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The performer discusses her career’s strained, but much-improved relationship to country’s roots, Nashville success

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Country music performer Miko Marks’ most significant talent is in reclaiming, resurrecting, and reaffirming elements of the African American musical experience in five-minute songs. 

She arrived in Music City 15 years ago as part of a wave of Black talent, including Rissi Palmer,  Darius Rucker was initiating rock-crossover success in country music. For the mainstream country music industry, however, opening doors for more than one Black artist at a time was still considered an “innovative” notion, Marks said.

The setback left her daunted and confused. She eventually left Nashville and her dreams of country music stardom behind her. 

“I was not as aware as I am now, so I let people shape and mold me and my music,” she said, blinking back a tear from her right eye.

But after raising a son, Justin, and being empowered by profound social changes in America over the past five years, she returned to the genre.

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The Bay Area-based Marks spoke while sitting in a green room at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum during the recent Country Music Association Festival. Amazingly, it was her first time playing CMA Fest and her first a visit to the Hall of Fame.

An hour later, she sang an unreleased, gospel-tinged country ballad while sitting on stage with critically acclaimed female country artists like Hailey Whitters and Priscilla Block at CMT’s Next Women of Country songwriting round at the Hall’s CMA Theater. Then, motivated by the spirit of the moment, Marks rose from her stool between Block and another rising star, Ashland Craft.

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She passionately sang the words “you can lay your burdens down.” The entire venue stood and cheered. Then, as she sat down, she finally wiped that tear from her right eye.

Priscilla Block, next in line in the round, stared awed at the crowd.

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“This (music) is really me. It’s coming from my gut. I don’t sing about ancillary things,” Marks said regarding what inspires her to make music like her forthcoming album’s John Lewis homage titled “Good Trouble.” “It’s important to me to make music that is as entertaining as it is socially relevant to cultural conversations redefining American life. All I can hope is that listeners enjoy hearing me as my own, authentic self.”

In mainstream country music, Marks’ unique gift as a reclaimer, resurrector, and reaffirmer of Black music is vital because the genre’s lineage of top artists borrowed and stole rhythms, styles, and aesthetics born of and defined clearest within African American culture.

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Because Marks is a revivalist, her songs and style traverse a realm of sounds regarded as timelessly American. Thus, her music is influenced not by dated vibes but rather by warmly familiar tones.

She credits growing up in a musical family that played bluesy gospel songs at church conventions as birthing her interest in making music bearing thick drums and heavy melodies. As for country music, she credits her Mississippi-born grandmother who played story-driven songs to her at a young age as piquing her interest.

“You take all that, then mix some funk and jazz to that gumbo. The music that comes out is an elevated and limitless sound that transcends boundaries,” she said.

“Historically, Black people have been separated and segregated from our culture, musically, since the era where white artists were allowed to(commercially sell) hillbilly music, and Black artists – regardless of genre – were left selling (much less lucrative) race records.”

“Race Records” doubles as the name of her 2021 concept EP that includes covers of songs like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light.” It features songs recorded by white artists with interpretations of sounds like (in the case of the Creedence cover) the blues as their inspiration. These, of course, are sounds that are steeped in Black heritage.

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Marks said her career is a “surreal dream” these days, but it is also laser-focused on capitalizing on the power inherent in her talent meeting with her circumstances to create her moment in the spotlight.

“I’m seasoned, much more prepared, and have been shaped by experiences that allow me to take everything in slowly so that I can properly receive everything that I am due,” Marks said with calm, determined assurance. “I will slowly walk into my moment, and it will uplift my spirit while touching someone else’s soul.”