Briana Wright Comes Into Her Own In Tulsa, A City That Hasn't
If music is the compass by which we navigate a complicated world, it's no surprise that Tulsa lays claim to artists as diverse as Leon Russell, Hanson, Anita Bryant and The Gap Band. Creativity flourishes in a city that continues to grapple with its past — the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the Trail of Tears — and its present poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. In the middle blooms singer-songwriter Briana Wright, a bright talent finding her voice while clearing a path for others to follow.
Like many Oklahoma musicians, Wright grew up singing in church. A first-place win at a high school talent show sparked her dream of a career in music. Wright's cover of a Mariah Carey tune earned her $100 and began a journey that includes an impressive stint on Simon Cowell's X-Factor in 2012. She made it all the way to "boot camp" in Miami before being cut. It was a tough moment for the aspiring vocalist.
"I didn't want to sing, and I was angry," she explains. "Once I got home, the hurt washed away. I recovered and got my spine straight. It was do or die."
A determined Wright filmed a music video and sent it to every restaurant, bar and venue she knew, eventually landing a gig at a barbecue joint, which led to regular performances at a popular pizza place downtown. Her confidence grew with each performance, from the lobby of the local Whole Foods — where she and her guitarist were paid in grocery gift cards — to weddings, funerals and festivals.
At 31, Wright is now a veteran of the Tulsa music scene, known for her gorgeous, versatile voice. Pre-pandemic, regular performances with Nightingale, her longtime soul-infused Americana band, paid the bills and allowed her to quit her day job to stay home with her young daughter. Last year, she joined established indie-pop outfit Cliffdiver as a co-frontperson. According to Wright, the two very different musical projects provide the opportunity to stretch her creative muscles.
"I love the contrast between Nightingale and Cliffdiver. It's really representative of who I am," she says. "I work hard no matter what. But it takes the pressure off, knowing that all my creative eggs aren't in one basket. I've got a lot of eggs. I've got crazy eggs."
Inspired by the upcoming centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Wright recently began exploring her identity as a solo artist. The daughter of a mother who is of Indigenous and European ancestry and a father who is African American, Wright describes herself as multiracial. While Wright's mom felt it was important for her children to understand their roots, it wasn't something Wright gave a lot of thought as a teenager growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Tulsa.
"I think my mom always had a weight about us being mixed and living in the suburbs," Wright says. "She would always talk about it. She traced my dad's genealogy back to plantations, and told us all about it."
For Wright, however, the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., felt like a veil being lifted. She began to examine her own life and experiences in a new light.
"Suddenly, my experience was enough for me to feel like it's okay to be who I am," Wright says. "I never, ever talked about race before. I never had the gall to. I didn't want to know who around me was racist. It would just be too painful."
Wright says she turns to music to express what it means to be fully herself in a city that has not yet reconciled with its past. The experience has been complicated, difficult and yet powerful.
"Growing up, I didn't have that Black community. I didn't have people who looked like me around," she says. "Being biracial has always been sort of like an identity crisis, where I'm subject to the same experiences, but I didn't necessarily have that community. It's a sort of a disenfranchisement, and Tulsa is the perfect metaphor for that."
Excited to explore these themes as a solo artist, she isn't giving up on her hometown.
"I'm always hopeful. I'm always optimistic. I haven't left Tulsa for a lot of really good reasons. I think we are better than the sum of our parts," she says. "I have to believe that all the work and the conversations, all the signs and yelling and protests, all the pleading and crying — I just have to believe that moves hearts. I have to believe that opens minds. And I'm willing to sit here until we fix this mess. I'm willing to stay here and do my part."
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