Adeem the Artist colors in the spaces that have been neglected

The North Carolina-born country musician, who visits Rumba Cafe for a concert on Thursday, Feb. 22, wants the genre to reflect the full breadth of voices and experiences alive in the South.
Adeem the Artist
Adeem the ArtistCourtesy the musician

The day after Toby Keith died of stomach cancer at the age of 62, Adeem the Artist posted a heartfelt message to social media in which they confronted Keith’s complex legacy head-on, praising the country star’s sharp, compelling early songwriting while remaining critical of the jingoism into which he slipped later in his career, and with which he never took the opportunity to reckon.

In a mid-February interview, Adeem said the impulse that led Keith to “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” could fairly be excused as a byproduct of the moment. It’s a song the likes of Jason Isbell might have written in the immediate heat of Sept. 11, Adeem said, and then added that if they had been old enough to join the military in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks, they very well might have enlisted. What Adeem couldn’t excuse, though, was the reductive, hard right lurch Keith continued to take in the months and years that followed. 

“One thing that happened with that, and is exemplified in his brash, misogynistic attacks on Natalie Maines [of the Chicks], is that he realized, ‘Oh, there’s money to be made here.’ And that’s when we got ‘Trailerhood.’ And that’s when we saw this dip into exploiting … marginalized folks and their perspectives,” said Adeem, who lampooned this turn in “I Wish You Would’ve Been a Cowboy,” a song they retired from their set following Keith’s cancer diagnosis. “You know, fuck it, let’s go all in. I feel like Toby Keith learned you could make a lot of money off pandering to bigotry. I believe that’s what happened. … And I believe that type of music becomes anthemic for people who are unwilling to allow agency to perspectives that diverge from theirs.”

Left unchallenged, these narrow views can have damning down-river consequences, Adeem said, helping till the soil for politicians who pass fear-based, hate-filled legislation. This includes the deluge of anti-trans bills currently sweeping the nation, which are having a devastating impact on members of the trans community, stripping people of needed medical care, barring them from using the bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, and leaving them more susceptible to physical attacks such as the one levied against Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died the day after being beaten by classmates at Owasso High School in Oklahoma earlier this month. “Heart is broken for Nex Benedict and for all of the kids like us,” Adeem wrote on X (formerly Twitter). “I wonder how many children must be brutalized before these cowards in suits take the bigotry they court seriously?”

But Keith is not the only Nashville headliner to draw Adeem’s ire. In July 2023, Jason Aldean earned similar derision following the release of “Try That in a Small Town,” a dog whistle-embedded anthem whose basic premise centers on the Fox News-approved mythology that cities have rotted into crime-ridden hellholes while small towns remain places rich with neighborly charm, a concept Adeem brutally satirized in the song “Sundown Town.”

Early in our 40-minute conversation, Adeem expressed mixed feelings about these sorts of viral moments, sharing their tendency to shy from any attention generated in their wake. “When the Aldean video (‘Sundown Town’) went viral, I put it up and 20 minutes later it was on every website, and I didn’t do anything,” they said. “I was trying to diminish that impact. ... That’s not who I am and it’s not what I want to be. I don’t want to spend my life writing hack political commentary for people who agree with me.” 

At the same time, the musician has little regret about punching up, particularly when it comes to confronting those country music stars who have at times espoused a limited view of the genre, one that Adeem said shuts communities out rather than acknowledging the full spectrum of voices living and creating in the South. 

“And the reason I don’t mind it is that I feel like they’re bullies in a lot of ways. I think the same reason a Black person doesn’t feel safe going to a country show is the same reason that I’m bullying Toby Keith and Morgan Wallen and Jason Aldean and anybody else who wants to try paint the South as this monolithic, conservative, right wing, good ol’ boy bullshit,” said Adeem, who let out a sharp chuckle at their use of the word “bullying” in this context. “And, yeah, that’s here, and it’s fine. It’s part of our culture. I’m not trying to erase them, and I think White Trash Revelry showcased that. I wasn’t trying to eclipse the understanding of Southern culture that’s already here. I’m trying to add to it, you know, to color in the spaces that have been neglected.”

There appears to be an appetite for this approach, too. Earlier this year, Adeem launched a crowdfunding campaign for their forthcoming full-length, surpassing the $20k goal with minimal effort and far ahead of schedule. “Clearly there are people who feel forgotten by this industry and this culture,” said Adeem, who slammed mainstream country music as a corrupted industry in which airplay and awards are driven by an artist’s willingness to ignore decades of sexism, racism and endless centering of the straight white male perspective.

If the mainstream continues to look away from artists such as Adeem, it’s really country music’s loss. White Trash Revelry, from 2022, remains a consistently staggering record, with Adeem building lovingly rendered narratives centered on a disparate cast of characters who stretch from the aged white man struggling to find connection in a world that he feels is eager to leave him behind (“My America”) to the young person who fumbles with their phone as a means to distract themself from the unfounded fear that maybe their crush doesn’t have quite the same feelings about them (“For Judas”).

The musician also draws out rich dimensions in the types of people who are consistently erased from depictions of the region surfaced in mainstream country music. Witness “Redneck, Unread Hicks,” a languid tune on which Southerners organize Black lives matter protests from trailer parks, transfeminine folks rep Pontiac Trans Ams, and members of the queer community shout “Free Palestine!” before outdrinking the competition from repurposed fruit jars.

Indeed, the entire album vibrates with a deep dedication to community. And even when Adeem interrogates the evils of white supremacy on the blistering “Heritage of Arrogance,” they do so not in a lecturing tone but in the spirit of pulling together. “We can dismantle this/If you can stand with us,” they sing.

“I really very much wanted the record to be an open hand,” said Adeem, who first began to ask questions centered on race after Ferguson police shot and killed Black teenager Michael Brown in 2014. This awakening intensified in the short time the musician lived in New Jersey, where they worked as a chaplain in the Episcopal Service Corps. The position required Adeem to attend racial sensitivity training, and they described the experience as “a big key in why I feel compelled to activism now.”

Prior to receiving this training, Adeem said they had typically scoffed at the idea of white privilege – a concept that felt impossibly distant from their experience growing up as “this white trash kid from Gastonia.” But the session shook the musician's inherited belief system, particularly when participants were shown a video in which young Black girls were presented with two dolls, one white and one Black, and then asked a series of questions like, “Which one of these dolls is good and successful and beautiful?”

“And it was always the white doll,” Adeem said. “Then they’d ask them, ‘Which doll do you think is bad?’ ‘The Black one.’ And these are little Black girls, and I just fucking cried, man. And that was one of the biggest things that hit me, that there are kids in our country who are absorbing this type of self-hatred because of the racist beliefs of fucking old white guys. And watching how that was being manifested, and how it was impacting the mental health of these kids, it really made me feel like I have to take ownership of this.”

For Adeem, an important part of this experience has involved not abandoning those who have yet to undergo a similar awakening, and who continue to hew to closed-off attitudes shaped by generational poverty and fueled by news outlets that thrive on fear of the other, be it immigrants, people of color, or members of the queer community. 

“I felt like there was a window for someone who wasn’t trying to browbeat on their self-importance or validate their allyship, but rather was willing to compromise the integrity of their allyship by choosing to empathize with people who might not seem safe for some marginalized people,” Adeem said. “‘You can call me a white supremacist, whatever helps you sleep,’ that character [in ‘My America’] is not somebody the Black Opry wants hanging around their shows, right? 

“But the reality of it is, there’s no way for us to coexist with these types of ideologies, and so a lot of people, and for good reason, say, ‘Fine. Let’s wait until they die off, and let’s do everything we fucking can to stomp them out and make them unwelcome.’ And I understand that. And I would never purport to be a better person, or better at doing this, because I’ve chosen a different way. But I have chosen a different way. And the different way I’m imagining is this: What if we can stomp out that dogmatic ideology through the practice of care and in trying to stitch together community in a meaningful way? What if those people were allowed to come into spaces and be changed by the way that they make them feel? And that’s what I tried to do on that record. I don’t know that I succeeded. And I don’t know that any of the people that record was meant for give two fucks about me. But I did my best and I tried to show up for my community.”

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