If you ask Anita White when exactly negotiations between her and the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum over use of the name “Lady A” went sideways, she’ll tell you they were never straight — not even in the beginning. “I think they always knew what they were gonna do,” she said over the phone, moments after news went wide and far that the band is taking her to court.
On July 7, the band filed a lawsuit against White after “com[ing] 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.” In the process, they’ve walked considerably far back from the pledge they made less than a month ago, when they dropped the “Antebellum” from their name, consequently encroaching on the brand that White had established since first performing as Lady A in 1987. They’re even further, still, from the remorse and intended restitution they implied once they became aware of White’s existence; the smiling faces from their Zoom call have been replaced by condescending rebuke: “We hope Anita and the advisers she is now listening to will change their minds about their approach,” the band wrote in a statement about the lawsuit published by Billboard. “We can do so much more together than in this dispute.”
Black folk know this game; we have a Ph.D. in white supremacy, even if white folk themselves feign ignorance of its existence. This pivoting and PR spinning has been deployed ad infinitum to turn white victor into wannabe victim, to wrap the already powerless in suffocating layers of guilt and shame. There are legalities, the band wrote in their statement. Back in 2010, when they were still known as Lady Antebellum, they filed to secure a trademark for “Lady A,” the nickname some fans were already using (simply as a shorthand, not stemming from any desire to minimize the racism of the word Antebellum). That White never came forward to object to the trademark is her fault, the lawsuit insists, and it supports their right to use the name, to flaunt it as they wield their power and privilege.
This legal standing may be valid, and this country has never failed to leverage the law in its acts of oppression. So the band’s flexing of their legal muscles is not surprising, even as the suit reveals the vast disparities between the music industry’s haves and have-nots, the gulfs made wider by racism. Having been independent for the entirety of her career, White never had the machine behind her that the band did when they trademarked her name in 2010; without guidance from a label, the self-distributed artist was unlikely to have foreseen the need to protect her Pacific Northwest brand from a Nashville-based country group. “You don’t get to just come and take because you have that privilege,” White says of the band and of the music industry as a whole. “We don’t have that luxury or that privilege, so we need somebody to help us and lift us up.”
In the lopsided world of American race relations, there is always a sense, particularly for white people, that the catalysts for the current divide are rooted firmly in the past, that we are simply actors in a play written well before our time. Because of this, true reconciliation becomes tenuous, as white folk generally reject any active responsibility to atone for the sins of their fathers. They never consider, however, that they are their fathers’ children, that all they’ve inherited is gathered in their own bloodstained hands. How else to explain the band’s decision, this callous contradiction of their own words posted across their social-media profiles on June 11?
“We are committed to examining our individual and collective impact and marking the necessary changes to practice antiracism,” they wrote.
“We will continue to educate ourselves, have hard conversations and search the parts of our hearts that need pruning — to grow into better humans, better neighbors,” they wrote.
“We can be better allies to those suffering from spoken and unspoken injustices,” they wrote.
It’s fitting that the band’s announcement of their intent to sue Lady A came just a day after Rolling Stone published a sweeping interview with Jeff Tweedy, front man of the rock band Wilco. On June 18, Tweedy made his own statement against racial injustice, but instead of leading with a hashtag or name change, he declared a tangible self-obligation to remedy the generations of theft inflicted on the Black collective.
“I can begin to do my part by committing 5% of my writer revenue to organizations that are working toward racial justice, which include but are not limited to Movement for Black Lives and Black Women’s Blueprint,” he posted on Instagram. He elaborated further to RS: “It’s not an exaggeration to say our culture wouldn’t be our culture without Black genius. There’s a shameful history there, and there are things the industry should still be ashamed of. There are things about the way Black artists are treated today that are different and unfair. It isn’t an equal playing field.” Who could have known that, for those needing further context to understand the power of Tweedy’s stand, the band still called Lady Antebellum would provide the ideal framework.
When a white band seeks to co-opt the name of a Black blues singer in a genre that has co-opted the sound of far too many Black blues (and gospel, R&B, etc.) singers, any seeds of goodwill that were planted on June 11, with the band’s initial statement, are ground to dust, blown away in the wind. It is almost comical that, even if the band thought legal force was the best way to move forward, they would actually follow through with it now — in this time, with protests ongoing, with so much work still to be done. And if nothing else, this unabashed disregard for the damning optics of their lawsuit further speaks to the racist bubble of country music and the ease with which folk inside of it can move as they please, Black lives be damned. It was just over a week ago when Chase Rice held a concert in Petros, Tennessee, for thousands of maskless fans who sang and danced shoulder-to-shoulder with zero concern for social-distancing guidelines. The country community was swift and stern in its condemnation; even high-profile artists like Kelsea Ballerini took Rice to task on Twitter. But now, on a matter that has been perceived just as poorly, and that could cause equally negative ramifications for the country industry as a whole, all is relatively silent on and around Music Row. This, as I wrote previously, is the environment that births a band that felt comfortable referencing slavery in its name for 14 years, that is now trampling on the income and image of an actual Black life while somehow claiming that Black Lives Matter.
In her very first conversation with the band, on June 15, when its members — Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood, and Charles Kelley — repeatedly asked to take a picture they could post on social media to show the world how they were “moving forward with positive solutions and common ground,” White could see that they weren’t really concerned about her position as an independent artist. The band wanted to record a song with White, she told me just after the lawsuit was announced, and they wanted to record the process, documentary style, to chronicle the proof that they were nothing like the rest of the country standing on opposite sides of life and liberty, unable or unwilling to meet in the middle. But as they spoke during the negotiations over the last two weeks, White began to realize that any meeting in the middle would result only from her own painstaking strides. The band had already made their splashy statement, declaring newfound wokeness by ceremoniously discarding the latter half of their name. Their declarations of faith were meaningless, White now says, because they never engaged with her in good faith.
“The first contract they sent [on June 30] had no substance,” she explains. “It said that we would coexist and that they would use their best efforts to assist me on social-media platforms, Amazon, iTunes, all that. But what does that mean? I had suggested on the Zoom call that they go by the Band Lady A, or Lady A the Band, and I could be Lady A the Artist, but they didn’t want to do that.”
At the same time, while the band was rebranding itself across the internet, pushing their own brand of Lady A up search results, White fell further down, becoming harder to find on Google and streaming platforms alike. A search for Lady A reveals the band first, and while White appears close to the top in artist results (second on Spotify, for example, and third on iTunes, after both “Lady A” the band and “Lady Antebellum”), her music is sometimes dozens of entries deep, far beneath the country group’s vast catalogue. “I attempted to upload my single [on independent distribution service DistroKid] and couldn’t verify my name, Lady A, for several days,” she wrote to me, via email, on June 30. “It finally went through and now I’m just waiting until my July release to see if my single will be buried.”
White says that the goal since learning of the band’s name switch-up was always to continue to perform and release music under the name Lady A. But as the band proved unwilling to compromise, she began to consider other options for protecting her business interests. Regarding the $10 million she asked for when her attorney sent the latest draft of the coexistence agreement on July 3 — what Nashville songwriter Shane McAnally recklessly likened to extortion on Twitter — White says that it was simply a request for the necessary resources to support herself and, perhaps more importantly, the entire Black community. Her plan, she told me, was to use $5 million to rebrand, to start over as an artist with more than 20 years in the game — but without the high-powered label and management machine of a Lady Antebellum. The other $5 million was to be donated to the charities of her choice, including organizations that provide support to other independent Black artists. If the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum was going to vow to support to Black lives, Lady A says, she was going to hold them to it.
With the pro bono support of intellectual-property attorneys from the Palo Alto–headquartered Cooley law firm, White is confident that justice will eventually prevail. If she has any concern about the way negotiations have crumbled for all the world to see, it is for the way she is being portrayed by the band, how she believes they are positioning her as “the angry Black woman.” But even that won’t stop her fight.
“I was quiet for two weeks because I was trying to believe that it was going to be okay and that they would realize that it would be easier to just change their name, or pay me for my name,” White says. “Five million dollars is nothing, and I’m actually worth more than that, regardless of what they think. But here we go again with another white person trying to take something from a Black person, even though they say they’re trying to help. If you want to be an advocate or an ally, you help those who you’re oppressing. And that might require you to give up something because I am not going to be erased.”