If you don't already know Priscilla Renea's name, you most certainly know her work. She's the songwriter behind some of the massive hits you've surely streamed: Rihanna's "King Sized Bed," Pitbull and Kesha's "Timber," and Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood's "Somethin' Bad," just to name a few.
Before that, Renea started her career performing on YouTube, where she developed a fan base. That translated into a job as a professional songwriter. And now, she's finally ready to release an album of her own.
For Renea, writing her debut album, Coloured, was an act of not giving up on music after nearly a decade of writing songs for other people. It's also positioned to be a game-changer, because it's a country record; poised for release in a genre that hasn't historically opened Black performers with open arms, and has very little history of bolstering the careers of Black women performers in particular. Renea utilizes the standard country songwriter template and tells the stories of her own life, but in a genre where the stories of Black women aren't often told it sounds like a revolution. Musically, she explores and reclaims the Black tradition by adding in heavy elements of blues, jazz, and hip-hop which sit perfectly alongside radio-worthy country production.
Refinery29 spoke to Renea about her bold decision to take on a genre where she'll be peerless, the history of Black performers in country, and why she went country in the first place.
Refinery29: Tell me about your history in music.
Prescilla Rena: "My mom was a singer, my dad played the trumpet and sang, also. There was always music in the house. My mom would play her artists from a big book of CDs, and we'd go to the record store. It was a huge part of my childhood. We had BBQs all the time at my mom's house. We'd go to my grandma's, and there would be so many genres of music: oldies and juke joint m for my mom; my dad liked jazz and A Tribe Called Quest; and I was listening to the music on TRL: the Backstreet Boys, Shania Twain, and the rock/pop stuff. That's probably why I bounce from genre to genre. I started writing songs when I was 8. It happened one day while I was vacuuming the hallway, I started singing, 'Walking down the hallway, looking at the skyway.' My brother didn't believe I made it up, but my mom did, and she bought me a composition notebook. I started making up songs then and there.
"I wasn't lonely as a kid, but I call it 'my introverted.' I would read books and write songs, which I thought everyone could do it. I was writing with a guitar maybe my senior year in high school, when I was 17 or 18, and putting them on the internet. Blogs posted me. People shared the videos. I uploaded a video of myself singing a Jennifer Holiday song that I shot on a little Walmart Logitech video camera. People liked it, and I kept doing it! Millions of streams later, people were recognizing me on the street. Someone who saw my videos brought me to Atlanta, where I started writing songs professionally for a few years. I moved to L.A., and in my first session I wrote a song called 'Promises' that went to No. 1 in the U.K.. On my first song! Now I'm focusing on myself."
Refinery29: Tell me about the songs you're writing for Coloured.
Renea: "It's a gumbo, it's all the elements of music I like and am attracted to. I love hip-hop, I love classical, I love guitar loops, I love country songs and storytelling. It's all in there. I feel like the songs have shaped themselves. They tell me what they want to be and I fill in the gaps with things I can relate to and really describe. I think that's what makes the songs so interesting and dense. I like the quote, 'Whatever is most personal is most universal.' When I describe what I'm going through, people reach out to me to say they feel it. It's crazy that it's powerful enough to make complete strangers share the most personal things."
Refinery29: Why did you want to write country music?
Renea: "My music is authentic because it is real. This isn't something where I'm listening to another song and trying to emulate it. I think its also becoming more obvious on social media that Black culture is pop culture right now. That's been the case since the '90s; we've been driving the culture. Hip-hop is the No. 1 genre right now. Fashion, hair, shoes — they all do it and take from Black culture. The History of African American Culture Museum in Washington D.C. has a whole floor breaking down the history of Black music and where stuff comes from. I've also seen on Instagram a lot of up-and-coming country artists are following me. They want to know what that sound is and how to make it. That's not bad, but it's bad when you don't get credit. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a Black country gospel singer, a bunch of people took from her style of playing, and she doesn't get credit. There's Odetta Holmes, too, and I feel like it's not that new of a thing. I get why its interesting for people that I'm doing this, but I honestly feel a little bit like why is this a story? There have been incredible Black country musicians over time.
"I think there is room for me in country, I want to play at the Grand Ole Opry. I have a twang, I grew up on a farm in Jacksonville, FL. I'm from the same place as Jake Owen, we graduated from the same high school. I point that out to people who say I'm not country. When I ask them why, and they don't have an answer."
Refinery29: Why don't they have an answer to why they think you aren't country?
Renea: "Because the first thing to comes to mind is that I'm Black, but they can't say that because it's racist. So they don't say anything, then they ask me if I'm sure I want to make a country record. It's not a question of whether this is country music. It's a question of whether people want to accept me because there aren't a lot of people who look like me doing it. Especially females, there just aren't any. I don't think it's because there aren't brown girls singing twangy songs, I think it's because in the South the spaces where this music is performed aren't safe for us. You might get looked at funny, called names, and made to feel uncomfortable. Some of those people are toting Confederate flags still. But when you're making the music and it relates to people, it can transcend race. My musical ability and talent gives me privilege. People are nicer to me when they find out that I do music and what songs I've written. If I'm gonna have that privilege, then I'm gonna talk about the issues affecting my community and put them in front of an audience that would never listen to it otherwise."
Refinery29: There aren't a lot of Black females in country, let alone icons. Do you feel any hesitation about breaking into a genre where you might be not only a trailblazer, but peerless?
Renea: "No, to go back to where I'm from is the truest thing I could do as an artist — back to the farm, back to my personal plight in America. I have a great life, but I do have to deal with things most Americans don't have to think about. Talking to my peers who aren't of color, I tell them that's part of their privilege to think this doesn't exist. But you also have an opportunity to know that about yourself and correct people doing things that aren't becoming if you don't want to be represented like that. Everyone in America benefits from privilege. If you're in a house that's been handed down on land cleared by slaves, you can't ignore it.
"It's just how I feel, and I hope people might learn something and realized its fucked up. When I talk to my white co-writers and friends, they tell me I might be imagining it. I tell them when you're on safari and they tell you not stick your hand out, you listen because the person leading the group is an expert. I've been Black for 30 years, so I'm an expert. You should listen to me when I tell them about the Black experience."
Refinery29: What does success in country music look like for you?
Reana: "I would like to see myself spread across the genre lines. It's an element of who I am. I have a fun part of myself and a more serious part with ballads and more R&B stuff. The songs I write tend to be pop, so I kind of want to go to where I can pull off what I want to say. I think the country base is the perfect place to start. The music is so powerful when I'm in front of an audience of any color — they fall in love with it. As long as I can keep bringing them great music, then I can take people wherever I decide to go. I want to be on the road, in front of people. It would be great to have radio hits, too, but if I do that I want to actually have some impact and not pity plays. I want people who really are interested. I have a bigger message; it's relatable and productive. I want people to leave my shows feeling inspired. You never know."
"I always like to tell my fans: anything is possible. It doesn't matter what people think of what you're doing, all that matters is that you're taking the step and saying this is what I want. I know it sounds corny, but it's true."