Seattle's Lady A confronts white privilege in battle with country stars and beyond
SEATTLE — Anita White's life has been a little different since being thrust into a very public controversy with some of Nashville's biggest stars.
The unexpected spotlight found the Seattle-area woman — better known as powerhouse blues singer Lady A — when pop-country hitmakers Lady Antebellum decided earlier this summer to shorten its name to a longtime fan nickname: also Lady A. In ditching "antebellum," a word critics say romanticizes the slavery-era South, the country radio staples (unknowingly, they say) took on the name of a lesser known Black artist, making her less visible on social media and streaming services.
The irony certainly isn't lost on Seattle's Lady A.
"I've been working my butt off since before those kids were born," says Lady A, 62, who has performed, and released several albums, under that stage name for years. "But your privilege is going to allow you to take something from me or ... decide that I have to share the name with you, knowing full well that ... you're going to wipe me off social media, therefore you are still taking from me."
Talks between the two acts broke down last month and the country band initiated a lawsuit asking the courts to affirm its right to the name "Lady A," a trademark the band first registered for in 2010, according to the complaint. (Seattle's Lady A says she and her attorneys are still waiting to be formally served. She recently told Billboard she never trademarked the name Lady A, and a search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office database seems to confirm that.)
The newfound attention has had several consequences for the once reluctant frontwoman, who used to need a nerve-calming glass of wine before singing backup with the Sonny Byers Motown Revue.
With a new set of fans from beyond the Northwest (including Americana star Margo Price, who shouted out "the real Lady A" during a televised Grand Ole Opry performance), she's been mailing out more CDs from her Seattle-area home after working a day job that she plans to retire from soon. A full slate of interviews with publications based everywhere from South Seattle to Paris has left little time for the 40-minute power naps that could keep her going until 1 a.m. On top of that, Lady A has maintained her gospel and blues shows with Tacoma-based online radio station NWCZ.
"They don't call me the hardest-working woman in blues, soul, funk and gospel for nothing," Lady A says with a big, easy laugh — the kind usually heard sitting around in an old friend's kitchen.
During her 9-to-5 as a senior administrator with the city of Seattle, Lady A serves as a member of one of the city's "change teams" created as part of Seattle's Race and Social Justice Initiative aimed at eliminating institutionalized racism and inequities across the city. It's work she doesn't leave at the office. Earlier this year, Lady A and her friend and fellow musician Roz Royster McCommon launched The Truth is Loud initiative and virtual panel series meant to get people (white allies especially) talking about race.
The idea for the online discussions came about after Lady A learned how few of her white friends talk to their kids about race, whereas she grew up being taught how to act around police, avoid confrontations with white people and how she should wear her hair.
"I remember the first time I ever wore an Afro and got beat up, got my hair pulled," Lady A says. "Then my mom straightened my hair. All of these things that other cultures or white people don't have to think about, we do. Every day of our lives."
You might not believe it hearing her swaggering, full-throated bellow on her new album "Live in New Orleans," which dropped in July, but growing up, Lady A says she wasn't the most confident kid. A move from racially diverse Columbia City to predominantly white Wallingford during middle school was a particularly tough transition as she became one of only three Black kids at Hamilton International Middle School. By the time the three-sport athlete and cheerleader went through Lincoln High School, she was breaking new ground as the school's first Black homecoming queen and just the second Black student on the cheerleading squad.
"I've always been about doing what people said I couldn't do," she says.
As a singer, Lady A first stretched her cords in a youth gospel choir, becoming the director by age 16. As the choir director, she got used to performing with her back to the audience. One of her first tastes of the solo spotlight came when Byers, a local gospel/R&B vet, brought her to her first karaoke night at a Chinatown International District joint in the '80s. (After getting married in the late '80s and moving to Florida for several years, she adopted the Lady A moniker one karaoke night out with a friend.)
One of Lady A's earliest boosters was Louise Thompson, the late proprietor of defunct Central District hangout Thompson's Point of View, where Lady A and her Baby Blues Funk Band played some of their first shows. The other was John Oliver III, also a member of Byers' band, who encouraged Lady A to go solo after seeing how she worked a crowd and began pitching her songs.
"Now listen, when Lady A came on stage, she commanded attention from everybody whether they were eating or not, drinking or not, sitting down or standing up — she commanded their attention and she made sure to get them involved," Oliver says.
With Oliver as her drummer, producer and co-writer of 20-plus years now, Lady A released her debut solo album, 2010's "Bluez in the Key of Me," fusing the blues with funk, soul and gospel sounds. She's since put out three more studio albums, also working closely with Mississippi artist Dexter Allen.
Pre-COVID, Lady A held down a hybrid monthly gig at Egan's Ballard Jam House that she describes as "Oprah on the back porch." Part traditional concert, part talk show Q&A, those "Lady A's Back Porch Blues" shows served as a get-to-know-ya with the artists while allowing Lady A to dig deeper into the stories behind her songs, like the hopeful yet heavy-hearted "Change the World" — a gospel track she wrote after Trayvon Martin's death.
Her latest single, "The Truth is Loud," released in conjunction with the discussion series, is a sparse and somber soul-funk track that touches on a plethora of American injustices, including police violence and the detention of migrant children.
"If the truth is loud, is anybody really listening? And if you are listening, what are you gonna do about it?" she says.
Part of the reason negotiations with the Nashville band broke down is because Lady A felt like the country stars weren't listening. Sharing the name, as the country group pushed for, didn't seem plausible for Lady A, who suggested they could be "Lady A the Band" or that their management company could take her on as a client and rebrand her.
After repeatedly asking the trio's team what that coexistence would look like and how they would ensure she wouldn't get buried on digital platforms, Lady A says she never got a clear answer. A spokesperson for the Nashville band declined to comment for this story.
She also questions the sincerity behind their name change, since the public knows the "A" still stands for antebellum. "You can't go from being the Ku Klux Klan to being the KKK and think that we don't know that you're still racist," Lady A says.
Eventually, Lady A asked for a $10 million settlement — $5 million to help her rebrand and another $5 million for charities including Black Lives Matter, youth and senior organizations in Seattle and legal aid for artists across the country.
On July 8, the Nashville band announced it was filing the lawsuit, which does not seek monetary damages or aim to prevent Seattle's Lady A from using the name. "Today we are sad to share that our sincere hope to join together with Anita White in unity and common purpose has ended," the band said in a statement at the time. "She and her team have demanded a $10 million payment, so reluctantly we have come to the conclusion that we need to ask a court to affirm our right to continue to use the name Lady A, a trademark we have held for many years."
For Lady A, the standoff with Lady A(ntebellum) is bigger than herself.
"This is about everybody else who has ever had something taken from them," Lady A says. "But mostly for me, it's about Black, Indigenous people of this land, people of color, who have had their lives, their experiences, their work, culture, language, music, artistry and, most importantly, their names taken from them."