Earlier this month, rapper Lil Nas X’s hit song “Old Town Road” was removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for not being “country enough". After the news hit the Internet, in true fashion, Black Twitter came together and showed support for Lil Nas X and called out Billboard for their outright racist decision to remove the song. Outrage soon turned into victory when Lil Nas X announced a remix to the song with no other than the achy breaky heart God himself, Billy Ray Cyrus.
While things seem to be working in Lil Nas X’s favor, this ignited the larger conversation about how black artists have been continuously excluded from country and western music for decades and how quickly it’s ignored that country music is an evolution of blues music and that black artists are essential in the genre's existence.
Before looking to the future at what feels like a new movement in country music, it is necessary to remember how we got here in the first place.
According to research conducted by undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University, black influence in country music dates back as early as the 1900’s. The banjo, an instrument that is extremely common in country music, was first brought to the states by African slaves. During the early 1900’s, many black fiddle players and guitarists were members of “hillbilly” acts but were left off of music credits and out of public photographs, and their contributions were quickly forgotten and ignored.
By the 1920’s, artists such as DeFord Bailey, the Carter Family (no, not Blue Ivy and her parents), Lesley “Esley” Riddle, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne and more ushered in a new wave of black musicians in the country world. Unfortunately, many of these artists careers were derailed by racism that affected where they could perform and ultimately affected their visibility in country music history.
Due to the rising of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, black country artists were able to find more success in country music. Charley Pride became the first black country artist to have country radio success. Four years prior, Ray Charles released the first country album to sell a million copies.
After fighting and being shut out of many spaces in country music, black artists continued to evolve and would go on to find success in multiple different genres including R&B, disco, rap, etc., while white country artists became the “face” of country music. The music industry and media contributed to the narrative that country was a “whites only” genre and that the music belonged to one kind of artists and consisted of one kind of sound. Continuing to erase the prominent contributions by black artists.
Today, we’ve seen a “resurgence” of black artists embracing country music. Artists like K. Michelle and Keisha Renee have been extremely vocal about how country music has influenced them and how they marry country and R&B in their own music. In 2016, Beyonce released “Daddy Lessons” from her critically acclaimed album Lemonade. Bey even performed with the Dixie Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Awards, not without much backlash. She was also snubbed at the Grammy Awards in the Best Country Song category.
In 2018, two black country artists, Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown, both snagged number one spots on the country charts. The last time a black artists held a number one spot was in 2008 when Darius Rucker, former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish became the first black country artist to reach number one with his single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”.
It is exciting to see a new generation of black artists embrace country music, but let’s be careful not to erase those who pioneered and contributed to the genre from the beginning. We can’t gentrify or appropriate something we created.
What are some of your favorite country songs?