Folk Musician Lizzie No On Anger That Heals

Apr 15, 2017
Originally published on April 15, 2017 9:40 am

As she was growing up, Lizzie No sang in her church's choir and played the concert harp. Later, she discovered Bob Dylan and started teaching herself his songs on the harp. But she says she wasn't exposed to much folk music in her youth — and she didn't really know if there was a place for her within the genre.

"There is a long tradition of black people playing folk music, but I wasn't really aware of it," No says. "It's not all that visible in popular culture, so it took me a while to find my way and see where I fit."

Now, the Brooklyn-based musician has put out the album Hard Won, on which she sings and plays harp and guitar. The title song, she says, conveys her realization that opposing emotions can coexist productively.

"A lot of women, especially women of color, are handed this idea that we have to be really strong for everybody and that our anger and our sadness and our confusion is dangerous, and that's something that I've internalized a lot throughout the course of my life," No says. "So the title track, 'Hard Won' — it really is a victory, a personal victory for myself because I had to get used to the idea that it was okay to get mad and actually have anger be a tool for healing rather than something that's scary."

Another song on the album, "The Killing Season," came out of the grief No felt last summer, when she heard a string of news stories about people of color being killed by police.

"The worst thing that can happen to a person is to not be allowed to be seen as fully human in the complex ways that we all are," she says. "So I felt this need to start to describe my worldview and what I was experiencing. And I think I'm gonna keep doing it."

Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Music has been an important part of Lizzie No's life for a long time. Growing up, she sang in the church choir, and she played concert harp. Then she discovered Bob Dylan and started teaching herself his songs on the harp, but she didn't really grow up with much folk music.

LIZZIE NO: There is a long tradition of black people playing folk music, but I wasn't really aware of it. And it's not all that visible in popular culture. So it took me a while to kind of find my way and see where I fit, but I'm still kind of getting used to the idea that somebody like me could find a home in this genre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD WON")

NO: (Singing) Put my feet under cold water whenever I get home, and I tell myself that I did it all better than I might've done.

The album that I just put out is called "Hard Won." And the idea for that phrase, hard won, really stuck with me because even in those words, it contains this feeling that I often have that joy and sorrow or struggle and triumph kind of live in the same house.

In the title track I wrote - it opens with put my feet under cold water whenever I come home. And that's something that you have to do in New York when you come in after a hot day. And it kind of represented for me washing away a lot of struggles that I'd been through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD WON")

NO: (Singing) But I kept hanging on to the very end of my rope when sitting down all right with myself came hard won, hard won.

I have been up and down with depression for about half my life. A lot of women, especially women of color, are handed this idea that we have to be really strong for everybody and that our anger and our sadness and our confusion is dangerous. And that's something that I've internalized a lot throughout the course of my life. So the title track, "Hard Won" - it really is a victory, a personal victory for myself, because I had to get used to the idea that it was OK to get mad and actually have anger be a tool for healing rather than something that's scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD WON")

NO: (Singing) It was hard won, hard won.

So last summer, I felt like every week I was hearing a new story of a person of color doing all the right things but just being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and being killed by police. And I know that this is something that has happened in our country for a long time, but it just felt so poignant hearing it on the news all the time. "The Killing Season" came out of that grief and that fear that I was processing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE KILLING SEASON")

NO: (Singing) There's no telling our shapes apart when the killing season comes.

The worst thing that can happen to a person is to not be allowed to be seen as fully human in the complex ways that we all are. So I felt this need to start to describe my worldview and what I was experiencing, and I think I'm going to keep doing it.

WERTHEIMER: That was Lizzie No. Her first album is called "Hard Won."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTLAWS")

NO: (Singing) You hold a gun like a fist in your right hand 'cause it kept you company across the sunken lands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.