And the battle between the two Lady A’s — mega-successful, white country band vs. obscure, Black blues singer — continues. Now lawyers are involved, and no matter who ends up being victorious in the quest to stake a legal claim to the name, the Lady A formerly known as Lady Antebellum has already lost.
The showdown began in June shortly after Lady Antebellum announced on Twitter that in the wake of protests following the May 25 murder of George Floyd by a white cop, they’d done deep soul searching and decided to change their name from Lady Antebellum — the A-word, Latin for “before the war,” is drenched in slavery-era subtext — to the seemingly less triggering Lady A.
The announcement earned the country trio more publicity in the mass media than they’ve procured in the 11 years since “Need You Now” became their biggest hit, and the attention multiplied after a Seattle-based blues singer named Anita White, who says she has been using the name Lady A for 20 years, showed up and called foul.
Following a Zoom meeting of the two Lady A’s several days later, the band announced it had come to a friendly understanding and both parties would proceed as Lady A and maybe even collaborate on a musical project. But the detente has shifted into reverse. The two Lady A’s now are at war over the name, as the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum has sued Anita White in an attempt to compel a court to formally rule that both can continue using the name without fear of action from the other.
The trio claim it’s theirs anyway, having used Lady A as shorthand for Lady Antebellum since the mid-‘00s and even trademarking it in 2011. By their way of thinking, the Seattle singer should be lucky that they’re even willing to share it. But according to country band, the blues singer demanded a $10 million payment for use of the name. She says the band presented her with a written agreement that she “was not happy about,” and rather than share the name — and become invisible in “Lady A” search results for the rest of time — she planned to use half of that $10 million to rebrand herself, and give the other half to Black charities.
It’s a messy situation that will likely have lasting ramifications for Lady A, the band, with many of the people whom the name change was supposed to impress. Even if they end up winning the right to claim Lady A, by playing hardball from a position of privilege with a Black musician, they’ve undone one symbolic gesture with another one. They’ve asserted their privilege and supremacy by basically telling the blues singer: “You can keep your name — but you have to share it.”
In a country where whites have been taking from Blacks for centuries and an industry in which white artists have been adapting the artistry of pioneering Black talent for decades, it’s a move that reinforces how much things haven’t changed. Lady A is still acting like Lady Antebellum. There are shades of spoiled Scarlett O’Hara all over their actions.
Perhaps unintentionally, the suit goes to great lengths to assert the band’s privilege in its argument as to why they deserve access to the name: It points out that they have seven million Spotify listeners compared to the blues singer’s 166 monthly listeners, and that she performs primarily in the Pacific Northwest while they have an international following. Presumably, the point is that they have far more to lose, but it also throws their supremacy in her face. It’s like white Goliath going after Black David.
What happened to leading by example and being “better allies to those suffering from spoken and unspoken injustices,” as they promised to do in their June 11 tweet? Symbolic gestures are all good and fine, but ultimately, they change nothing. They might gain applause and progressive points from woke white people, but they tend to leave many Blacks with their arms folded, watching and wondering, “OK. So what now?”
There’s no real progress in marching for racial equality unless white people are willing to do more than make cosmetic changes and hashtag “Black Lives Matter” on social media. Solidarity begins with real, honest action — communicating with Black people as individuals rather than an overarching concept or cause. The onus for change here is on white Americans. They’ve been benefiting from privilege for so long, and now they might have to give up some of the things they value most, even their previously “good” names. Switching from Lady Antebellum to Lady A was just abbreviating a racist idea. The “Antebellum” is still implied. It’s like the Dixie Chicks becoming the D-Chicks instead of the Chicks.
The members of the band previously known as Lady Antebellum claimed they decided to change their name after having many hard conversations with Black friends. One wonders what those Black friends think of their latest move. Instead of working with Lady A, the Black blues singer, to show a respect for Black talent, they’re suing her.
Is her alleged $10 million demand reasonable? That’s between her and her bank account, but surely Lady A, the band, has been asked to make bigger concessions to white executives over the course of their career. Is this the war they want to wage after a decade and a half of carrying a name that, whether they realized it or not, celebrated slavery? Is an “A” that stands for “Antebellum” worth it?
Musical acts have significantly changed their names before, and some have actually flourished afterwards. The ’60s vocal group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles became LaBelle in 1971 and scored their biggest hit three years later with “Lady Marmalade.” After more than a decade in existence, the Moments became Ray, Goodman & Brown for legal reasons in 1979 and immediately enjoyed a massive hit with “Special Lady.” Both were Black acts. They took risky leaps and landed on top. Why do three white artists who claim to be committed to Black equality seem so incapable of making the sort of tough compromises that have defined the existence of Blacks in America?
Lady A, the band, might as well return to calling themselves Lady Antebellum. It was a terrible name that took them back 200 years, but at least they could explain it away as paying homage to a form of architecture. Their lawsuit against Lady A, though, is exactly what it looks like: the exertion of white privilege and entitlement. In other words, business as usual.