The first time I saw Amy León, she was standing in a church that was about to explode.
Or had already exploded — I couldn’t tell. I was watching the music video for her song “Burning in Birmingham,” a reenactment of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took the lives of four black girls on Sept. 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Ala. León was standing in her Sunday best alongside four other black women, sunlight easing behind them through stained glass windows. The women were standing tall, but were they already dead?
Black womanhood, race, and mourning are just a few of the subjects León ponders in her debut album Something Melancholy. A singer-songwriter featured on Democracy Now! who has toured throughout the UK and is the author of two collections of poetry, León spoke with Sojourners about her latest project — how it came about and why “four little girls,” a common reference to the children of the 16 th Street Baptist Church bombing, is inaccurate.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Da’Shawn Mosley, Sojourners: What was the impetus behind this album? How did it come about?
Amy León, Poet/Singer-songwriter, Something Melancholy: I don’t think we really knew we were going to end up making an album. But then … my mom died in February, and I had to take care of her, and I just kept getting so upset with myself that my mother was dying and I didn’t have something for her to hold onto while I wasn’t in the hospital room. Two of my best friends happen to be in my band, and I said, “Let’s just capture this right now, because I am losing my mind. I need to be surrounded by you and allow the words that I’ve already written to walk me through some healing.” So then we were recording a week after we buried her, and I was losing my mind every five minutes, like, “I’m so happy. Oh my God, how can I be happy? I’m mourning.” You know, it was a crazy whirlwind of emotions — and I think it’s really clear on the album, that there was obviously a lot going on.
Mosley: I think many people’s introduction to you may be through “Burning in Birmingham.” The music video has this very epic, historical scope to it. It’s very powerful.
León: Last summer I was watching What Happened, Nina Simone? on Netflix. … And [Nina Simone], in one of her interviews, was like, “We’re burning in Birmingham.” And I was like, “What? Hold on, rewind.” I’m huge on the way language escapes us, and syntax, and so those b's, man, “they’re burning in Birmingham.” I wrote it down in my notebook, and after the film, I improvised with “Burning in Birmingham” for a long time on my keyboard, and the first verse came out, and I just kept singing it over and over again. It was crazy because I live in Brooklyn on the first floor of a building in Flatbush, and it was me and the little bit of piano that I can play, and the continuous sirens running through my neighborhood, as I kept singing, “We’re burning in Birmingham.” So, that’s how I wrote the song.
Then I wrote a poem called “Black Women Are Impossible to Love” for an event at NYU where Trayvon Martin’s mother was speaking. …
Mosley: And the concept of the music video and how that came about?
León: I did a lot of research. I learned about the [16th Street Baptist Church] bombing when I was in elementary school, but … when I looked it up, I found out that one girl survived. Her name is Sarah Collins. She was sisters with Addie Mae Collins, who died. And she was in the bathroom — it was five little girls in the bathroom. And nobody explained that there was one person who survived, and is alive today. Sarah Collins still lives in Birmingham, still is paying off medical bills for her eye that she lost.
So I was like, “Whoa, no one is telling us that somebody survived and is unfortunately here to witness this disgusting history that is repeating itself.” I was wondering what she must feel like to be a survivor of one of the biggest fires under the ass of the civil rights movement. She couldn’t even go to her sister’s funeral because she was in the hospital.
In the music video, I play Sarah Collins. I’m the one who survives the whole thing. The girl — my dear friend Dominique — who’s in the yellow dress at the end, that’s Addie Mae. I wanted to give Sarah at least an artistic opportunity to be able to be at the funeral of her sister. … I thought it was necessary to shed light on that event, because a lot of the people that I met in my educated days at NYU didn’t know who Emmett Till was, or about the Birmingham bombing. It was crazy to me that so many educated people could be so ill-informed. So I thought, “Okay, while I got a lot of people interested … if you’re gonna like that, here’s something you might not want to digest, and let’s see how much you like it.”
I emailed Sarah Collins, because I wanted her permission to tell the story. I hate misrepresentation. And she responded saying she loved the song, and that she loved the video, and that was it — it was a very simple email exchange. But I was like, “Yo, you’re alive, man. ‘Yes, Lord,’ you know?”
Mosley: How does it feel to have the album out now? For it to be out and be received?
León: I’m glad I got to share that with people. I woke up [the day it was released] and was a little like, “Oh s—, people.” I had a bunch of Snapchats of my friends dancing to the music, and I was like, “Oh my God, people can dance to this? I’ve been crying about this for forever.”
And I was also like, “I wish my mother was here to see this and to hear this and to feel this with me.” Everybody’s messages and all that have been really encouraging, reminding me that now that it’s out, I can listen to it differently because it’s no longer mine, you know. People are taking songs that are very closely tied to some form of abuse, and they’re looking at them in this beautiful light. And I’m like, “Whoa.”
I can’t believe that we accomplished what we accomplished. It doesn’t make any sense.