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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Beyoncé, Cowboy Carter, & The Reclamation Of Our Country

On Sunday, February 11th, Beyoncé broke the internet once again. Following a partner commercial with Verizon for the Super Bowl LVIII, Beyoncé announced the second act of the Renaissance Trilogy entitled, Cowboy Carter to be released on March 29th, with two lead singles, “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages”, released minutes later.

Shortly after the commercial aired, Beyoncé posted a mysterious video teaser on Instagram with an unidentified woman — presumably Beyoncé herself — starting up a car and driving away on an empty road.

The woman drives the car down an empty road before the clip cuts to a group of men staring unbelievingly at the sky. The focus of their stares is a billboard cutout of a red lingerie-clad Beyoncé lounging in a seductive pose. “This ain’t Texas,” she sings over finger-picked guitars in the background. The clip then cuts to a black screen that reads “Act II, 3.29.”

The Super Bowl commercial was nothing short of the normal world-stopping Beyoncé we adore. However, the mysterious video teaser that followed seemed to tell us a unique story. 

One that requires a history lesson. 

Texas Hold ’Em can be associated with “Daddy Lessons” from Beyoncé’s sixth studio album Lemonade. The song “begins with a rapid guitar sound and moves into a stomping beat.” Many critics have described the song as “an uptempo country and western stomp.”

16 Carriages, is an “epic country ballad” accompanied by guitars and percussion in the backdrop of lyrics that reflect “losing innocence” at a young age and “growing up themes” between parents and their children.

Between the references to her home state of Texas and the sound of the new music singles, there is no doubt that Beyonce has gone country. But Beyonce also made it clear that this isn’t a country album, –it’s a Beyonce album. I think the same sentiment can be said for Black Americans and who the country genre belongs to.

The History Of Our Country Roots

African Americans have played a significant role in popular music genres, particularly in the country genre. Their contribution dates back four centuries since the inception of this music genre, and their preeminent role is still audible in Southern country music today. 

However, African Americans today are more likely to visualize white country singers when thinking about the genre. This is because the majority of notable country singers, from the past to the present, have been white. Even those with limited knowledge of country music can easily recall popular artists such as Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, and Carrie Underwood, who share the commonality of whiteness.

Did country music leave us behind or lead us astray?

The reality is that like most popular music genres, — country began with us.

The Black history of country music can be traced back to the banjo. The modern-day banjo is a descendant of a West African instrument called the Akonting, made from gourds. When enslaved Africans were brought to America, they brought their instruments with them. They created and curated their own hymns, spirituals, and songs, all with African-themed roots, for four hundred years. From its inception to its prime, the banjo was predominantly played by Black people. It was unheard of for white people to play the banjo.

However, in the 1850s, minstrel shows became popular. These shows were a racist form of satirical entertainment where white people would dress in blackface to mock Black Americans and Black culture. It was in these shows that the banjo was introduced to white audiences in a palatable manner and quickly appropriated by white people. This laid the groundwork for the rise of hillbilly music around the 1920s.

Hillbilly music was later renamed country and marketed as the music of the South. The early hillbilly artists drew inspiration from slave spirituals, field songs, hymns, and the blues, which itself has Black origins. After it was officially rebranded and commercialized as country music, the genre was dominated by predominantly white artists and marketed by white industries, who performed and catered to white audiences. Meanwhile, Black musicians and their contributions were largely erased by the white mainstream, as if they never had anything to do with its inception or advancement.

Reclaiming Our Genre

In recent times, Black artists such as Brittney Spencer, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Charley Pride, and K. Michelle have encountered numerous obstacles while trying to establish themselves in the music industry. They have been fighting to take back what was rightfully theirs from the beginning.

Recently, the famous American singer-songwriter, T-Pain, revealed that he has been ghostwriting country songs due to the industry’s racism.

“I done wrote a lot of country songs. Stopped taking credit for it because…the racism that comes after it is just like… I’ll just take the check,” T-Pain said in a TikTok video.

When Beyoncé released, “Daddy’s Lessons,” in 2016, she faced widespread backlash from the industry despite the hit single including all the elements of traditional country music. Mainstream country fans were also enraged when she performed the single at the 2016 Country Music Awards with The Chicks. Beyoncé also submitted the record for a Grammy but was denied.

Similarly in 2019, Lil Nas X’s Grammy-winning country rap single, “Old Town Road” was listed on the Billboard country charts before it was soon removed. According to Rolling Stone, Old Town Road did not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Such rejection from the mainstream only proved country music’s whitewashed state in America.

In March 2019, singer K. Michelle announced that she would be working on her first country album. She released “Save Me” as a teaser that November. She promised the official lead single would drop in early 2019, however, it was delayed. And I can’t help but wonder that by the time Beyoncé and Lil Nas X were snubbed from country music recognition, K. Michelle had been completely blacklisted.

It would take years before K. Michelle released singles, “Tennessee” and “Country Love Song.” The great space between then and now speaks to Black women’s struggle for acceptance in the genre. 

Black women in music face significant challenges when it comes to breaking into the country genre. Even when it comes to the Black history of country music, Black women are often left out. Due to racism and sexism, Black women rarely get the opportunity to enter the industry on their own terms.

Nonetheless, there have been significant advances. An increasing number of Black women artists, such as Linda Martell, Tina Turner, Valerie June, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, and Rhiannon Giddens, have intentionally emerged while still attempting to navigate a mostly white genre.

Although Beyoncé is not the first Black woman to break into the industry successfully, she has the power and influence to take the genre to more mainstream heights. She may make the “empty road” she speaks of, less daunting for the next Black artist.

“This isn’t a country album. This is a Beyoncé album.”

The two video teasers released by Beyoncé appear to tell a story, much like the central theme of country music. She is shown and heard “driving down an empty road.” The empty road may represent the country genre she intends to explore and travel. The men “staring incredulously into the sky” could represent the predominantly white country artists, industries, and audiences in disbelief at Blackness reclaiming its rightful place in the genre.

If that is the case, I hope it serves as an inspiration to every Black artist striving to reach new heights in country music. Because if there’s one thing Beyonce has shown Black people, it is that if we can break the internet, we can break into anything.

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