The Erasure of Black Voices in Country Music

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Lil Nas X

Being a musician is supposed to feel liberating as you’ve honed your skill, whatever it may be, just enough to be able to create a piece of you. It’s like you have been able to give the world your thoughts and feelings, freely. Be it an expression of your darkest emotions, an ode to an ex or a song that your dog loves to howl to. You have a craft now that everyone around you encourages you to use. Until your art become recognized and people start paying you for said craft. Whenever money comes into the mix, it’s pretty much set in stone that all sorts of expectations are going to be set.

All of a sudden you’re boxed in these walls that your fans, your record label, (and maybe even yourself) have created and are suffocating your creative expression. “What are you? Pop, Rock, Reggae?” Well, you started out with rock, but hip hop is something that has sparked your interest. “No!” Your audience cries, “where’s the consistency? Stick to the status quo!” And now that your audience sounds suspiciously like a High School Musical chorus, you are left with a feeling of frustration and confusion. What if you wanted to be considered none of those? Or all of those? And who are they to tell you what your music should be? Unfortunately, these are all problems artists face as they become more recognized, and even more so if they ever become critically acclaimed.

Old Town Road by Lil Nas X has sparked discussion recently as to whether or not it can be considered a country song. The song itself embodies a lot of the common characteristics found in country music. It features simple guitar chords, plucky banjo strings, and a man singing about cowboy brand jeans and cheating on his wife, all of which can be found in a typical Blake Shelton song. However, the song wasn’t noted as a country song until Billy Ray Cyrus added his verse. Lil Nas X is a young black man whose number one song in the country had to be validated by a white man in order to be recognized as a ‘real’ country song. While it could be argued that Old Town Road isn’t ‘exactly’ country music, it still should at the very least be considered a subset of country. There have been country songs that featured popular rap artists like Nelly, and even country songs where the country star themselves decides to ‘rap’, and they have been labeled country. Country music has taken influences from other genres and still been considered country, so I find it suspicious that Lil Nas X is being singled out by having trap influences in his country song. Billboard went as far as to remove Old Town Road from the country billboard until the Billy Ray Cyrus remix was added.

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Billy Ray Cyrus showing support to Lil Nas X and the producer of Old Town Road, Kio.

Although we can appreciate Billy Ray Cyrus’ allyship to Lil Nas X, we can also say that it should not be necessary. This is reminiscent of the black voices that were drowned out in the rise of country music in favor of their white counterparts, who admitted much later in life that their inspiration came from black people. Despite having deep roots in southern music culture amidst the Great Migration, the black imagery of southern and country music has become whitewashed. Black people have built the country genre only for white people to take their style and butcher it into a palatable genre for a white audience. Since the early 1920s, the city of Nashville and the culture around it has defined the country genre as it is today. For this same reason, the country genre has been riddled with racism and sexism. This small box of expectations doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for a budding artist trying to find themselves in their craft.

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Since room for expansion in music seems sparse now, it’s easy to imagine how hard it would’ve been for black artists who’ve come before. Only you don’t have to imagine. For the longest time, musical genius Prince was not able to get airtime on rock radio. In fact, they did not decide to acknowledge him until his 5th studio album, 1999. It was this album which debuted his band The Revolution. He released the album in 1982 but had been blending rock and R&B seamlessly since the 1978 hit “I’m Yours” which features 5 minutes of intense shredding guitar and Prince’s piercing falsetto. Rock in the ’70s was defined by white men with electric guitars and tights, and although Prince had rocked both a guitar and crazy tights, he wasn’t white. His music challenged popular rock radio stations and eventually forced most to abandon ‘real rock radio’ by the early 80s. KDWB, a rock station in Minnesota, was forced to add Prince to their Top 40 playlist after the amount of complaint calls they received after the release of 1999. His version of rock incorporated soulful vocals and smooth rhythms, which juxtaposed the definition of rock as it was. Despite Prince being very popular and having rock and roll influences since his debut, he received a lot of pushback from radio stations because they were not targeted for black audiences.

In addition, Rick James, another musical legend, was also not accepted into the rock community until much, much later into his career. He is considered the innovator of ‘Funk-Rock’, a blend of the popularized soulful black music, and rock music. His music helped create a presence for black people in the rock community. Rick James was called out MTV for racism when they were a rock only tv station. MTV had refused to play Rick James’ music video for “Loosey’s Rap” because it was deemed too inappropriate. However, at the same MTV gave this explanation, they were showing sexually explicit videos done by Madonna and Cher. James made a statement about MTV being hypocritical and in favor of white people. In fact, David Bowie actually spoke up on national TV during an interview with MTV about the lack of videos created by black artists on their channel. MTV’s response was that there were not a lot of black artists making music videos. Though that is irrelevant as a defense, black artists did not commonly make videos because record labels knew that MTV would not have played them.

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That being said, large music labels are often controlled by rich white people. White people developed an image of what genres like country and rock should look like. As a society, we have adopted the mainstream idea of how country music is presented; big trucks, straw hats, and drunk, smelly white men with scantily clad skinny white women. They use this image to sell their records to other drunk white men, selling them the dream of living on a farm and having women fawn over their monster trucks. Similarly, the typical rock audience is normally white and male. Therefore the rock industry is filled with skinny white men in bands, with the occasional woman or minority (never both). However, before this image of country, the face of country was a black man named DeFord Bailey and his “Pan American Blues”. His act on the harmonica earned him a 2-year spot on the “Grand Ole Opry” a country radio station. Bailey was rumored to have inspired the name of the show with his imitation of railroad noises. Unfortunately, his impact was not recognized until his death in 1982. He was the first African American to be finally inducted into the Country Hall of Fame in 2005. He and other African American country musicians never made it out of Nashville, despite it having over 25 record labels in its city by 1995.

The idea of a genre may be constricting, but without that structure, there would be no way to tailor our tastes or even be able to identify them in the first place. Musicians wouldn’t have the knowledge needed to advertise themselves properly, and radio stations would be an incoherent hodgepodge of music. Genres are a product of human instinct to categorize. The inferior temporal cortex is the part of our brains that create categories in order to understand the world in which we live. It is responsible for a large part of the visual object recognition. The inferior temporal cortex is the reason why your brain is able to tell that the weird insect on a flower is a butterfly in less than 160 milliseconds. The inferior temporal cortex is basically what taps into your brains prior knowledge in order to be able to identify what it is you’re looking at. By nature, people ‘type’ objects and concepts. We use these clustered bits of information in order to navigate and understand the world in which we live. However, scientists have noted the risk of these categories; we tend to lump a large amount of unfiltered knowledge together, erasing other important information that would be normally used to identify and specify these things.

Though there are people making the case that categorization in relation to race is natural because of this inherent need to categorize, but this is not correct. Western culture has made it seem that way through the culture we live in. It has become scarily normalized to place racialized traits onto groups of people in what we call stereotyping. With these stereotypes, they were able to bind an unnecessary and often incorrect conclusion to the things and people we see. The culture we are surrounded by thrives by placing these categories on people, especially people of color, and hoping that said people act accordingly. This makes it easier to sell products and target audiences for certain types of media. Stereotyping is why many black people, including myself, find the woman on the Popeye’s commercial to be comforting. She is scripted to be kind black woman, happily awaiting to feed us, much like many of our mothers have been. It is this same reason that black people who venture into interests not marketed to them are met with skepticism and exclusion. These stereotypes are not permanently fixed in our culture, however, there is a lot that has to be done in order to undo these stereotypes. We must dig these exclusionary habits out at the source instead of waiting for leaving it in hopes of it dying off someday.

Nashville is a city deeply rooted in racism and white supremacy, as well as sexism. It has been constructed to be consumed and produced by white people even though country music is deeply rooted in the black southerner identity and has been for as long as black people have lived in the South. We still let Nashville define country because it’s been accepted as ‘true’ country when in fact, the many odes and pleas of freed slaves have been silenced and copied have been hidden in the name of ‘true’ country. Instead, black culture in the 1920s has been reduced to Jazz and Blues, which helped the whitewashing of country music. Although Jazz and the Blues are a very important part of black history, the fact the blues singers in the deep south had a significantly different style than their counterparts who moved north after the Great Migration is very conveniently glossed over. The 1930s northern era of blues, popularized by singers like Bessie Smith and Victoria Spivey, often featured an ensemble of brass horns as well as lone piano accompanied by loud, belting vocals. At this same time, blues musicians in the south primarily used acoustic guitar and their own voice often described as sad and longing. The southern blues sounded a lot like the genre that will eventually be coined as ‘Folk Blues’. Folk Blues has many of the qualities of modern country music, one of which is the banjo. The banjo, a country genre staple, is an imitation of the Banjar, a string instrument created and played in Africa. The banjo was created by black people in the late 1690s. Slave masters introduced the fiddle, which slaves often used to entertain white guests at plantation parties.

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A city famous for stolen country music and dirty politics shouldn’t be able to produce the amount of money and the large following that it has procured. Nashville country music and country music industry are built off the backs of poor black people singing the blues on the street for change. There are some older country artists that admit to being ‘inspired’ from the black people they saw in poor neighborhoods in Nashville, but these artists did not credit black people when they were at their peak. There are too many mysterious black voices behind the blues. People who have recorded a song or two, never to receive any recognition until they were long dead. Buried beneath their work, taking their voices and impact with them. An example of this would be Geeshie and Elvie, a female blues duo who still remain a mystery to ethnomusicologists. Having known little fame in their lives with only about 6 known songs recorded in the 20s and 30s, it’s disheartening to imagine to easily their voices were erased from history. Music historians will often refer to Geeshie Wiley having possibly been the greatest blues singer and musician of all the Rural south. Meanwhile, mediocre white country artists have been given the loudest platform in order to sell cars and ugly t-shirts. Black people have been robbed of their voices and their stories. It feels criminal when you compare the number of white country singers to the endlessly unknown amount of black voices who took part in creating something they would eventually be actively excluded from.

Behind the shadows of Nashville’s country scene, there are hands being shaken in the background, deals being done with local radio shows, sponsored by record labels pushing their white country agenda. Nashville has monopolized a genre that they should’ve never been able to touch in the first place. There are also cases that transcend race, like Gary Allen and his alienation from Nashville while simultaneously being one of the most influential country artists of the decade. Because he is from California, there have been questions in the Nashville community as to whether or not his music is ‘true country’. There have been claims by country music listeners and fans of Gary Allen alike that he doesn’t receive the same amount of air time as Nashville bred country musicians. The culture that surrounds Nashville’s country music scene has created an exclusionary air around what was originally a sound expressing the woes and joys of the black community, something that the Nashville community widely doesn’t acknowledge and has worked hard to erase. Why would anyone support something so exclusionary? The only reason is that there are people who define their entire existence in excluding others, which is something I think is common amongst the white country audience. If we continue to accept racist Nashville’s definition of country music, the constraints on country and other music genres like it will only get tighter.

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Keeping music in such confined constraints is the death of musical expression and experimentation. Music artists get stuck in contracts making music that they once had a passion for. A lot of these constraints are based on prejudice and stereotyping, and we as a whole need to uproot these principles. Because Lil Nas X is a young black man, him making country music comes as a surprise to white people and to black people alike. It’s not fair that things we have no control over predetermine what our hobbies, interests, and talents should be. We have to refuse to support such a restricting way of consumerism. With all of the filters placed around these genres, the audience stops getting a choice of who they get to listen to. These filters specifically target minorities, be it women, black people, and people of color. It is important to recognize this, as refusing to do so allows for the white main culture to ignore their past of stealing from black people and continue to profit off of the pain and suffering of slaves. The monopoly of country by Nashville has caused a stagger in the black southern identity by stripping black southerners of their culture, and whitewashing the idea of the ideal country star and the ideal country audience and leaving them in a whirlwind of doubt.

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Black people have been forced over and over to find loopholes in order to find representation in the media they consume, especially in white-dominated genres that they have been excluded. If you go to any country show, there are symbols of racial prejudice shown proudly as a ‘representation of the south’. An example of this would be the glorification of the Confederate flag that is often associated with white country music. The use of this flag acts as a deterrent to black people, as to most black people it is a sign of the south seceding in rebellion of losing their slaves. Nashville has gone through considerate lengths to exclude black people from a genre of music that they themselves have laid the foundation for. Nashville has taken black cries for freedom and morphed it into white men fetishizing their pickup trucks and cheating on their wives. This representation of country couldn’t be further from how it originated and it needs to be reevaluated as to why we consider this version of country music to be the correct one. Black people are not only allowed to enjoy country music, but we are also able to create it. In fact, the creation of country music by black people should be celebrated as a homecoming. After being reduced to a genre or two, we are reclaiming history. The voices of the past have gone unheard, but no longer. White people having their hand on how we see the world is not a way I’d recommend, and I think it’s about time to reveal the black faces buried beneath Nashville.

Works Cited

Glanton, Dahleen. “THE ROOTS OF COUNTRY MUSIC.” , The Chicago Tribune, 29 Aug. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-09-16-9809190003-story.html.

Izadi, Elahe. “This Is How David Bowie Confronted MTV When It Was Still Ignoring Black Artists.” , WP Company, 11 Jan. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/01/11/how-david-bowie-confronted-mtv-for-ignoring-black-artists-in-the-early-1980s/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.84a08f4e001a.

Keithley, Elise. “How the Great Migration Effected the Development of Blues Music.” , Music In The World, 7 Mar. 2012, blogs.longwood.edu/musicintheworld/2012/03/07/how-the-great-migration-effected-the-development-of-blues-music/.

“Kurzweilaccelerating Intelligence.” , www.kurzweilai.net/where-and-when-the-brain-recognizes-categorizes-an-object.

“Representation of Visual Stimuli in Inferior Temporal Cortex.” , royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.1992.0001.

Ross, Sean. “A Radio History of Prince.” , 22 Apr. 2016, bringmethenews.com/life/radio-history-prince.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule | Comparative Studies in Society and History.” , Cambridge University Press, 3 June 2009, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/comparative-studies-in-society-and-history/article/rethinking-colonial-categories-european-communities-and-the-boundaries-of-rule/A52EDDEB286E5F7C89C96654F67B01DE.

“Story: The Shadow of Rick James.” , 27 Jan. 2016, www.dailypublic.com/articles/01282015/story-shadow-rick-james.

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