Mississippi has been damned for its treatment of Black Americans and praised for the enchantments we’ve generated. The Dockery Plantation notably juts out for its intersection of both. Erected in the mid 1890s, the farm orbited around cotton production, the very plant enslaved Africans were forced to pluck from sharp, ecru and saddle bracts. It’s been dubbed the ‘Birthplace of the Blues,’ for the high volume of music greats who’ve passed through the land. Among them are distinct precursors to gritty soul music — Chester “Howlin’ Wolf’ Burnett, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. Johnson famously alleged he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the shredding skills on what my late aunt would call the “git-tar.” For singer Kirby, affiliation with the plot is bittersweet.
“It was a sad moment for me when I went to that place,” the contemporary soul singer says of Dockery. “It’s like, okay, clearly my ancestors gave it value, but do we own it now? But on the flip side of that, it really confirmed that my love for soul music wasn’t just something that I chose, but it was literally in my lineage.” Her full name is Kirby Dockery.
“For me to share the last name of the plantation that really is called the birthplace of the blues, for me, it was confirmation that we don’t do soul music just because it’s trendy. It’s literally something that’s in my blood. So I just try to honor that in everything that I do. I remind myself, ‘Kirby, you got to do this because this is what you called to do, not something that you chose.'”
She is well acquainted with multiple timelines of the past, particularly her own and soul music’s, but she is dogged about looking ahead. Intertwining neo soul and funk influences with history, modern technology and a dash of fun, she’s designed a realm of her own imagining that centralized both previously mentioned fascinations. She becomes giddy at the mention of blues visionaries who left roadmaps to authenticity and success, understanding the weight, and glory, of lineage.
In 2020, she released her debut project ‘Sis,’ after having written for pop monoliths like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Ariana Grande. Roc Nation is her home label and she is gearing up for the release the followup to the funky ‘Sis,’ — ‘Sis, He Wasn’t the One.’ We sat down for a conversation with the soul flower about history, the glow up and what’s coming next.
Girls United (GU): I know you’re from Mississippi, which is where Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf are from as well. I feel like their work is really a part of the predecessor to soul music as we know it. So tell me about how your upbringing ties into your sound.
Kirby: Man. Let me tell you something. You can’t just talk about no Howlin’ Wolf, girl, and me not say something while you saying those words, because everybody don’t know their life, but I grew up on the blues. My father is a blues man. He loved him some Johnny Taylor and some B.B. King, but it wasn’t really until I went back and saw that there’s a place that they call the birthplace for the blues in Mississippi, that’s called the Dockery Plantation. And it’s a place, honestly, where a lot of people like Howlin’ Wolf would stop through because they have this juke joint that everybody would play at. It was basically where you would get the chops and really learn the rite of passage to be a blues player.
GU: Absolutely. I feel like there’s such a link between different genres of Black music. You have spirituals, which evolved into the blues, which evolved into jazz, which took root and eventually became hip-hop. So how have you, research-wise, parsed through that history and applied some of those lessons to what you’re currently doing?
Kirby: Oh, man. I feel like for me, really, my biggest history lesson was growing up in Memphis and attending Stax Music Academy. They really make us… You got to know Carla Thomas, you got to know the story of Otis Redding. We were 16, singing Sam & Dave, you know? So I feel like for me, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee and attending that academy, I had a real life history lesson, because those are the songs that set the standard for us as kids. It’s like, this is what you got to know. This is what you got to be able to sing. And so I feel like a lot of my history comes from that experience.
Stax Music is a game changer for me. That’s when I realized, “Okay, all right. You got to honor these people in what you do. You’re not the first person that thought you could write a soul song.” And it was so crazy because we would be in the after school program, mind you, this is probably 10 years ago…Bootsy Collins would come in and talk to us personally. So for me, I saw it up close and personal, what it’s like to really be a soul artist. So my upbringing and my environment afforded me to really have a hands-on history lesson for that genre.
GU: One thing that I have appreciated about Bootsy Collins is how willing he’s been to extend his hand back and really pull the newer generation in. He’s always spotlighting up-and-coming talent, and I think that’s so special because he’s an icon. His legacy is very deeply rooted in funk.
Kirby: A good friend of mine, Aleesia…she produced his last record. They have such a great relationship, but like you said, he really is paying it forward, giving his hand to the youth. And listen, soul music only lives, funk music only lives if y’all keep doing this. So let me show y’all the sauce. Let me invite y’all into this world. And he was like that even when I was like… Man, I had to be… I don’t know. I was super young at the time, but he was so personable. He came in and you know he had the hat on and he had the glasses, and he came in with his wife. I was like, ‘Yo, what?’ Just walked into the room. There’s literally a picture, girl. I’m sitting in awe and he’s right there.
GU: Your song “Coconut Oil” has a very seventies feel to it. Walk me through the creative process for that song.
Kirby: Oh, man. Girl, listen. Can’t go outside in my apartment in quarantine, and trying to turn up, I really kind of… I figured out I had to teach myself to start having more fun. [B]ecause of this quarantine, it really brought to light how much life for me had really just all been about work. I had started doing these daily workouts with my best friend, and my best friend, she’s a stuffy old woman. She’s an artist as well. But when I tell you, she’s like the life of the party. So I asked could we do a workout, she would start working and dancing and… I was like, ‘Oh my God, girl. I can’t even keep up.’
So I think that energy of really wanting to have fun, but also kind of feel like, ‘Kirby, say something. How can you make a Black girl magic anthem that up uplifts women, but we can twerk and have fun at the same time?” And I felt like for me, that’s what ‘Coconut Oil’ [is.]
I felt like the thing that makes me happy with ‘Coconut Oil’ is I really do feel like if I said those lyrics, if I said those lyrics as affirmations, I would be proud of myself. It literally can lift you up. Yeah. But at the same time, the beat is so… It’s fun, you know? So for me, that’s what it was for me. It was like, ‘How can I say affirming things to Black women, and also give them space to say these things and have fun with it?’ Because so many times we got to, ‘I am, I am, I am,’ and it’s a very serious thing. But I wanted also to combine our am-ness with our joy and our laughter and having fun with our girls. So that’s what it is for me.
GU: I also wanted to talk about your impact beyond music. I know this because I saw the video last year, but you were one of the first people to call out Aunt Jemima, which is now going by Pearl Mill, about the racist origins of the Aunt Jemima character, Nancy Green and who she really was. So talk to me about what made you want to share that history and your reaction to it taking wings the way that it did.
Kirby: You know, God has a sense of humor, because baby, when I tell you I had that pancake mix in my fridge. Now apparently, folks don’t put it in they fridge. Me and my mama do. I guess that’s something I grew up with.
GU: You can’t leave it open!
Kirby: I know! I know. I don’t just have it in the cabinet for the ants. So anyway, girl, I put mine in the fridge, so people was coming for me, but that’s all right. So I literally, I grew up on Aunt Jemima, so I had that thing in my fridge, and with everything happening last year, I feel like everybody was really sensitive to asking questions. Like, ‘Hold up, I don’t have to accept this.’ Or, ‘Should I be supporting this more? Is this Black-owned?’
So I was hungry, girl, truth be told, and I looked in my fridge. I was like, ‘Woo. This must be Black-owned.’ And child, when I Googled it, I said, ‘Oh my God.’ And I have seen this on my aunt’s table, my uncle’s table, my grandma’s table. I said, ‘How many Black people support Aunt Jemima and don’t know the history?’ Because me, I didn’t know anything. So it was really just a moment of humility. And I tell people all the time, I don’t want to take any title of somebody who knows it all, because that happened to me from a place of not knowing, and doing the research and saying, ‘Oh, no, honey. I know if I don’t know this, there’s somebody that’s about look this up in six hours and cooking for they kids and have no idea what the history behind this brand is.’
So I feel like anytime that I find something like that, as I grow and unlearn my own conditioning and unlearn things that I’ve accepted as the norm, I just feel compelled to share. So that, to me, the only credit I can take for that is really just being curious and just asking the question, and just feeling compelled to share what I think apparently a lot of people as well didn’t know.
GU: I remember doing some research on it a couple of years ago, because I was researching stereotypes of Black women in media. Of course, the Mammy trope came up, and I started looking at different ways that it was pervasive in different forms of media, not just television and online. So I came across it and I was really shocked, it was based on a real person. She traveled across [the] country. She was a celebrity of sorts at the time. But then you think about the fact that two men orchestrated this narrative and really were successful in pushing it for over a hundred years. And you just think about how that colored so many Black women’s ideas of themselves. So it’s way more than just an image that sits on a table.
Kirby: It’s so deep.
GU: It’s very layered, and so I really appreciate you for shedding light on it, because like you said, a lot of people didn’t know, and last summer was a point of education for a lot of people.
Kirby: It really was. It really was, myself included. You know what I’m saying?
It wasn’t until turning 30 that I really got to a point of like, ‘Okay, 30; you got to unlearn some things.’ And I’m still working on it. That’s why I say things in my music. I’m talking to myself. I’m trying to say lyrics that would help me unlearn all the negative stereotypes and all the things that I feel like I’ve been told I had to be in order to be valuable as a Black woman, to be seen as a Black woman, to be considered beautiful as a Black woman. I don’t ever say things from a place of knowing or already having achieved. I’m literally teaching myself as I sing or as I TikTok about it. It’s happening in real time. The growth is happening in real time.
GU: I think the best way to live life, is to let that growth and maturity unfold in real time. And it can be a little bit scary because we do live in a digital age, and so for that growth to happen, sometimes it happens to be public. But if you maintain that spirit of humility, as you mentioned earlier, I think it makes the process a lot smoother. But my next question is if you have any direct influences on your music that people wouldn’t expect.
Kirby: Oh, you know, girl, I really love me some Stevie Nicks. I really love some Fleetwood Mac…The Eagles. I feel like people wouldn’t expect that but I just love harmony, and a lot of those influences almost come out more so in what I write for other people. I remember writing this song for Christina [Aguilera] and it was directly influenced by Fleetwood Mac. My mind was completely in their entire world.
People would probably be surprised that…you could probably tell me a soul song that I don’t know. And I think that’s a good thing, because for me, I’m not going to go into a session and have just listened to an Aretha Franklin album or record. Because I feel like it won’t give me a new approach. I feel like I’m naturally country. I’m naturally, baby, deep fried. So I try to expand my ear in a different world so that when I approach soul music, I’m not just coming from the salt and pepper that I traditionally use. I could come in there with a smoked paprika, baby, and be like, ‘Oh, y’all didn’t know. This belongs in the greens too.’
So I have to go out of my way to try to listen to Tame Impala, or listen to Fleet Foxes…I have to go out of my way jungle to listen to different stuff so that when I approach it, I’m not doing a tribute record. Because you owe to those people to go before you to be innovative. You owe it to them. And the way to do that, I learn, or try to learn to do that, is by Kirby, listen to other things and incorporate it so that it can be more so future soul instead of an ode to soul.
GU: I also want to talk about consistency, because I feel like that’s been one of the keys to your success. Your song-a-day challenge ultimately led to you getting signed with Roc Nation. So coupled with talent, of course, are there any other traits that you believe landed you here?
Kirby: You know what? Somebody else brought up that word ‘consistency’ to me today too, and it’s really speaking to me. I feel like one thing that I have to continue to hold on to is not being afraid to be laughed at. I had ‘Teach Me How to Twerk’ done over a year ago, but girl, I started dating this guy and I said, ‘Oh, no…What if he think, ‘This girl is just too cuckoo for me.’ I kind of got in my head about it and I was like, ‘I’m not ready to release this. I’m not ready for people to laugh at me.’ But I’ve really had to always remind myself, ‘Kirby, you got to not be afraid. Run from shame.’
After I was signed and I had got these placements with Kanye and all these big people, I went back home to Mississippi and we started releasing songs. I didn’t have management. I didn’t have anybody that really believed me at the time. We were in the middle of a field and had went to Home Depot and had covered these huge wooden squares. Right? Because I told them, I said, ‘I want to do my version of Colors and do it outside.’
I had two thoughts in my mind. The first thought was, ‘Girl, don’t do this. Just wait until you really get the big budget. Wait till you get signed, and then people will see you and then you can do it the way you want to do it.’ But my other mind was telling me, ‘If you don’t do it where you are now, you won’t get to the next place.’
I feel like for me, I’ve never been ashamed. Or not never have. I really actively try to fight against being ashamed of starting small or being ashamed of what people are going to say, because people who going to talk about you, baby, they going to talk about you regardless…I’m okay with starting smaller, watching it grow. That literally has been the story of my career. I didn’t go viral until a couple of years ago, but some songs, I have three thousand views on [them.] People couldn’t find them. It’s hard to search for original music that you’re just putting on YouTube. And if I would’ve just let that discourage me, I would’ve never been able to see that this part was a part of my reality as well.
GU: Tell me about the new music that you have coming this autumn and your tour with John Legend.
Kirby: Oh, wow, girl. Which is another case of not being afraid to shoot your shot, because that was not a situation where the industry made that happen or management made that happen. I literally tweeted him and he saw that.
GU: Oh, wow.
Kirby: That’s all gas. And that tweet had maybe got 60 retweets. God always tests me and He’s like, ‘Okay, how big do you think you are? Will you shoot your shot at John Legend or will you be like, Uh-uh. I need my team to be doing this. I look silly. I’m an artist now. I’ve got to place this. I shouldn’t have to reach out via Twitter. Child, bye. No. If shoot my shot with a person, I would want you to see my face. Really and truly.
So yes, such a blessing. I’m excited, girl. We got costumes. We got dancers. I’m going to make sure that stage is warm for him, so when he gets on it, baby, he ain’t got to do nothing but sing…We really literally going to leave the door open. So I think it’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be fun. And I’m just humbled that he would even choose me, because he didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to give me this opportunity. So I’m grateful. I really, really am grateful.
Album is coming out [in] October, entitled, Sis, He Wasn’t the One. Leon, baby, was not who we hoped to be, child. Let me say something. Life is really imitating art, because I’m in a situation now where I’m like, ‘God, are you sure he’s not?’ And it’s like, ‘Listen, girl. You already have said he’s not. Why are you trying to fight this?’ So for me, I’m excited about it. The songs are bigger, the production is bigger, but most importantly, it’s just another part of the story.
Photo credit: Source