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How these 2 Black artists found their voices in Utah

Bri Ray is an R&B singer-songwriter raised in Utah.
Aleah Maria Photography

SALT LAKE CITY — Growing up in Utah was “interesting” for Bri Ray, a Black R&B singer-songwriter raised in the predominantly white state.

“I grew up knowing I was different than the kids around me, but not fully understanding my history and culture,” Ray said in an email. “For me, this led to a lot of identity and self-esteem issues.”

It took until Ray was 17 years old to start to develop confidence about her hair and skin color, as well as her history and culture, after she traveled to Miami for the YoungArts Foundation scholarship program.

“While I was there I went through a culture shock as I realized the world outside of Utah looked a lot different than the place I was raised,” Ray said. “There were people who looked like me everywhere. I was normal there. I wasn’t stared at, no one asked to touch my hair, and, most importantly, I started to step into and accept the woman I am today.”

Utah artists Ray and Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, a Black jazz singer and actress, for the most part have felt accepted among the state’s arts and entertainment community.

“Venues, such as Velour and Shops at Riverwoods, have consistently been welcoming and supportive of my music career,” Ray said.

“I’ve been fortunate to find producers and directors who have been open and generous in giving me opportunities to perform,” Darby-Duffin said.

But recent protests regarding race have been a wake-up call for the Beehive State, according to Ray.

“In my experience, most conversations I’ve had about race were quickly shut down with comments such as, ‘You’re so lucky Utah isn’t racist,’” Ray said. “Whether we use a loaded term like ‘racist’ or not, the fact of the matter is, Utah has some deeply rooted racial issues.”

Darby-Duffin said there has been a “false sense of a post-racial society in Utah for a long time.”

“That’s just not the case,” Darby-Duffin said. “It hasn’t been the case for me personally and for a lot of the people that I know.”

Performing as a Black artist now makes Darby-Duffin “a little hesitant and slightly afraid” because of the nature of some of the music she sings.

“It talks about moments in history that have not been outdated as a country,” Darby-Duffin said. “The fear that I have is that something I say could cause somebody so much angst and vitriol that they would want to harm me.”

Darby-Duffin often sings Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song from the 1930s that protests the lynching of Black Americans, at her jazz concerts.

“I typically give some history surrounding that song and why it’s still relevant, and that’s been accepted for the most part,” Darby-Duffin said. “The feedback that I’ve received has been like, ‘Thank you for sharing that because I didn’t know it previously.’”

Being in an interracial marriage and having both kids that are biracial and kids that aren’t, conversations about race were covert “side glances and whisperings,” Darby-Duffin said.

“But now, I think with the current things that are happening in our country, I think we’re talking about it more and it’s a forefront thing,” Darby-Duffin said. “I don’t think you can be passive about talking about it anymore, and I think that’s what’s happening in Utah now, and it’s making some people uncomfortable, and I think that that’s OK.”

Ray said it has been incredible to watch people in her community “go on a journey of education and reflection as they dissect socially taught bias and oppression.”

“As far as being a Black artist in Utah during this time, I have gained new followers and fans that I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Ray said. “So to them, and those who have been with me since the beginning, I say thank you — I see you — and I love you.”

Because of the pain and confusion Ray experienced growing up, the singer-songwriter has spent the last few months working on Project Black Girl, “a platform that focuses on educating, empowering and providing self-care tips for BIPOC, specifically young black girls.”

“My hope is for this to be a resource for young women growing up in places like Utah,” Ray said. “I also hope it will be a resource for white parents adopting Black children — because, as parents, they are also adopting the child’s hair, skin, history and culture.”