The soil is rich in Mississippi. The history and social foundations of the state make it fertile ground for story-telling and a hotbed for artistic inspiration. But sadly, the very reason Mississippi makes an excellent muse is the same reason that keeps it from moving forward.

“Mississippi is a beautiful, creative, amazing place. But, to many, we’re also the No. 1 hate state because we’re so stuck in the past. That is not a legacy we want to leave behind,” said Tena Clark, founder and CEO of DMI Music and Media Solutions

Clark, who has had an illustrious career in the entertainment industry, is a Waynesboro native and a proud University of Southern Mississippi alumnus who knows a little something about leaving a legacy. Her brand on popular culture is significant. She is a nationally recognized and Grammy-winning songwriter and producer.

Clark’s musical journey began when she was 5 and would visit New Orleans with her mother, a songwriter from the big band era. Clark’s first professional gig was playing drums at the famed Roosevelt Hotel. She was 15. Her innumerable career highlights include penning award-winning country hits, contributing to multi-platinum movie soundtracks, writing for TV shows and creating the national campaign theme, “Have You Had Your Break Today,” for McDonald’s.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

Through her success, Clark has always remembered her roots in Mississippi. In homage to those roots, Clark produced Church: Songs of Soul and Inspiration, which included classic soul artists Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan and contributions from Pulitzer Prize winners Dr. Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. A stratospheric anthem from this collection, “Way Up There,” written and produced by Clark and performed by Patti LaBelle, was nominated for a Grammy.

Clark’s work on the original Broadway cast recording of The Waitress is up for a Grammy award this year.

Her company, DMI, has developed strategies and programs for brands, including Build-A-Bear Workshop, General Mills, Walgreens, Kohl’s, AARP and Lucky Jeans.

While she’s been away from her beloved state for more than three decades, it has remained close to her heart.

“I would be so proud to bring people from all over the country here, to tell CEOs and business owners worldwide that Mississippi is absolutely where they should build their businesses, shoot movies, grow corporations – that life here would be great. But I can’t say that right now. And we are better than that,” she said.

Clark is referring to the recent passage of legislation that would provide special legal rights to those who oppose marriage equality and encourage discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

HB1523 was signed by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant during the 2016 Legislative session and blocked by U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves minutes before it was to take effect on July 1. The law would have allowed Mississippi residents — including state employees, religious groups and private companies — to refuse certain services to the LGBTQ community, protecting them from penalties or retaliations.

Supporters claim it would have protected religious freedoms by not forcing those who have strong moral convictions against homosexuality to provide services to same-sex couples. But opponents saw it as a blanket permit for discrimination and a violation of civil rights.

Bryant is appealing the injunction, and Clark views it as a final attempt to hold on to the discrimination promoted by the “Old South” perspective associated with Mississippi.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

“Through my entire 30-something years in L.A. and during my travels in the music and entertainment industry, Mississippi is always a state that is looked at in a negative way. I feel like I’ve constantly been on the defensive and trying to protect and defend the abuser, so to speak,” she said. “I try to tell people that this kind of hate is not OK. Things are different in Mississippi now. Things are getting better. That was then; this is now.”

In response to the disappointment and frustration she was feeling from the recent legislation, Clark did what she does best – she wrote a song.

“For me as a songwriter and composer, I’m not the kind of writer who can sit down and just write something. I have to feel the emotion well up inside of me, and it eventually just pops out. There are very few songs in my career that I feel like I just held a pen and it wrote itself, but I really felt like this was one of them,” she said.

The result was “My, My Mississippi,” a gospel tribute that sounds like – as Clark describes – a summons straight from the cotton fields of old Mississippi.

“It’s not mean-spirited in the least. I do not hate my state, but I hate what my state seems to have come to represent and what those governing it are trying to do to people in the name of religion,” she said.

Clark said she knew she had done the right thing when she received such positive reactions to the song.

“Right after I wrote it, I emailed six of the top singers I work with to see if they could meet and cut the song a capella, then I would just double or triple the voices to sound like a mass choir.

What I didn’t know is that this had gone viral. When I showed up for the recording session, 63 singers had also shown up. I had tears coming down my face. I knew how important this was,” she said.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

Clark worked with GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign to organize a rally and march in December to speak out against the legislation. The march began on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol and ended at the governor’s mansion, where local choirs combined voices to perform “My, My Mississippi.”

“I came to Jackson because this is the soil that I grew up on. I would not have wanted to grow up anywhere but in Mississippi. It gave me wonderful moments, wonderful times and some hard times, too. It’s a place that I love, and I only want to see the best for it,” she said.

Clark said after Gov. Bryant signed the bill into law, she desperately tried to reach out to him to express her disappointment with no success.

“I just couldn’t believe it. It just hit me in the gut. Are you really serious? Don’t you think that we have this long history that we keep trying to get away from by saying we’re not like that as a state anymore?” she said. “People are just tired. People want equality, tolerance and love. It’s sad to me to see a contingency that continues to try to oppress, control, and even try to make out a guest list for heaven in their minds.”

Clark said she feels like a law that specifically allows discrimination in the name of religion goes against what God would want in his followers.

“I happen to be Christian. I happen to be Episcopalian. I happen to be gay. And to decorate hate with bows and wrapping in the name of religion makes me climb the wall. I can only speak for my faith, but Christ was about inclusion and love and mercy and grace. Boy, in this bad religion, I find nothing of that,” she said.

After graduating from Southern Miss in 1976, Clark spent a few years in Jackson before hitting the road with various bands and leaving Mississippi for good. Although she still had family here and would occasionally visit, it wasn’t until her own daughter followed in her footsteps by attending her alma mater that Clark realized she had passed along her Mississippi roots to her child, who was born and reared in L.A.

“I come back to Mississippi quite often, but I have to tell you, this has made me not want to come. And I know a lot of Mississippians – celebrities too – who feel that way. They’re just disgusted; they’re hurt; they’re angry; and they’re sad. There are a lot of emotions that go with it,” she said.

“Mississippi can stay in this mode and keep this legacy of hate and discrimination, or they can, as the song says, not repeat the past and not be afraid to take your brother’s or sister’s hand. Whether it’s racism or homophobia or whatever the oppression may be, much of it comes from fear, ignorance, bad religion, or even something dark within,” Clark said.

Her hope for the future is that people worldwide come to know the wonderful parts of the state – the food, the talent, the originality, the brilliance – that often get overshadowed by the negativity.

“People tell me I shouldn’t worry so much about Mississippi since I left 35 years ago,” said Clark. “But I still pay taxes in Mississippi, I still have property in Mississippi. I still support my university in Mississippi. And, I still write songs about Mississippi.”

Music and Lyrics by Tena Clark

Oh, Oh, My, My, Mississippi
What ‘ya thinkin’, what ‘ya drinkin’
Don’t you know your ship is sinkin’ fast

Oh, Oh, My , My, Mississippi
You keep hatin’, we keep waitin’
Don’t you wanna heal your past

Well, the mighty Mississppi keeps rollin’
Rollin’ all through the lands
But you keep swimmin’ backwards
Afraid to take your brother’s hand

Oh , Oh, My, My Mississippi
Love your neighbor, show them favor
Don’t make the same mistake

Oh, Oh, My, My, Mississippi
Why ya stallin’, Grace is callin’
One day it may be too late

Well the sweet Magnolia’s cryin’
Cause she knows how good it can be
She’s waitin’ for the hearts to open
Open up and set them free

Oh, Oh, My, My, Mississippi
What ‘ya thinkin’, what ‘ya drinkin’
Don’t you know your ship is sinkin’ fast

Oh, oh, My, My, Mississppi
You keep hatin’, we keep waitin’
Don’t you wanna heal your past

Well the mighty Mississippi keeps rollin’
Rollin’ all through the lands
But you keep swimmin’ backwards
Afraid to take your brother’s hand
Afraid to take your sister’s hand
Afraid to take God’s children’s hand

I don’t think that’s what God had planned.

“My, My Mississippi” is available for purchase on iTunes with proceeds benefiting the Human Rights Campaign.

Listen on Spotify:

Photos by Melanie Thortis

Elizabeth Grey

Elizabeth Grey is a native of Hattiesburg. She grew up writing short stories for fun and turned that passion into a degree in journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi. After college, Elizabeth took a features writing position with The Vicksburg Post, and, eventually, her role shifted to education and news writer, as well as copy editor. Her work has been recognized by The Associated Press and the Mississippi Press Association. She's covered everything from pageants and celebrity appearances to school board meetings and elections, but her heart belongs to feature writing and old-fashioned storytelling. Elizabeth has lived in the Capitol City since 2007 and works in media relations and communications for the Mississippi State Department of Health. She contributes regularly to The ’Sip as a writer and associate editor.