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Whether it's art, literature, bluegrass or blues, Black Kentuckians have had a hand in shaping it. The African American Folklorist explores that history by providing a more personal look at culture. Building upon the existing newspaper and podcast series, The African American Folklorist presents a chance to share lesser known stories of influential figures.

The African American Folklorist: Kyshona Armstrong is an artist, activist, and voice of the voiceless

Kyshona Armstrong
Kyshona Armstrong
Kyshona Armstrong

Singer and songwriter Kyshona Armstrong embodies the essence of the traditional artist as the people's voice. Her purpose, reason, and decision to utilize her voice placed her with legends such as Odetta, Joan Beaz, and many other influential voices that sang as the representation of marginalized voices.

Currently living in Nashville, Tennessee, Armstrong hails from the Gullahs of South Carolina,

"I was a pianist. First, I studied piano for 15 years, and I was an oboist as well. So I was playing in orchestras, and I didn't trust my voice,” she says.

“I didn't think I had a good singing voice. So, I told the story through emoting musically, the classical music."

However, after leaving South Carolina and studying music therapy at the University of Georgia, which culminated in a 15-year tenure in music therapy for mental health and the incarcerated, Armstrong says she found her voice in a therapeutic sense.

“I started writing and leaning back on my roots, as you know, a granddaughter, and a daughter of a gospel quartet, players, and singers,” she explains.

While incorporating her roots, Armstrong credits finding her writing voice in Atlanta at a mental hospital where she worked in the forensics unit as a music therapist,

“We had a band that there called the Melotones, which was made up of women and men that had been experiencing incarceration and mental health crisis,” Armstrong says.

There she met two young black men, one was a poet and the other was pursuing a college degree as a recreational therapist. Both men had psychotic breaks, landing them in the mental hospital where Armstrong would meet and work with them.

“They are the ones who taught me how to write. I learned how to write music through them through our music therapy sessions together,” she explained.

Armstrong feels a responsibility to tell their stories and others, becoming a voice of the voiceless. Through her work with marginalized communities and as a professional traveling singer-songwriter, she can bring the narratives of the unheard globally while humanizing them.

“I worked with women in the Davidson County Jail. We had a nine-week songwriting program. And there's just one group, this class we had, they wrote a song called ‘I am enough’,” she said.

“And after our classes, we had finished the song already, I had to go on tour to the UK (United Kingdom). And I performed their (the class) song in London at this venue called the Green Note. I think somebody took a video of it. And they all got a hold of it," she explained.

"Somebody found it, and they were like, ‘Kyshona, you took our words to learn it.’ I've never been to London, but the fact that I can take their words and their stories on the outside and tell people in a different country what these women have been through is what got them there. That, to me, is my form of activism."

Lamont Jack Pearley is an applied folklorist, ethnographer and African American traditional music historian and practitioner enrolled at WKU in the African American and Folk Studies programs. He is an African American Studies Ambassador with the African American Studies Department, hosts a weekly segment on WKU Public Radio called the African American Folklorist, and is the editor of the African American Folklorist Newspaper. He was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame as Great Blues Historian and TV/Radio Producer (2017) and Great Blues Artist (2018).
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