On July 7, singer-songwriter Coffey Anderson found himself squarely in the bright, hot glare of the media spotlight.
But it wasn’t related at all to any of the Texas-reared Nashville Star competitor’s songs, such as the good-time country-rock song I Wanna Be Your Cowboy, the backwoods rap Hillbilly Gangster, the love song Better Today, or even one of his more solemn spiritual and patriotic tracks like Mr. Red White and Blue.
Instead, it had everything to do with a non-music video that Anderson had posted on Facebook that day called the Stop the Violence Safety Video — aka What To Do When You Get Pulled Over. It was made in response to the deaths of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn., and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., both black motorists who were killed by police in traffic stops. Their deaths sparked national controversy and protests over the summer.
His video instructing drivers, specifically black men, on how to act when dealing with the police — for example, keep your hands on the steering wheel with fingers pointed out — went viral. It quickly racked up more than 30 million views, earning Anderson a spot on ABC-TV’s The President and the People Town Hall in which the singer posed a question to President Barack Obama: “Have you ever been pulled over and what was your experience like as a driver?”
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Anderson, who is biracial and whose father was a corrections officer, says he just wanted to offer advice that would get both sides of an encounter, citizen and cop, home alive. Certainly, the video has its fans. “This video has nothing to do with black or white this is great advice when being pulled over period!,” Da-Mad Modler wrote on YouTube.
“Nobody should have to practice being pulled over so they won’t die over a routine traffic stop,” wrote Laura Petty Blessing on Facebook. “Maybe the police should practice how not to kill people.”
A video viewer named Ruth Mesfun was so angered by Anderson’s approach that she recorded her own YouTube response in which she said he needed to “stop the victim blaming.”
Anderson, who is appearing in North Texas with a week’s worth of shows at this year’s State Fair of Texas, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6, says he was surprised by how quickly his video exploded across the internet; he says it had hit 500,000 views by 11 p.m. on its first day.
But he took time to respond to some of the most critical reactions.
“A lot of them felt ‘Why do I have to have a blueprint as a person of color when I get pulled over?’ If [the cop] is uncomfortable, that’s his problem,” Anderson said in a phone interview not long after the video went live.
“Confrontation doesn’t bother me. I’ve done ministry, sung in churches and witnessed in college. So being able to listen to people without the same opinion as me doesn’t offend me … I welcome that conversation.”
Now, with the more recent deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., two black men shot and killed by police earlier this month, Anderson says he’s having a difficult time processing the latest tragic news.
“I’m just as heartbroken as I think everyone else is,” he said recently by phone. “I’m extremely frustrated and trying to find solutions is the hardest thing.
“When citizens are doing the right thing and bad things happen, it’s very frustrating,” said Anderson. “Because it could be any of us.”
A little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll
Anderson, 37, brings a unique perspective to racial issues, being a country singer who grew up as the son of a white father and black mother in Bangs, a town of around 1,600 in Brown County, roughly 160 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
“What’s funny is the record labels seem to have more problems with [race],” he says. “In Texas, high school football is everything. So you’re stuck with Mexicans, you’re stuck with black kids, you’re stuck with white kids. After awhile, you’re like, ‘Man, we played on teams together.’ It ain’t about nothing else.
‘Coming from that culture, as long as you’re country, people don’t care.”
But Anderson sort of backed into country music, first being turned on to classic rock by a high school classmate.
“I wasn’t allowed to have anything but Christian music in my house growing up,” said Anderson who began singing in church as a child. “I had to sneak anything I wanted to hear.
“I had a guy named Chad who brought me to his house one day, during football two-a-days. And he played Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Mary Jane’s Last Dance by Tom Petty. And I fell in love with classic rock.
“I started branching out. And you know the Texas country music scene hit with Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed and I was listening to these guys sing about these little dirt towns that I knew. They became rock stars to me and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Though he was also adept at basketball — he played for Howard Payne University in Brownwood — he moved to L.A. in the early 2000s to pursue music. He managed to make it briefly onto American Idol’s second season in 2003.
“[American Idol] was such a blessing because you realize that it’s not just about music,” said Anderson who, after a short stint in Nashville, still lives with his family in Los Angeles. “It’s about your story, how you connect with people.
“There were a lot of great singers but a lot of them didn’t have a story that America wanted to hear … You have to be relatable and American Idol taught me that.”
He didn’t get too far on Idol, a fact he blames on not being focused.
“My oldest daughter was born then, and I just had too much going on,” he said.
In 2008, he had better luck with Nashville Star, where he finished third runner-up. But the exposure didn’t lead to a record deal so Anderson began making YouTube videos for his fans.
“[Record labels] were like ‘You’re a little too beige for us; you’ve got a little too much soul.’ Motown was like, ‘You’re too John Mellencamp for us,’ ” he said. “And it’s just been a blessing that the videos have opened up so many opportunities for me musically.”
Since then, he has self-released 10 albums, five of them secular-oriented — including This Is Me earlier this year — and five for the Christian/gospel market. An 11th album, Coffey Anderson from 2010, came out on the Dream label.
Keeping politics, music separate
It was his success with music videos that led him to think about making a video about police encounters that go wrong.
“After seeing the Castile video, I actually called the sheriff-to-be of Tarrant County, Bill Waybourn — I raised money for his campaign — and said if I get pulled over this is what I do and tell me if I’m wrong. And I outlined what I would do,” Anderson recalled.
“He said you’re absolutely right. If people would do that, it would de-escalate a lot of tension.”
(It should be noted that Anderson has not had any particularly notable interactions with cops himself. “I’ve had some that were pleasant and some that were not, but that’s anybody,” he said.)
In addition to riling some who claimed that Anderson was placing the blame on the victims, his wading into turbulent racial waters also is a disconnect for some of the singer’s more conservative, white country-music fans.
“I feel like the conversation has to be started,” he said. “Coming from a biracial home and playing country music, I have a lot of fans who typically don’t know a lot about black culture. I’m not saying they’re all ignorant because that’s not true.”
But don’t expect to Anderson to launch into a political diatribe at the State Fair, where he’s performing five, 20-minute sets every afternoon for seven days.
“When people hire me to entertain their crowd, I’m not there to tell my political views,” he said. “There’s so much I want to say, the song would be 17 minutes [long]. And I’m not sure it would be the happy-go-lucky song that people are used to hearing.”
Still, his upbeat and sometimes humorous attitude — “My old-school color was John Deere green, there ain’t a Hee-Haw episode that I ain’t seen,” he raps in Hillbilly Gangster — can turn to something more downcast and pensive when talking about the situation with police.
“I am a citizen. I am a father, and I am a husband. And I am a man of color in the United States. It’s a lot to take,” he said.
He says he gets choked up when watching some of the videos.
“I tried to make a video that can really help my fans get home,” he said, and then referred to the Charles Kinsey case in North Miami, in which a black caretaker for an autistic man was shot by police in July. “And … you see people laying down on their back with their arms up get shot or you see [in Tulsa] someone that has car trouble [who] is dead in the street and his children have to see that.”
Despite it all, he remains optimistic.
“I have to hope,” he said. “I believe in my heart that there are enough people who want to have all this mess resolved enough to make a difference.”
- Sept. 30-Oct. 6 (He’ll play five sets each afternoon)
- State Fair of Texas, 3921 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Dallas
- $18 general admission; $16 online