It's easy to forget, in its current whitewashed and sterilized state, that blues music used to be dark and dangerous. From Robert Johnson’s hellhounds to Geeshie Wiley’s buzzards, there was a time, many decades ago, when blues was the devil’s music. Adia Victoria knows about those blues.
On her debut single, 2014’s “Stuck in the South,” Victoria plays a swampy blues riff on her electric guitar and sings, “I don’t know much about Southern belles/But I can tell you something ’bout Southern hell.” Last year, she released her first full-length, Beyond the Bloodhounds. While she still finds herself embedded in the South, Victoria now speaks as someone who escaped, briefly, and returned as though she were drawn back by some unfinished business.
Victoria was born in South Carolina, then lived in New York City and Paris for a spell. She eventually headed back south—first to Atlanta, then to Nashville, where she’s lived for the last seven years. In the two years between her first EP and Beyond the Bloodhounds, Victoria toured extensively, developed a wider-ranging array of sounds, and grew more comfortable as a songwriter.
“I became more open to the idea of letting people see less flattering sides of myself,” she says on the phone from Nashville. “I felt a little more confident in my abilities to communicate as an artist and musician.”
Beyond the Bloodhounds keeps one muddy foot in the blues, but incorporates many different sounds of the South, from Gothic Americana to Oblivians-fueled garage rock. Victoria hisses like a canebrake on “Dead Eyes,” and on the next track, the slow-burning “Out of Love,” sings as sugary as sweet tea, even with lyrics like, “He asked me what I feel inside/‘Not a thing’ was my reply/I guess I wouldn’t mind if I were to die.”
Though the album’s Southern conception bleeds through each of its 12 tracks, Beyond the Bloodhounds is also informed by Victoria’s early childhood, particularly the first 12 years of her life spent as a Seventh-day Adventist.
“A lot of other Christian denominations believe that when you die you go to heaven or you go to hell,” Victoria says. “Adventists believe that when you die you’re dead until the Second Coming. For me, that posed a psychological terror—that I didn’t turn into an angel when I died, that I just went into the ground and rotted... I was instilled with an acute sense of anxiety over my eternal soul, if I would see my family again after we died. My dreaded fear was Christ coming back and my family rising up to the sky, but I didn’t because I wasn’t saved.”
Victoria’s first introduction to the blues came 10 years ago, by way of Houston singer and piano player Victoria Spivey. Also known as Queen Victoria, Spivey was a popular and tenacious performer in the first half of the century, recording with folks like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and a very young Bob Dylan. She also had two bestselling hits, “Black Snake Blues” and “Dirty Woman Blues.”
“For me, as a young Black woman at 20, it was important to see something of my story being made into art,” Victoria says. “Up until that point I felt like I was an anomaly, like I was isolated in my own existence, like no one else was going through these things. The blues gave me a voice, especially seeing Black women who looked like me, with hair like mine and skin like mine, telling me my story.”
In a genre that’s now dominated by men—particularly white men—to be a Black female guitar player is to challenge long-held, preconceived notions about Black women.
“A lot of times we, as Black women, are invisible,” Victoria says. “Or, when we are represented, it’s such a gross manipulation, a racist stereotype, it’s not even human. It’s this ugly, distorted figment of the white imagination that you have to contend with. So when you actually see a representation of Black femininity, it’s so rare and it’s so precious, and it means so much.”
As she tours the country and looks out at different audiences in different towns night after night, Victoria—a Black woman whose father is a Trinidadian immigrant—now finds her very existence at the center of national debate. Though her music is highly personal to her, she acknowledges she’s been granted a unique opportunity and an effective platform.
“I can only speak for myself; I can only speak to my experiences,” she says. “But I hope that maybe my story will inspire someone—or maybe some white kid in the audience, maybe it challenges him to confront the one-dimensional stereotypical idea he has of Black humanity, and maybe that will put him in touch with his own humanity. Or maybe a young sister comes to my show, sees me playing and says, ‘Hey, I can do that too,’ and then she can go out and tell her own story.”