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Michael Primiani

July 21, 2020
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On June 2 2020, the music industry paused their social media activity in observance of “blackout Tuesday” – a movement spawned by the marketing team at Atlantic Records in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests. On this day, there was no news about an artist’s latest single, album hype or Virtua-Concerts over Zoom to be had. As a black square adorned their Instagram pages and Facebook profiles, major to indie labels took the day to reflect on their treatment and promotion of black artists and come up with initiatives to perhaps do better in this regard. Sony Music and Warner Music both created $100 million dollar task forces to examine their race affairs internally and make sure they are doing all they can to compensate black artists fairly and foster black talent.

 

After all, it is no secret that black artists constantly line the top of the Billboard charts and their music generates millions of dollars of revenue for these labels. As of the time of this writing, nine out of the top ten tracks in Billboard‘s Hot 100 are performed by or feature a black artist. However, these top charting tracks by black artists are mostly restricted to the categories of Hip-Hop and R&B. Although these genres are very hot commodities in recent years and their popularity has resulted in many career avenues for independent black artists starting on Soundcloud and YouTube, where is the black representation in the other genres lining the Billboard Top 100?

 

Besides pop, hip-hop and R&B, the other main genre found on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart is Country. Country comprises just over a quarter of the chart and out of this quarter, only one song is by a black artist – Kane Brown. Furthermore, Kane Brown is the performer of the only two songs by a black artist to be listed on the Hot Country Songs Billboard chart. At one of the most popular Country music festivals in the world in 2019 – California’s Stagecoach festival – Kane Brown was one of only two black performers (the other being Jimmie Allen). This is a far cry from California’s other world famous festival – the pop, R&B and Hip-hop led Coachella, which is full of black performers. The question here is simple and laced with irony – how can such a hugely popular genre of music created by African Americans be so devoid of black talent?

 

Popular culture surrounding Country music permeates us with images of white people in cowboy regalia, clinking watery beers and doing shots that are more sugar than booze at a cottage or bar. Summer nights spent driving around a small town in a pickup truck with a flag flapping in the wind tied to a radio antenna. Sometimes the flag belongs to America but unfortunately, sometimes it belongs to the Confederacy. The music video for the song “Kiss My Country Ass” by Blake Shelton is a perfect testament to this, beginning with the line “Tearin’ down a dirt road, rebel flag flyin”. It’s tropes like these that render Country music a genre that is resistant to black participation.

 

An article in the edifice of white washed Country as we know it

 

Stolen and Sold: The Origins of Country Music

The history of Country music is similar to the history of rock n roll. Both genres are black originated, with white executives working to record similar music by white artists to make it palatable towards a white audience and write black people out of the narrative. Country music is rooted in negro spiritual music in the south. It’s a combination of the blues, gospel and folk – all genres that in America, can trace their origins to the music of slaves on plantations. The banjo, now a defining instrument in Country music that you can hear bellowing out of mainstream white Country radio, originated in the Caribbean in the 17th century and was adapted by American slaves. In fact, many black slaves taught their masters how to play the banjo.

 

Painted in the late 18th century, The Old Plantation depicts a slave playing a banjo

 

Country music is thought to have begun in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927, branded by producer Ralph Peer who first recorded Country music legends The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Although this is probably the beginning of Country music being commodified, it was not exactly the start of Country music. When Peer arrived in the south, he was surprised to find white and black people performing the same folky gospel ballads and playing the same instruments. He decided to record white Country artists under the moniker of “hillbilly music” and black Country artists under the label of “race music”. Although the music was the same (and began with black people), white audiences bought up the “hillbilly music” of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers – who were paid royalties for their music. Thus, black Country music was lumped into a wider category of “race music” along with jazz, blues and gospel, giving the promotion and branding of Country music a white face to be sold to a middle class white commercial audience and pushing black artists out of the genre. This commodified the belief that The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were the first Country stars. What’s been left to the annals of history is that the head of The Carter Family, A.P. Carter was taught to write music by a black man named Lesley Riddle – who was also responsible for getting Carter into black gospel churches on song collecting trips. The first time Jimmie Rodgers heard Country music was when he was working as a water boy on the railroad – from African American workers singing work chants.

 

Lesley Riddle, who was responsible for introducing A.P. Carter to gospel music and teaching him how to play his instruments. The Carter Family went on to record many songs that Riddle composed. Credit: Rounder Records

 

Long Road, No End: Billboard  vs. Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road”

These dividing lines in Country music persist to this day. Take the case of Lil Nas X. Last year, Lil Nas X‘s song “Old Town Road” was a smash hit and perhaps the song of the summer. Inspired by the Western video game series Red Dead Redemption, Lil Nas X combined elements of R&B and Hip-Hop with Country lyrics, a Country drawl and a Country guitar to open the track. The song’s lyrics are as Country as it gets as Lil Nas X wails on about horses, cowboy clothes, and rural life. Based on solely the lyrics, the song wouldn’t be out of place if it was sang by Luke Bryan or even Blake Shelton. The song was huge and the crossover potential was massive: people of all races and creeds got together to sing a fun song about cowboy life by a young black man. Look no further than this video of Lil Nas X surprising an elementary school with a performance of the song – dressed head to toe in cowboy regalia.

 

 

Although this is a fun success story that showcases the diversity of Country music, Lil Nas X suffered push back at the hands of the personnel behind the Country Billboard music chart. Initially, “Old Town Road” was placed on this chart but soon after, it was taken off and labeled as a mistake by Billboard. In a statement released to Rolling Stone, Billboard stated that “while ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to Country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s Country music to chart in its current version”. Billboard pointed to the “musical composition” of the song as the main reason for the exclusion. By this, they must mean the Hip-Hop trap beats and Lil Nas X rapping on the verses of the song. How can the latter be when charting white artists such as Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line regularly rap on their songs? As for the Hip-Hop beats, look no further than Sam Hunt‘s latest top 10 Country charting song “Hard to Forget”. Just like many Hip-Hop songs, Hunt layers stacked trap beats over a warbled sample of an older song (in this case, it is Webb Pierce’s 1953 Country song oldie “There Stands the Grass”).

 

 

Lil Nas X himself noticed this too, and when asked by Genius  he stated that after listening to some of the other songs that are on that chart that he thought to himself “wait a minute, something is not right”. How come white Country artists are able to adapt Hip-Hop/R&B techniques but when a black artist tries to bring the same techniques to a Country song, he is told that it does not fit the mold? This division echoes the notion of lumping all black music under one label just like how Ralph Peer did in the 1920s. However, instead of “race records”, all genres of black music are now “Hip-Hop/R&B”. Only when the remix of this song came out, with prominent Country star Billy Ray Cyrus, did Billboard put the song back on the chart. The Hip-Hop beats and the rapped verses remained unchanged. In fact, even Billy Ray himself laid down a rap verse!

 

Only when Lil Nas X teamed up with Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix of “Old Town Road” did Billboard  place it on the Hot Country Music chart – although the only difference to the song was Billy Ray’s inclusion

 

Hold Up: The Grammys vs. Beyonce’s Country Song

The pushback of the Country music industry to black artists has even gone as far as to effect one of the most popular black musicians in the world – Beyonce. With an army of millions of fans behind her and with all the millions she has generated for the music industry, if any black artist could make a successful Country song it would be Queen B – right? Not in the eyes of the Grammy awards. On her 2016 album Lemonade, Beyonce wrote a Country song called “Daddy Lessons”. The song features an acoustic guitar, a stompin’ beat, and even Beyonce spouting off “yeehaws”. Beyonce even released a remix with The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) and performed it with the Country group at the 2016 Country Music Awards. Although this song was a hit and seemingly embraced by Country music fans, the Grammys outright rejected this song for consideration in the Country field.

 

 

The Need for a More Inclusive Environment

Back in January of this year, Rolling Stone interviewed up and coming black Country artist Yola after she played Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. Writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud asked her why Country is still largely “in the domain of white artists”. Yola replied that it is because “this myth that won’t die of it being ‘the white man’s blues’ is both a good origin story, and kind of erases a lot of what else went into making that origin.” In a world where there is so little black representation in popular Country music and even the biggest stars and viral sensations experience gatekeeping and pushback, it does not encourage a welcoming atmosphere to black Country artists as well as black Country music fans.

 

Yola has been gaining traction in the world of folk and Americana as well as the Grammys where she was nominated for Best New Artist in 2020. It is yet to be seen how the Country music industry will embrace her as she grows in popularity

 

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired a new era of looking at race relations across every facet of society. Now is the time to sort fact from fiction when it comes to the origins of Country music and encourage a more inclusive environment for all. 28-year old black Country music fan Rachel Berry has gone viral for breaking down the racism she feels in attending Country music shows. “I have felt uneasy walking through a crowd of tailgaters and seeing Confederate flags flying high from their trucks. I find myself almost wishing I was invisible so I could walk through the crowd without being seen or noticed”, Berry said. Black Country artist Mickey Guyton’s breakthrough hit that has become an anthem of this movement “Black Like Me” echoes the same. “Broke my heart on the playground, when they said that I was different, now I’m all grown up and nothin’ has changed”.

 

 

What’s Going On: What Major Record Label Task Forces Are Working On

So what are major labels doing to foster more representation in black Country music? When asked about this in a Zoom conference put on by the Music Business Association, Phil Thornton of Sony Music stated that for any genre to see more representation by black artists, black executives need more seats at the table. He praised Sony’s task force, to which he is one of the leaders. He stated that the task force has been looking over contracts historically as well as making sure more black college graduates are hired in the business side of the music industry. He also said that he has been sitting in on Country music meetings as of recently. Hopefully, through these task force initiatives, more black Country talent will be promoted and the Country music scene sees a much needed shift to be more inclusive.

 

Industry leader Phil Thornton, who has become one of the leaders of Sony Music’s task force set up to “to support social justice and anti-racist initiatives around the world.”

 

Conclusion

Although Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen are great inspirations for black people with dreams of becoming Country stars themselves, they can’t be the only stars around. In the words of Phil Thornton, “we can’t afford for this to all be lip service” when it comes to hashtags and black squares. Music industry personnel, artists and fans alike must work together to create an environment of inclusivity where all can feel welcome to join – united by a love of music. That means when it comes to Country, you can be proud of being from the South without having to wave a flag created by a seceded group of people that fought a Civil War to preserve slavery. Country music should be set on equality. Anyone should be allowed to comprise a damn good Country song, regardless of the color of their skin. If the song is Country, then it’s Country. It’s as simple as a black woman in New York’s answer to the question of is “Old Town Road” a Country song or not. “He said he has the horses in the back, what else do they want from him?”

Check out our playlist of black country musicians below:

Sources Consulted

Abdelmahmoud, Elamin. “Rewriting Country Music’s Racist History.” Rolling Stone. June 5, 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/country-music-racist-history-1010052/.
Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. 1st edition. New York: Vintage Books / Random House, 1998.
Elasfar, Dara. “Woman’s Powerful Post on Being a Black Country Music Fan Goes Viral | GMA.” Good Morning America, June 10, 2020. https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/story/womans-powerful-post-black-country-music-fan-viral-71153147.
Hight, Jewly. “Country Star Mickey Guyton: Why Being ‘Black Like Me’ Shouldn’t Be Twice As Hard.” NPR.org, June 6, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/06/869978720/country-star-mickey-guyton-why-being-black-like-me-shouldn-t-be-twice-as-hard.
Hudak, Joseph. “Beyonce’s Country Song ‘Daddy Lessons’ Rejected by Grammys.” Rolling Stone (blog), December 8, 2016. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/beyonces-country-song-daddy-lessons-rejected-by-grammys-119339/.
Leight, Elias. “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind.” Rolling Stone (blog), March 26, 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-810844/.
Mench, Chris, and Tia Hill. “New York City Reacts To Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ | Genius.” Genius, March 26, 2019. https://genius.com/videos/New-york-city-reacts-to-lil-nas-xs-old-town-road?utm_source=recirculated_content.
Shafer, Ellise. “Blackout Tuesday: Who’s Committed to What in the Music Industry.” Variety (blog), June 10, 2020. https://variety.com/2020/music/news/blackout-tuesday-donations-major-labels-music-companies-1234626641/.
Williams, Andrea. “If Country Music Wants to Reckon With Its Racism, Look Deeper Than the Bad Names.” Vulture, June 12, 2020. https://www.vulture.com/2020/06/essay-lady-antebellum-lady-a-new-name-country-music-racism.html.