Rain Perry photo is courtesy of Timothy Teague
Rain Perry Spotlights Inequality With A White Album
Singer/songwriter Rain Perry recently released A White Album, a collection of songs produced by her longtime collaborator Mark Hallman, which intentionally draws on her family memories and personal experiences to investigate white privilege and racial inequalities in the Unites States. Incorporating a variety of musical influences and adopting various moods, from reflective, to sorrowful, to frustrated, the songs have a firm bedrock of Perry’s own perspective which helps give audiences a way into a significant and ongoing discussion that probes the realities of racial inequality.
Perry doesn’t propose a single magical solution for widespread inequities, or even prescribe what action the audience should take to help propel change, but presents the power of music and human-driven stories to inspire thought. Like Perry’s 2008 album, Cinderblock Bookshelves, A White Album is going to be developed into a stage play, and the play is slated to further expand on these ideas. I spoke to Rain Perry about developing A White Album, why it is so personally important to her, and what she hopes its impact on audiences will be.
Americana Highways: Something we can do now that’s really useful is release digitally in a way that can inspire conversations and keep those up for longer periods of time as people discover that work, as I’m sure will be true of A White Album.
Rain Perry: I know that it’s trying to talk about something that we’re having a hard time talking about in this culture, but it just has to be done. We can’t just not talk about it as some legislatures would like us not to do.
AH: What was that time like for you, when you realized that you were going to contribute to the conversation in this way?
RP: I guess the overriding feeling was, and continues to be, “I don’t want to mess this up.” It’s such a fine line to walk between meeting white people where we are, and giving people the space to step forward from problematic backgrounds in an open-hearted way, while at the same time being clear, hopefully, about where I’m coming from. I know that some people are going to think that it’s not going far enough, while some people are going to find it too intimidating, so I just have to do the best that I can.
The best way for me to deal with it is to be as personal as possible and talk about my own process. That means talking about what I used to believe, as a kid, and what the world looked like to me, and what I’ve learned since then, and what I aspire to keep learning. I can’t make any grand statement, but the job of the artist is to talk about their own experience, and hopefully through that, we see ourselves.
AH: I can see, one hundred percent, the wisdom of that approach.
RP: Particularly for this subject. I do sometimes write songs from other perspectives, but this record is strictly me, because I think the more specific, and more personal, the more universal, ironically. I’ve used this example before, but I am so much more moved by a Bruce Springsteen song about a guy who robbed a liquor store, because I want to know about this one guy, than I am a song about the economic blight of the Reagan era. I think that’s true for a lot of issues. Once we see them through the eyes of a person, they reach us. I think that’s why Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” was such a hit.
AH: There is music that is cleverly critical of society, but it’s not guaranteed to have the same emotional impact as one telling a human story, I think. That’s kind of a different thing.
RP: Well, I’m a big fan of The Clash, and I love to hear Joe Strummer yelling about things, but there’s a time and a place.
AH: There’s another aspect to this, which is that if you are involving your own experiences in your songs, you’re showing the audience your personal investment, which also has impact.
RP: It’s tough because activism usually involves some kind of call to action and something you’d like someone to do, which is to vote for someone, or come to a rally, for example. Art can be pretty awful when it tries to be like that. I like it so much more when art lays something out for me, but doesn’t tell me what my conclusions should be. I can’t control what anybody does after they listen to my records, but I’m hoping that it causes them to ask some questions of themselves, or possibly look back at their own childhood.
For example, the second song on the record is called “The Money” and it’s about the real estate process of “Redlining.” I knew nothing about that, and then when I researched it, I realized why wealth inequality has persisted. It caused problems then and continues to cause problems now. That made me look at the world in a different way, but the next step is: What can I do to mitigate it? Who can I vote for? What can I donate to? I’m hoping that the next step is tangible action that helps mitigate the problems that the record brings up, but I can’t control what people do.
AH: I find that song really helpful because it’s multi-generational in its story, and for most of us, we might have only seen one part of that puzzle. I’ll clarify that I have a multi-racial background in my family, but most people assume that I’m white, and I’ve always had the privilege that comes with that. But with this song, I feel like if multiple generations spoke to each other more clearly about these issues, the silence wouldn’t contribute to this problem.
RP: My husband runs a local Search and Rescue team, so I know a lot of cops because of that. I was talking to a friend who is a lifelong Republican, a cop, and a really open-hearted guy who is not happy with how things are going in his party. He said once, that he didn’t understand, since slavery was so long ago, why it was still considered such a problem. I’m hoping that a song like “The Money” will say, “Here’s why it’s still a problem.” And that will help change perspectives and try to push back against the idea that everything got solved in the Civil Rights era.
AH: I have seen people around me in society reacting to racial inequalities with, “But I didn’t do this to others.” It’s understandable in people who are waking up to a need for more information. A song like “The Money” can bridge that conversation by saying, “No, you didn’t, but here’s why we’ve inherited this problem that’s not going away.”
RP: That question, “Am I responsible or not?”, is something I’m delving even further into in the planned theatrical component of the album, because I’ve had people say, “You’re just dealing with white guilt.” It’s not so simple. “Do I feel guilty?”, is really not the question. It’s about what I do once I’m aware of inequalities. Do I try to be a part of solving it or not? I think the question of feeling guilty isn’t exactly the question because white people have benefitted financially, and in terms of opportunities, in a way that a lot of white people don’t grasp.
The concept of white privilege is really elusive to a lot of people because they may have struggled financially. I struggled a lot of a kid, and my family were truly broke, but my dad came from a wealthy family, and there was always going to be someone to call, some kind of help somewhere, because of his background. That’s an entirely different experience from not knowing anyone with resources to help if they want to.
Also, I watch the show Finding Your Roots, and there’s always a tension where people are waiting to find out if their ancestors were slaveholders. It’s funny, though, because even if our ancestors didn’t own people, they probably sold produce to people who owned people, or lived in a town that got its tax base from people that owned people. Some people were able to acquire wealth by laws which kept other people from owning property, so the question of whether we are personally guilty is really not the question. In a way, that’s a distraction. There’s the story of how we got here, and there’s the story of what we’re going to do.
AH: Everything is so connected. I feel like you really find those moments where someone might be able to see the clear differences between racial experiences in the song “Melody and Jack.” That’s a true story from your family, as far as I understand, that helps to show that divergence.
RP: Yes, and for me, that moment happened while I was writing the song. This is a true story. My mom died when I was very young, and I was raised by my dad. I spent a lot of time as a kid with my maternal grandmother, who was a musician. She told this story several times about this friend of my mom’s, and I always thought it was a sweet, sad story about an unrequited crush because she was white and he was black. As I was doing drafts of the songs that became the songs on this record, I looked back at my childhood for any moments where I realized anything about race to see what I would find.
I started writing about that story, and all the sudden it hit me that it was the same time as the killing of Emmett Till. That would have been in the newspapers and all across the country. That was another aspect to the story that I wouldn’t have understood as a kid. It was a moment that I had where I realized, “Wow, he was at risk!” Then I knew that this song had to be on the record. Once we recorded it, I felt like it was the perfect first song on the record because it brings the listener in through my own family history and into the path I took for the album. That’s what this project is, looking at things through a fresh lens. It really crystallized what I was trying to do here.
AH: I think it makes for a great introduction. I’m Southern, and hearing this song reminded me of multiple conversations in my family, just little brief exchanges with the older generations over the years. I think other people might have the same experience when they hear this song, that it’s pulling up forgotten conversations.
RP: I really hope that is what happens. That would be a success.
AH: I also have tell you how much I enjoyed the song, “What’s Wrong with You,” not just because of what it’s talking about, but because it brings so much energy to that conversation. It’s so frustrating to see this at work in the world, and how relentlessly predictable it is to see white people making trouble for people of other races in this way.
RP: Yes, and I ask, “As a white woman, why do I have to be part of this group? I don’t want to be part of this group of people who are doing this, but I am.” That brings up a couple of things. One thing is that aside from it just being in the air so much, with the protests beginning in 2020, and feeling like this was something I wanted to write about, there were also specific appeals by writers of color on social media asking, “White people, please talk to your people. You have the ability to talk them in a different way. It’s your responsibility.”
I took that to heart. That’s part of my frustration in the song, “Where do you even start to talk to someone who would call the police because someone is barbecuing in the park?” If there’s any shame from me in this record, it’s in that song. How do I break through?
AH: This song really expresses how overwhelming that feeling can be.
RP: There’s the underlying issue that no one responds well to be lectured about something. What is the right way to try to soften hearts? How do get through to someone with a fear-response? What has happened to make someone afraid of another person barbecuing in a park? Well, we live in a culture that has reinforced that and maybe that person comes from a family that reinforces it a whole lot more. How can you break through that? Maybe telling someone that they are wrong might feel good, but it’s not going to change anything.
That brings up another set of frustrations, which is that it may feel good to be on “team virtue” and perceive yourself in that way, but it also doesn’t accomplish anything. So what’s really going to work? That’s the question I’m working on here. I’ve had the term “performative wokeness” levelled at me. The only thing I can do with that is to say, “It’s okay to feel good about doing something that helps people, but it has to truly help.”
Thanks Rain Perry, for talking to us.
Find more music and information about Rain Perry here: https://www.rainperry.com