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Lady D Is West Virginia Thriving

“The whole country thinks West Virginia is those people they see on the news. And I just want there to be an acknowledgment of Black people, who we are, who we were, what we did, especially in the context of music.”

Lady D Is West Virginia Thriving This story was originally published in the art rebellion. Sign up for their free newsletter at theartrebellion.net .

For my first art rebellion interview, I caught up with Doris A. Fields, aka Lady D, a singer, songwriter, actor, and writer, based in Beckley, WV. I met Lady D in early March 2020, when the pandemic was something of a looming question mark for many people. I was in West Virginia reporting an L.A. Times story about the connection between the state’s history of slavery on its salt mines and a collection of documents at Huntington Library in the L.A. area. I reached out to Lady D because I wanted to learn more about her artistic journey as a Black woman in Appalachia.

At Tamarack Marketplace in Beckley, she told me a snippet of her story. Lady D grew up an only child in Charleston, WV. Her father, who was heavily involved in union organizing, worked in the coal mines for 50 years, beginning at just 11 years old. “He was the kid they would send in with the lantern and the canary in the cage to check for methane,” she said.

Lady D began singing in church as a young girl and over the years, the 62-year-old has lived in Biloxi, Japan, Ohio and Atlanta — but she always returned to West Virginia. It’s in her home state where she carved out her own lane, making a name for herself by performing for Theatre West Virginia, forming an R&B, soul, and blues band called Mi$$ION, creating a one-woman stage play based on the life and music of blues legend Bessie Smith, and organizing events like the Simply Jazz and Blues Festival.

Late last year, I reached out again. I wanted to know how she was navigating the pandemic as an artist. As it turns out, she’s thriving. The past two years have been the most lucrative of her artistic career. Like most artists she knew, Lady D turned to Facebook Live to continue performing when the pandemic hit. She also started painting, and was surprised when friends and acquaintances began reaching out to buy her work.

She had been working on a new blues album when the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd forced her to change course and rearrange songs. The album became“Disturbing My Peace,”an expression of her inner turmoil and outrage during that moment of time.

In “Karma Is a Bitch,” she sings: It don’t pay to be a Black or a brown man, cause your life means nothing at all/ Who does it benefit to live in fear and hate or hide behind a wall/ Oh but you know the system is a fraud, but karma is a bitch and she works for God

Her social media became another outlet to voice her rage and frustrations with injustices she saw in her community and across the country. “I don’t feel like a celebrity, even a local celebrity. But people seem to put me on a pedestal in a way. People were waiting to see what I would say about certain things. People were messaging me to talk more about what I had posted,” she said. “Everybody has something that they were placed here to do. Mine was not to march in the street — somebody’s got to do that. And I want to be a supporter of those people who do that. But mine is to write about that and vocalize what they’re doing.”

In 2020, Lady D also began receiving some unexpected opportunities, including a performance at an online Kennedy Center concert and a teaching gig with a university. She was booked and busy.

“A lot of white guilt has gotten me a little further along,” she said, laughing. “You get a lot of people looking for things, maybe they weren’t even thinking about booking you, but figured they better try to be a little more diverse in their events.”

“There’s only been one gig I actually had to turn down [in 2021] because they didn’t want to pay my price,” she said. “That’s a whole new thing, and it’s late in life but it’s here so I’m just gonna run with it.”

She was conditioned to working for scraps. It’s hard being an R&B and blues singer in a state obsessed with country and rock music. She recalled some degrading experiences in the early years after returning to West Virginia — being asked to sing on the spot for a gig at a bar, driving hours to a gig only to receive $50, singing at events where the audience was racist or where she felt like “the help.”

“Living here in West Virginia, I’ve had to perform for people — private parties and things that I would never normally have been invited to that party. And sometimes, you’re performing and you overhear people talking around you who are clearly racist and you still have to smile and do your job there and act like that doesn’t bother you. [2020] just really broke the straw for me as far as being quiet about these things.”

“I don’t want to go back to that at all,” she said. “This past year, I’ve been able to say, ‘well I need $2,000 for this,’ and people say, ‘fine.’ I’m not used to this so I don’t know, I guess there’s been a change in me that maybe other people can see.”

She’s felt a shift in her spirit and attitude during this turbulent time, and has found the type of confidence to live in her truth and reject work that doesn’t serve her. And after a period of growth, Lady D is ready to level up even further.

She wants to be in a Broadway show, she wants to tour her music. She’s currently writing a book about Black musicians in West Virginia. “The whole country thinks West Virginia is those people they see on the news. And I just want there to be an acknowledgment of Black people, who we are, who we were, what we did, especially in the context of music.”

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