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“C*ntry” by Ella Bussa of Anna Malonson, Ella See, Jaden Bridgeforth, Ku'Juana Quinn & Mariah Thompson / Styled by Anna Malonson & Riley Fernandes / Directed by Lakeisha Parks / Graphic Design by Jaiden Cregger / Hair & Makeup by Delicia Hill

By Chimazu Ndukwe

“Nothing really ends for things to stay the same, they have to change again”, Beyonce opens her most anticipated album Cowboy Carter with her first song Ameriican Requiem, the history of country music in America is a story that resonates so much with many Americans, with roots dating back to the 1920s originating in the southern and southwestern United States. Requiem is defined as an act or token of remembrance, in her new album Beyonce makes it a mission to help America remember not only the history of country music but the origins of country music, letting it be known that the history of country music leads back once again to the presence of Black people.

When thinking about a stereotypical country band you may envision a variety of musicians playing a variety of instruments a person playing the banjo, a fiddle, an acoustic guitar, and even a harmonica. You can’t forget the notable southern accent, and maybe the specifics of this band vary but whether you realize it or not your country band is most likely white. It is evident for decades now that the country music scene has been dominated by mainly white artists, the majority of top charting country singers throughout history have been white. Only three African Americans have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame out of one hundred and forty-six members.

Just like most popular genres country music in the United States began with black people, with the instrument the banjo playing a major part in the creation of this genre. The banjo known today comes from the West African instrument called the Akonting. Enslaved people were taken from Africa to America and during their journey they brought along their instruments with them. Born out of the struggle and fight for freedom enslaved people created their music, hymns, and spirituals all carrying the roots of African music.

Appropriation of Country Music by White Artists

Minstrel shows rose to popularity in the 1850s, these shows were a form of satirical entertainment for white people that played on extremely racist stereotypes of black people in America. In these shows, white people would dress up in Blackface and would mock and degrade black people and their culture. Performing the music and dance of enslaved people, with instruments such as the banjo mentioned before, the shows depicted African Americans as lazy and stupid incapable of having autonomy over their ideas and thoughts. These minstrel shows introduced the banjo to white audiences in which the instrument was quickly appropriated by white people. The minstrel shows led to the rise of hillbilly music in the 1920s which drew inspiration from enslaved peoples' spirituals, hymns, and blues. In the 1920s and 1930s although America at the time was deeply segregated, both black and white “hillbilly” artists collaborated to create a variety of popular tracks. After World War 1 hilbilly music was rebranded as country music and commercialized, but for this genre to sell black artists could not be on these records, this caused black artists on previous famous records to receive no recognition, with the removal of black people from these songs country music was now able to be sold and marketed as “white music”. Black artists, and musicians and their contributions were completely erased from the genre they created.

Black artists have been the foundation in making country music what it is today. The blues emerged from African American folk musical forms that arose in the southern United States and gained worldwide popularity in the 20th century. The Carter Family, or the “First Family of Country Music” was heavily influenced by Lesley Riddle, a black blues and gospel guitar and folklorist. DeFord Bailey was the first performer on the Grande Ole Opry and an American Country Music and Blues star from the 1920s until 1941, Bailey was also one of the first performers introduced on the Nashville Radio Station WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, and the first African American performer to appear on the show, and also the first performer to have his music recorded in Nashville, Tennessee. Musicians such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker kept the genre alive by being the first African American country music superstars.

After Bailey, was Charley Pride, who was the first Black artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Superstar Ray Charles was responsible for blending country with R&B and pop music changing the dynamic of the genre forever. These three men are some of the most notable and recognizable black names, but there are many lesser recognizable names such as Gus Cannon a black musician in the 1920s who taught Johnny Cash, a worldwide popular white country singer. The list of Black artists who have made incredible impacts on country music is well known but many names go unrecognized.

The impact of black people and artists on country music is astounding, but many black artists to this day still face many difficulties when attempting to break into this genre. Lil Nas X's Grammy-winning country rap single, “Old Town Road” was listed on the Billboard country charts before it was removed similar to Beyonce’s single 16 Carraiges being listed as pop before being changed to country swiftly. When Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was released he received a great deal of criticism, with many country fans accusing him of cultural appropriation for wearing a cowboy hat proving once again how much country music and the history of black people in it have been erased.

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” Linda Martell laughs at the beginning of “SPAGHETTI” on Beyonces latest album Cowboy Carter, Linda Martell who was the first Black woman to gain commercial success released her first album in 1970 titled Color Me Country, she was also the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, in the 1960s when she attempted to move from the R&B genre to the country genre in the 1960s she was met with extreme racist resistance. In 2016 Beyonce released Daddy’s Lessons which was on her critically acclaimed album Lemonade, Through this song, she faced backlash from the industry, especially during her performance “Daddy’s Lessons” at the 2016 Country Music Awards with The Chicks leaving country fans enraged, in turn, she submitted the record for a Grammy but was denied. This experience sparked the album Cowboy Carter which Beyonce shared in a vulnerable Instagram post. “This album has been over five years in the making. It was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed… and it was very clear that I wasn’t.”

Country music is Black Music, born from the struggles and fight of enslaved black people this genre would not exist without the Black experience. With Black history being challenged every day to be erased from our history books it is more than important to continue to advocate and legitimize Black history and the continuous fight for freedom in every aspect. Black people live in a constant state of oppression in every aspect and are constantly being told that so many pieces of “American culture” are not for them even though they are the originators of many expressive disciplines from music, the arts, dance, and entertainment deserve to be recognized.

It is time for AMERIICAN REQUIEM, stop the ALLIGATOR TEARS and return country music to its rightful owner the BLACKBIIRD as Beyonce would put it.

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