A few days ago I came across the video for “Ghetto,” the clueless song by “Earth folk yoga songstress” Ashlee K Thomas. The East Nashville transplant’s “love song to the ghetto” opens with the line “gunshots and sirens are the music of the hood.” Later she goes on to sing about how she has “moved here from the suburbs” and “bought a little house” among these folks, who sport “flashy rims, and low-riders,” and are “up to no good.”
The track features a vaguely reggae-ish beat, while the video ups the ante by showing Thomas in the “gritty” back alleys of East Nashville, striking one awkward yoga pose after another. But words honestly don’t do the video justice. Stop whatever you are doing right now. Just press play.
Thomas claims to have composed this new anthem for clueless white people on her porch swing in East Nashville, a neighborhood that was once more than a little frayed around the edges. But these days, East Nashville is the subject of New York Times articles, which can feature more than six mentions of the word “hipster” and boast about the the city’s red-hot food scene.
As someone who has lived in East Nashville, when I hear Thomas sing about how she’s “good, living in the ghetto…” with homeless people asking for her a dollar and giving her a “hoot and a holler,” I wonder if we actually resided in the same zip code, let alone the same dimension. Because at this point, East Nashville is hardly what anyone with any understanding of the word would consider “ghetto.”
Around 1990, when I was 20, I spent a year in East Nashville. Country rock legend Steve Earle helped my mom and my stepfather, then his roadie, buy a house near the neighborhood’s Shelby Park. At that point, I hadn’t seen my mom for more than a few hours since 1978. I was eager to get reacquainted with her and my siblings. She was allegedly a changed woman after she traded in heroin and codeine for Methadone. I moved into her upstairs apartment and helped her with the rent. (After I moved out a few years later, my mama relapsed, got a divorce, abandoned my siblings, and died on an East Nashville Interstate. She was run over on after trying to make a mad dash for a quart of malt liquor.)
Back then East Nashville was nothing like it is today. Imagine Boston’s Southie or Philly’s Fishtown in the 90s, but with a country accent. Its housing projects, then and now, were almost exclusively African American, while the tiny houses on the streets were home to country white folks down from Kentucky and Appalachia. The vast majority of the folks in East Nashville were hard-working, church-going people. But there was an element of the Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, too. There was plenty of meth, opioids, alcoholism, and violence. On my first reunion with my mom, we all had to hit the floor because the house next door was blasted by buckshot in a shotgun drive-by. “‘Em Northcutt boys are at it again,” the police explained.
I was more a less a tourist there—just passing through. My sister Peggy Morgan, on the other hand, was shaped by the pace. After “Ghetto” came out I sent her the video and asked if she remembered that drive-by. She didn’t. But she did remember many others, such as one in which her middle-class uncle was the only one to hit the deck when the pops rang out. “We could all tell it was at least a block away,” Peggy said. “We had been so trained to measure the distance of gunshots by sound, he was the only one to hit the floor.”
My little sis, who now lives in Olympia, Washington, is not impressed with the song for this reason. And she’s not alone. Many of the comments left under “Ghetto” on YouTube are of the WTF variety, pointing out that modern East Nashville is, as user Dominque Burkes puts it, “the most gentrified part of the city.”
A backlash of the same kind came, as these things often do, swiftly via social media. “You really should delete this” is the first comment under the vid, and it gets uglier from there. Commenter Black Matters Mastering summed it up most succinctly: “Typical person who moves in with the wave of newcomers, well after our neighborhood has changed to your liking, yet still tries to cling to the grittiness that you had no part of. Barf.”
I asked Langston Collins Wilkins, who holds a Ph D. in ethnomusicology and folklore and works in East Nashville as a program officer at Humanities Tennessee, what his thoughts were on the song and video. “It’s a tone-deaf representation of dislocation of East Nashville, and [Thomas] exhibits strong cognitive dissonance on some very, very serious issues,” he said. “She turns African Americans into objects and our experiences into the setting or backdrop for her particular story. So in some ways, I would say she demonizes us.”
“I understand that I don’t understand; what it is like to grow up in poverty, or as a minority.”
Thomas, of course, disagrees. And, as the Tennessean reports, remains steadfast. “I stand by this song and video,” she wrote in the comments of her own video. “Aside from moving from the suburbs, this song is not about me. This song is an observation of what I’ve seen in Nashville, Memphis, India, South America, and other places I’ve traveled. I do yoga in the video, because yoga helps me do better at living wherever I am. “
“You have to understand that to us Nashville natives that have watched our city be sold out from under us, this video is a tough pill to swallow,” wrote Leah Slider on the song’s producer Bart Mathew’s Facebook page (in a status he’s since made viewable to friends only). “It comes off as very exploitative and pretty much packages everything cringe-y about gentrification into a neat little package,” she continued before going into her own Nashville upbringing. “Wish you could have walked around that neighborhood in 1985. Hell, 1995. Or shit, even 2005. It was quite a different place back then. Natives feel pushed out and marginalized by rich outsiders who try to capitalize off our culture while killing its authenticity. It sucks that starving artists can’t actually afford to live in ‘music city’ anymore. I know that’s not your fault, but damn, you make yourself a poster child for everything us natives are hurting over. That’s what it comes down to, it’s painful and sad to see your home disappear.”
Peggy too ripped the song, declaring Thomas “everything wrong with America today.” It’s not hard to see why she and other East Nashville natives are upset.
For Peggy’s part, my stepfather eventually lost custody of his kids (who wound up in foster care) and the mortgage on the house. Then in April of 1998, an F3 tornado howled through East Nashville, damaging or destroying 300 homes. Peggy remembers that ungodly storm as the turning point for the neighborhood: Nashvillians from affluent areas like Green Hills and Belle Meade bought up the damaged properties, gussied them up, and flipped them to newcomers and the boom, which continues today, was on. Any of her old friends from the neighborhood, she says, are in the wind, in jail, or dead.
So, yeah, Thomas’s “Ghetto” is personal to me, but much more to those with deeper roots on that side of town, like my sister.
I shared most of my family’s East Nashville story, and Peggy’s reaction, to Thomas. She was gracious enough to respond via email. She told us she was sorry for what we went through and that she couldn’t imagine growing up like that, and so on.
“I understand that I don’t understand; what it is like to grow up in poverty, or as a minority. I have only witnessed it to some small degree, both in and out of this country,” she wrote. “One thing we can all agree on, we do not choose the place from which we came.”
She went on to say she feels compassion and understanding for the pain and backlash this song and video has stirred, and apologized for the pain and hurt “in the hearts of humans.”
“If you want to know my heart and my intention, it is in the songs that I have written and put out into our world,” she wrote before signing off. “Peace and love and thank you for reaching out.”
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