By Dennis J. Freeman news4usonline.com Black History Month Feature
African Americans in country music in many ways remain as somewhat novelty items today as they did when the harmonica-playing Deford Bailey left his imprint with the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920s. Sure, there have been sprinkles of African Americans having success across the county music landscape throughout the years.
However, outside of the great ones like Charley Pride, Ray Charles, Huddie Ledbetter and Darius Rucker, African Americans have largely been more of an anomaly to the country music genre. Listening to a black woman sing country music is even more of a reach. There have been few African America women who have been bold enough to climb into that rarefied air. Miko Marks is one of them.
Marks is aiming to change that tune, bringing along her seamless, smoky voice for the ride. After recording two albums, Marks has raised more than a few eyebrows with her brand of music. So far, it’s been all good for the Flint, Michigan native. Publications such as People Magazine and Ebony have written rave reviews about her.
Another publication tabbed her as the “Best New Country Artist,” following the release of her debut Album, Freeway Bound. That album, which Marks wrote seven of the 10 songs, then made history, officially putting her in the limelight of stardom. Marks penned one of those songs-Mama-a tear-jerk tribute to her late mother, in 10 minutes.
Freeway Bound was selected as the “2007 Country Album of the Year” at the Independent Music Awards.
It was the first time that an African American woman had ever received such recognition. But Marks isn’t one to sit on her laurels and dwell on yesterday. She’s in the studio trying to wrap up recording of her third album and recently made a nationally-televised appearance on The Mo’Nique Show.
Mark said appearing on The Mo’Nique Show was like a transformation for her, both personally and professionally.
After putting the wraps on her sophomore album dubbed, It Feels Good, Marks felt her career was stuck in the sand. She felt she had to do something different, something radical to shake up her career. She got up one morning and shed all of the long brown locks she had on her head. Two days later, Marks received a phone call from the producers of The Mo’Nique Show.
“I felt stuck artistically, as a person on so many different levels,” Marks said.”I just felt stuck. Every day, I was waking up and looking in the mirror, singing my songs, doing the same thing. I said, ‘There’s got to be some kind of growth. There’s got to be another level to me and to this what I am doing. I just got to get there.’
“Actually, it was a long time coming, and by the time The Mo’Nique Show called me, I thought that it would be the perfect time. They called two days after I cut my hair. I believe in things happening for a reason. That kind of told me in my spirit that now I was ready. As soon as I cut my hair, opportunity revealed itself.”
Despite receiving acclaim for her first two albums and collecting awards, Marks felt like she was treading water in her career. She had made the rounds of singing the national anthem at Major League Baseball ballparks and for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. She did her thing with the Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo Invitational every year.
Marks wasn’t satisfied. She needed to do more. Appearing on The Mo’Nique Show, may have opened up more opportunities for Marks, who now lives in Oakland, California.
“That was my first national TV appearance,” Marks said. “Having me on BET was surreal. It was how it should have been. Being on Mo’Nique…it couldn’t have been more perfect. A lot of the feedback I got from people was that they didn’t know there was an African American country music artist or they hadn’t heard of me.”
Those that didn’t know about her then certainly know about Marks and her music now. Listening to Marks and her music is like listening to someone who can tell a story with the precision of a doctor’s scalpel.
Marks incorporate a little bit of every kind of musical sector into her latest CD. There’s some blues, a dash of R&B and even new age. Growing up in Michigan, Marks had that southern music to draw from.
“I don’t try to sit in a country box,” Marks said. “I try to make good music. Sometimes you have to dip down into different kinds of genres. A lot of people came from the South for the automotive jobs, so in doing so, my relatives brought a lot of that southern music with them-blues, country music and R&B.
“I’ve been exposed to all kinds of music. I just happened to gravitate to writing and my style of writing just happens to be the type of storytelling that is considered to be country music. But in my eyes, I’m just writing a song.”
Marks is hopeful that she and other African Americans like Rissi Palmer can be trendsetters for future generations to look up to.
“For a long time there had been no representation other than Charley Pride,” said Marks. “You’ve had people dip in and dip out, but there has not been any solid representation to show that they might just like it too. Everytime you put country music on-everybody is blonde, they’re white; they’re white males.
If you can’t see yourself in that picture, how would you identify with that on any level? How can you build a relationship with it if there is nothing of you there? It’s the same with golf and Tiger Woods. African Americans weren’t really focused in on that sport. But now it’s opened it up.”
I write about sports, racial and social justice, culture, and everything else in between. Beat writer for the Rams, Chargers, Lakers, and Clippers. Part of the inaugural Associated Press Sports Editors Diversity Fellowship class. Howard University alum.