The fact that our music was called race records back in the day is just insane to me. Then to have it be called country music today and us not be included is ridiculous. So I wanted to shine a light on what race records really were. It was really us without our face and our names, but our spirit and sound was in the foundation of country music.
'Race Records' Trailer
You’ve had personal experience with the direct result of the division of music because when you were coming on the scene 13 years ago you received backlash as a Black woman trying to make country music.
I received backlash on both sides. I received backlash from people of color and my community because they didn’t feel a connection to this music. They were like “why are you doing this music? You should be doing R&B, you should be doing gospel.” I think a lot of us aren’t educated around the history of country music and knowing that we are the foundation. We created and helped mold this genre into what it is.
Maybe not necessarily what it is today, but what it originally was. Once I tell ppl the story and give them the history on it, they tend to come around a little bit. As far as my career, coming to Nashville, and trying to make a way with country music; I had a lot of doors slammed in my face because of the color of my skin. That was disheartening because I was wide eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to go. To be shut down- not for my talent- but for the color of my skin was really hurtful. It took me a long time to recover from that.
Do you feel like it’s different this time around?
I do feel like it’s different. There’s synergy and momentum among the artists. Especially the people of color. Women and men of color are coming together. We’re united in our pursuit of our dreams and not really allowing mainstream and white people to dictate our legacy.
I think there’s a strength right now coming forward to take our power back and to really be rooted and grounded in our truth. I feel that very deeply. All the people that I’ve been seeing, I didn’t know there were so many people of color doing country music. And that is how the industry wants us to see things.
Thankfully for social media and all these different platforms, we’re getting to see each other in a different light and see that we’re not alone. That’s the part that’s really inspiring to me and uplifting to me because I’m almost 50 years old and to see this transformation in my lifetime is beautiful. It really is.
Back when you first entered into country music it was discouraged for people of color to have relationships.
Yes, [it was discouraged for us] to come together. I’ve always been open to anybody who is doing it. I’m always a supporter whether it’s me or it’s somebody else. I will lift up my brother and sister in community. I think being young I thought, “well it’s only room for one of us.” Or maybe another person may have thought there’s only room for them. But there’s really a lot of sunshine out there to shine on everybody.
Everybody has their own space and it’s enough space for all of us so why not lift each other up and unite and strengthen and encourage and push the ball forward for the bigger picture, as opposed to just me. I think that’s what I’ve been doing since I started this journey.
You have. I can see that in the relationships that you’ve built with the other people around you, specifically Black women. Do you have anyone in particular that you’re rooting?
I’m rooting for everybody. I am. I’m rooting for everybody who puts their heart and soul in it and they’re good at it. I’m rooting for you. Of course I’m rooting for Rissi and Mickey and Willie and Roberta. I’m rooting for us all because it’s not just about me, it’s about us. And what we choose to leave here. What we’re able to do, and I think we can move mountains. Period.
How did you choose which songs you were gonna cover for the EP?
I went back and listened and I was touched by The Carter Family and the work that they did and the music that they put out, but I was also touched by them going back to us to get that. And they weren’t shy about mentioning and saying who supported them and how they got their sound.
They gave honor where honor was due but the mainstream didn’t pick that message up. So I chose them for that reason. I chose Creedence Clearwater Revival, CCR, because they’re a Bay area band and I wanted to do that song “Long As I can See The Light” because that’s encouraging to me. To sing that, for me, was really important.
When you sing that, the lyrics feel like youre talking about your career.
Yes. Talking about my career. That’s my story. A lot of the music that I picked, even “Long Journey Home” by The Monroe Brothers, I chose that because it’s the same thing. I’m still moving towards my career and it may be a long journey but I’m gonna’ find my place at home.
I put a lot of thought into it, I worked with some really great people at my label, Red Tone Records. They’re not just a label we think about our messaging, about what we want to leave on this earth. I didn’t necessarily do that when I recorded previously, I just made songs. And they would be about anything. But now it’s purposeful. Its rooted in my spirit.
That’s evident with your new music. On Our Country especially, the song “Mercy” felt like more than just a song.
It was a prayer, a cry out for a healing for us all. Because there’s no way we can continue to go down this path, this way of living. We are gonna eventually have to come together. So “Mercy” was just a prayer for all of the things that are wrong right now.
You recently did a project with Fantastic Negrito and you guys worked with the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, and that’s around your hometown so what was that like?
That was amazing because early on in my career I toured around with the Bill Pickett Rodeo. And the Oakland Black Cowboy Association is affiliated with them, so that’s how I got turned on to the rodeo.
When Negrito reached out to me he said “I have this country song, kinda country funky, we’ll call it funktry. I’d like to see if you’d like to do it.” So I went to the studio one day. I was supposed to do one song- I did four songs with him. Then he asked me did I know any cowboys for the video shoot. So I called my godfather, Wilbert McAlister. He’s the president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association. And he’s like “yeah, I got you. I’ma get some cowboys together and we gon’ do this.”
So it was all a full circle moment for me- but with a grammy winner. I was able to bring in my past of what I was doing and he really appreciated them. He loved them, he gave them respect and honor. It was a beautiful time, he’s a great guy
He seems like so much fun.
He is a great guy. He’s really like a kid. His heart and soul are very youthful. He has all these big ideas and dreams and he looks past what he thinks he can do and he shoots for the next thing and I like that. He pushes me to be better. I get to open for him on October 16 in Berkeley so that’s gonna be awesome. My little path is just being molded in this way, I’m just along for the ride.
What’s the next big thing on your radar?
The next big thing I wanna do… I see another album in the new year. I wanna continue to write about things that speak to the times. I wanna write about things that may not be so nice to hear but it’s the truth.
You have such a gentle touch when you say things, a lot more people listen.
That comes from having a child.
It’s the mom in you.
I wanna write about all the things that I may have been afraid to write about before. I’m gonna’ say what I need to say in the way I need to say it.
Race Records by Miko Marks is out now.