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Country Music and Blackness

By February 26, 2024No Comments

With its twangy guitars and heartfelt lyrics, country music has long been regarded as a quintessentially American genre. Yet, hidden beneath its surface lies a history deeply intertwined with African American culture and musical traditions. From its humble beginnings in the rural South to its transformation into a mainstream sensation, country music owes much of its evolution to the contributions of Black musicians. However, despite their undeniable influence, Black artists have often found themselves marginalized within the genre, struggling to be taken seriously in a space that is, in many ways, their own.

The roots of country music can be traced back to African American folk traditions, including spirituals, blues, and work songs. Instruments like the banjo, central to the genre’s sound, originated from West African lutes brought to America by enslaved Africans. Early hillbilly music, a precursor to modern country, borrowed heavily from Black sources, with collaborations between Black and white artists shaping its early development.

Despite their pivotal role in shaping the genre, Black artists faced discrimination and marginalization as country music became a commercial product in the 1920s. Record labels segregated releases into “hillbilly records” and “race records,” relegating Black artists to the sidelines and erasing their contributions from marketing images.

The few Black stars in country music’s early days, such as DeFord Bailey, were met with ambivalence and contempt. Bailey, the first Black performer on the Grand Ole Opry, was treated paternalistically and eventually fired from the show. Similarly, contemporary Black artists like Beyoncé face criticism and skepticism when crossing into the country music world despite their undeniable talent and connection to the genre’s roots.

A recent incident at a country music radio station in Oklahoma highlights the ongoing challenges faced by Black artists in the genre. When a listener requested to hear a new Beyoncé song on the station, the station manager initially rejected it, “We do not play Beyoncé on KYKC as we are a country music station.” However, after widespread backlash from fans on social media, the station relented and played the song “Texas Hold ’Em.” 

Despite these ongoing challenges, there is optimism for the future of diversity in country music. Rising Black stars like Lil Nas X, Kane Brown, Blanco Brown, and Jimmie Allen highlight the genre’s diverse roots and challenge traditional notions of what constitutes country music.

The history of country music is a complex tapestry woven with the threads of African American culture and musical traditions. While challenges remain, the resilience and talent of Black artists continue to shape the genre and push it towards greater diversity and inclusivity. It’s time for country music to recognize and celebrate its diverse roots, ensuring that all voices are heard and valued within the genre.