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The much-anticipated country album by megastar Beyoncé, Cowboy Carter, set for release on Friday, March 29, has shone a spotlight on the endeavors of Black performers to foster a more inclusive Nashville, recognizing their integral role in the genre’s history. This highlight puts into light not only the challenges faced by Black women in country music but also the transformative potential of their contributions.

“Twenty-three in Music City / With dreams and high-heeled boots / Singin’ for a crowd of blue eyes / Will they accept me too?” Julie Williams performs at the Blue Room venue in Nashville, vocalizing her journey. The 26-year-old artist, of biracial heritage, stands among numerous Black female musicians endeavoring to carve a niche in the stronghold of country music’s capital, a domain traditionally dominated by predominantly white male gatekeepers. “Who’s excited for Beyoncé’s new country album?” Williams inquires, met with enthusiastic applause. “Is this the feeling that all the white girls have experienced all along? Witnessing someone at the pinnacle of their craft excelling, and being able to say, ‘That could be me’, it’s quite exhilarating,” she posits. In a discussion with AFP backstage, Williams describes Beyoncé’s foray into country music as “a momentous event in bringing Black country to the mainstream.”

Williams is among approximately 200 artists associated with the Black Opry, a collective established three years ago to showcase and amplify the voices of Black artists across genres including country, Americana, and folk.

Trea Swindle of Chapel Hart applies makeup before their performance at The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville Tennessee on March 14 2024. Megastar Beyonce’s highly anticipated country album out on March 29 2024 has cast a spotlight on efforts by Black performers — a vital part of the genre’s history to create a more inclusive Nashville.
Photo Credit: Seth Herald / AFP

The Black Opry’s name deliberately references the Grand Ole Opry, a country performance venue with a nearly century-old legacy that, while shaped by Black performers, has also highlighted figures associated with racist ideologies. The announcement of Beyoncé’s album has reignited the discourse surrounding the marginalization of Black country artists, observes Charles Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. “When shifts begin to occur behind the scenes,” Hughes remarked to AFP, “the impact of the Beyoncé moment… will hopefully benefit these communities, musicians, songwriters, fans, and others who have been endeavoring to open the doors.” Country music, quintessentially American in its essence, draws influences from Africa. The banjo for instance, evolved from instruments introduced to the Americas and the Caribbean by enslaved individuals in the 1600s.

Nevertheless, contemporary country music has cultivated an overwhelmingly white, conservative, and masculinized image, with industry magnates showing reluctance towards transformation. In the 1920s, industry professionals coined the terms “hillbilly” and “race” records to categorize popular music charts, evolving into country and R&B, respectively. “That initial segregation was predicated solely on skin color, not the musical sound,” Holly G, the founder of Black Opry, notes. These divisions persist, rendering it exceedingly difficult for Black musicians — especially Black women, who already face substantial barriers in securing airplay on influential country radio — to gain recognition. “The song can be identical in sound to others receiving airplay, and yet, we hear, ‘Yours isn’t country,'” Prana Supreme, of the mother-daughter act O.N.E The Duo, shared with AFP. “I ponder, what is the sole difference here?”

US musician Beyonce accepts the award for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album for “Renaissance” during the 65th Annual Grammy Awards at the Arena in Los Angeles on February 5 2023.
Photo Credit: Valerie Macon / AFP

Beyoncé herself has acknowledged facing industry resistance. “My aspiration is that, in years to come, the mention of an artist’s race in relation to their musical genre will be rendered irrelevant,” Beyoncé recently stated. Described as a “mover of culture” by Prana Supreme, Beyoncé’s venture into country music is significant not merely for demonstrating that Black artists are indispensable to the genre but also for assuring Black fans that country music welcomes them as well.

“Southern culture is synonymous with Black culture,” she asserts. Her mother, Tekitha, views Beyoncé as an essential “champion,” necessary to reveal the industry’s oversight: “A formidable force is required to alert the market, ‘Oh, wait a minute, there’s revenue here you’re neglecting.'” Trea Swindle, a member of the country group Chapel Hart, noted an uptick in attention and streaming following Beyoncé’s announcement, adding, “It’s broadening the appeal of country music to an entirely new demographic.” The members of Chapel Hart, hailing from a small southern town, dismiss any claims that they “aren’t country.” “Visit Poplarville, Mississippi. Regardless of whether you’re Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, it’s Poplarville, and you’re going to experience that country lifestyle,” said Swindle. “Country is more than a genre of music. It embodies a feeling, a way of life that transcends racial and cultural boundaries.”

Holly G expresses cautious optimism regarding the mainstream music industry’s potential shift towards inclusivity. “Beyoncé is among the most influential figures in the world. She has managed to leverage that influence to achieve success in this space,” she states. “However, I believe this is more a result of the industry’s intimidation by Beyoncé rather than a genuine openness to support Black women.”

With AFP.

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