Black Voices: Let's meet in the middle to end racism, Utah rapper says

Black Voices: Let's meet in the middle to end racism, Utah rapper says

(Courtesy of Courtney Kelly)

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Editor's note: This story is part of's "Black Voices" series where we share Black Utahns' stories about what life is like in the Beehive State.

SALT LAKE CITY — By day, Courtney Kelly works as an account manager in Utah's growing tech industry. By night, she is a musician, performing at live shows and releasing rap albums.

Kelly never expected to live in the Beehive State. Originally from Georgia, she went to business school in Texas and later ended up in Utah after being recruited by tech giant Qualtrics. Since moving here about two and a half years ago, she has transitioned to another home-grown tech company in Silicon Slopes: Podium.

While her day job keeps her plugged into the tech world, her passion lies in her burgeoning music career, and she feels Utah is a great place to cultivate the music scene right now.

"Even though it's not the most diverse place I've lived by a long shot, people here are very fun and there's a lot of room to create and grow," she said. "And that's what I've loved as an artist because not a lot of things exist already. It gives artists have room to just create them."

After accepting the job offer and committing to move to Utah, Kelly realized she didn't really know anything about the state, which is something she can laugh at now.

"I just thought Utah was like the wilderness," she said. "I thought I was moving to the middle of nowhere and that I was going to have to drive into town on like a dirt cobbly road or something to get groceries."

Her time in Utah has been great, for the most part, and she finds the state beautiful. "It's so breathtaking here," she said.

But when George Floyd died in May after a police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes, Kelly noticed the state's lack of diversity come into play.

"I do feel sometimes that Utah kind of lives in a bubble," she explained. "Or they really don't kind of grasp what is going on outside in the world. Like for example, when the Black lives matter protests were initially happening and then like the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, I just felt like people were very out of touch or they didn't even know like that's something that was happening until it kind of reached a boiling point here with protests and riots in Salt Lake.

"I just felt like, before that, people were just continuing on like business as usual," she added. "And it was very odd to me, because for me and my friends or my family that were in other states, that was pretty much all we could talk about."

As tensions rose across the country and the nation turned its attention to oppression and discrimination against Black Americans, Kelly found herself struggling and decided to take a few days off work, something her employer supported.

"During that whole time period I was honestly kind of scared to leave my apartment and walk around my neighborhood because I was just like what can happen — you just never know as a Black person if someone's just going to decide to do something to you because you're Black," she said.

There was one time Kelly was walking around her Orem apartment and was stopped by a man insisting on seeing ID to prove she lived in the area, she said. She didn't recognize the man as someone who worked in the leasing office or as maintenance for the property.

"He was just some random guy, and who knows if he even lived here asking to see my ID to confirm that I lived in this neighborhood and I had the right to walk here," Kelly said.

Utah has a long way to go in terms of gaining a diverse population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 90% of the state is white and it can be hard to find a diverse community in the area at first, but it isn't impossible, Kelly said.

"Utah's not going to give you that kind of head start, it's really kind of up to you to find the people and the community that you want to be a part of, but it exists," she said.

A common misconception she's noticed in her time living in the state is the idea that diverse people living in Utah will be here short-term.

"That's just not the case," Kelly said. "I've met people that have lived here for 10-15 years. And it's like, yes I had to do a little digging to find these people and bring them into my community but they are there. ... It exists, you're gonna have to dig a little bit but it's there, and the communities that are here are very embracing of newcomers."

Kelly said she's experienced microaggressions and noticed subtle biases since living in Utah — something she hopes to see change moving forward. Since the majority of the state shares a similar background, Kelly said she's noticed some become defensive when faced with the realities of racism. She wants to be able to reach out to those people and understand how they can meet in the middle and move forward together.

"Racism is not OK, but it's almost like I want to say, 'Hey, it's OK to have done something or said something that maybe was from ignorance,'" she said. "It's OK. But what's not OK is to continue to do it, so let's help educate you or let us provide you these resources so you don't continue to do it."

Continuing to act on biases after being confronted and educated on them isn't going to help Utah or the country progress toward the goal of eliminating racism from the culture, she said. Once those defense mechanisms go down, it's easier to connect with people on a human level and relate to their situations, Kelly added. In addition, when people's guards are down, they are more likely to be receptive to hearing how they can be better.

"We're not going to go burn you at the stake or anything like that; we're not on a witch hunt," she said. "It's OK. Let's move forward and be better."

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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