Four days before Election Day 2020, Nashville singer-songwriter Allison Russell (Our Native Daughters, Birds of Chicago) offers up a powerful spoken-word essay that outlines her difficult personal upbringing and finds her negotiating her bundle of identities, while also urging Americans to vote this election.
“The only things I know for sure,” Russell says over historical footage of Nashville protests, “are…that empathy is a superpower, not a weakness, that democracy, though abused, is still the least abusive system of government we’ve yet conceived.”
Russell wrote the speech just a few weeks ago, when she was asked to deliver a speech at a rally with Tennessee Senatorial candidate Marquita Bradshaw. She recorded the speech last week with T Bone Burnett and Colin Linden. Russell ends the performance by singing a snippet of the African-American standard “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as well as the 2016 Birds of Chicago song “Barley.”
After receiving accolades as one quarter of the Rhiannon Giddens-helmed supergroup Our Native Daughters, Russell’s speech comes on the precipice of what promises to be a pivotal year for the singer, who has signed to Fantasy Records (home to Tanya Tucker, Valerie June, and Ry Cooder) and will be releasing her debut solo album in 2021.
Speaking to Rolling Stone last year, Russell described recording and writing with Our Native Daughters as a formative experience: “I had just never been in a room with three other black women writers,” she said. “[Rhiannon] thought initially that the project would be more kind of excavating and reclaiming music that was already in the public domain, but what ended up happening was four writers getting in a room and just writing a bunch of stuff.”