A songwriting contest led to "Oh Leona" and a potentially controversial new video.

alexandra scott photo for my spilt milk
Alexandra Scott

[Updated] Alexandra Scott’s new song began as an exercise. After the emotionally arduous process that led to 2013’s I Love You So Much Always, Scott felt written out and was slow to come up with new songs. To get her creative juices flowing again, she started the week-long Fearless Songwriter Challenge—a contest that sent out daily prompts to songwriters around the country. Scott was more interested in something that would help her feel creative again than winning, but one prompt in particular hooked her: “I don’t understand.”

“A lot of us don’t understand Charleston,” she says. “A lot of us don’t understand that there have been 142 mass shootings since Columbine. It’s been weird talking about it this week because, what if there’s another shooting? And of course there was one.”

Scott is talking about “Oh Leona,” a song so mournful over gun violence that she sings in the chorus:

Oh Leona
Sometimes I’m glad you’re gone.
It would break your heart
to see what this world has done.

The Leona in the title is Leona Burton, Scott’s grandmother’s housekeeper, and the woman she credits with instilling in her a moral compass. 

“She was extraordinary,” Scott says. “She was a force of nature who never refrained from speaking her mind. I’m more than okay singing a song about how much I loved her.” Because she was a church lady, Scott found it impossible to think of the shooting in Charleston and not envision Burton in the church.

Yesterday, Scott released a video shot by Tim Caldwell to accompany “Oh Leona,” and she’ll debut it publicly tonight when she plays Buffa’s Lounge. Between the song and the video—which features 28 African-American and white New Orleanians lip syncing her vocal—she’s bracing for the social media backlash that seems inevitable in 2015. Friends have raised questions about the propriety of appropriating African Americans and putting her words and voice in their mouths, but she takes some comfort in the fact that everybody who participated did so voluntarily.

The song and video are equally stark and unadorned. The track features only her voice and guitar, while the video literally makes the issue a black and white one by presenting the faces of the “singers” in black and white in front of a white backdrop. Both leave you with Scott’s voice counting the physical, social, and emotional toll of gun violence, while the faces give viewers an idea of the broad spectrum of people affected by it. Most of the faces are African-American, but not all of them. For Scott, that was important. She worried that if whites stay out of it, the gun violence that takes place in cities daily will be seen as a Black problem. Something that “they” have to deal with. “It’s a people problem, not a Black problem” she says.

“Oh Leona” situates Scott as more of a rabble rouser than she intends to be. Her mother stood up for social justice issues as well, so she has strong models, but confrontation doesn’t come as easily as her output might make it seem. Recently, Yahoo News picked up a video she shot during an anti-Planned Parenthood rally in New Orleans. In it, she walked up to people and asked them what they were doing to help children that were born to mothers and families that were unable to take care of them. 

“People said You sound so composed,” she says, laughing. “Those people don’t know me at all.”

In the video, Scott is as matter-of-fact as possible, but the tightness in her voice and the slight quiver in the camera work makes it clear how nervous she was. Scott showed up at the event thinking that there was going to be a counter-protest, and when there wasn’t, she impulsively decided to question the protesters. The first people she spoke to accidentally made it obvious that they hadn’t thought about what will happen to the unborn once they’re born beyond a vague God will provide, and that as some have charged, those opposed to Planned Parenthood aren’t pro-life as much as pro-birth.

It’s clear watching the video that protesters saw what was happening and started deploying people to talk to Scott—not to run her off or bully her, but to try to reshape the narrative and put their side in a more virtuous light. 

“By the end, they all started circling me,” Scott says. “They clearly had their game down, and I did not.”

This happened today.I ended up being the only prochoice person at an antichoice rally protesting the new Planned Parenthood clinic here in New Orleans.I was so nervous and I had no idea what to do.So I did this.Please share it if it means something to you.Love,A

Posted by Alexandra Scott Music on Thursday, September 10, 2015

In “Oh Leona” and the self-shot Planned Parenthood video, it’s clear that Scott is working from the heart first and figuring out the repercussions later. “Mostly I see things through the lens of the personal,” she says. “I don’t have a macro view and I doubt I ever will.” She doesn’t pretend to have the answers in either case. She expresses her outrage not as a way to end a conversation but as a way to further it. Because of her models, she feels that being on someone’s side isn’t enough. You have to do something too. 

“Maybe listen more. What do you need? What is your story?

Updated October 9, 9:18 a.m.

The writing has been tightened up to eliminate some duplication.