These Unconventional Black Musicians Find Their Tribe At This Midwest Festival
By DeAnna Taylor
Unconventional: not based on or conforming to what is generally done or believed. That is how you can describe the Black indie artists who recently played some of their best sets at this Wisconsin music festival.
Mile of Music, now in its 7th year, is a free annual music fest hosted in the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin. Each year, the 4-day event showcases nearly 200 acts and over 700 musicians in total.
While one wouldn’t associate a music festival of this magnitude with Appleton, the city truly pulls out all the stops for these artists. The only requirement, that they play original music and no covers.
In addition to giving these artists a stage to display their varying musical talents, they are paid, fed, housed, and even provided multiple self-care services.
Artists have access to free dental exams, free mental health services, free hearing screens and the chance to receive free customized earplugs via the Grammy’s plus several other complimentary services.
I had the chance to attend Mile of Music and sit down with several of the Black artists who were on the ticket. As musicians with genres that aren’t as common among Black artists, they each expressed their gratitude for this festival opening its arms to them and their creativity while also finding similar artists to connect with.
Chicago native, B.Lilly, graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton and has played the festival for several years now.
The soul singer, although he doesn’t like to be classified, is now an anticipated act for what is said to be the biggest weekend in the town. He describes his style as being “the soundtrack to your life.”
“This town is very important to me,” B.Lilly told Travel Noire. “I feel like I discovered who I am as a person and as an artist here. To be here now as an anticipated act feels really good and makes my heart warm.”
The singer played multiple shows across several venues during the fest. He is truly a talented young man.
For artist Phillip-Michael Scales, the feeling is mutual. Scales isn’t your stereotypical Black musician. With familial ties to the legendary B.B. King, he has created his own blend of indie rock, blues, and soul that he calls ‘dive bar soul.’ But, don’t try to compare him to anyone else out because he truly has his own lane.
“People care here,” Scales told Travel Noire. “So many people come, sit, and observe here. Those are the kinds of audiences you crave as an artist. So often you play somewhere and people are just talking through your set.”
For him, the experience at Mile of Music has been nothing but positive and it’s only getting better. Scales performed several sets as well, both solo and with his band. He even received a standing ovation during one of his solo sets that I happened to sit in.
Not to be forgotten were the talented Black women who played during the weekend. I was able to catch up with Nikki Morgan and ‘Lizzie No‘ both of whom are considered Americana/country artists, something not seen often among Black female singers.
Morgan, from North Carolina, was introduced to the genre after being raised in a strict Christian household. When she was of age, and able to purchase music on her own, she somehow gravitated toward country music and fell in love with the genre. When she started writing, it felt natural to stick with what she already loved.
New York native, ‘Lizzie No’, has a similar experience. She has found that Midwest audiences are more accustomed to the genre than audiences like New York, although her hometown crowds are very supportive as well.
Wisconsin opened its doors for the artist and really made her, and all others, feel like they belonged.
Despite being among a small percentage of Black musicians in a mostly white festival, they all used their platform to educate their audiences about current social injustices affecting Black America.
“For me, I wonder how much to share because people connect to the artist’s stories. I often wonder how much to say. When you’re on stage it’s a different thing than sitting across a table discussing issues. Do I think I’ve changed minds? No. But, have I made those minds think a little? Yes,” Scales explains.
To catch more from each of these artists, you can find them on Instagram:
DeAnna Taylor is a criminal defense Attorney turned travel blogger, author, and writer. While Charlotte, NC (her hometown) is her base, she's always somewhere on a plane. Catch her on IG: @brokeandabroadlife.