Countless videos of kids drinking ‘yee-yee’ juice are floating around on the internet. What does the ‘yee-yee’ juice do? When the beat drops, it instantly dresses them in western wear and inspires a swaggardly dance.
The song that inspired this meme, of course, is Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road.’ A playful blend of country and hip-hop that resonated with kids everywhere. The same song that got pulled from Billboard’s Hot Country chart the moment it saw success.
Country music has consistently been claimed by white culture. But what happens when country isn’t white?
Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations… (Katz)
Black cowboys are an important part of American history — from the 1860s to the 1880s, an estimated 25% of American cowboys were black. However, the casual racism of Hollywood western movies rewrote the narrative, erasing the true stories of black cowboys from the collective conscious.
While Hollywood whitewashed the cowboy character in America, the same films inadvertently created a new subculture in Africa — the yodeling African cowboy.
In the late 1920s, mining camps in central and southern Africa would lure in local citizens to use as cheap labor. Free film screenings would bring in new workers and distract current workers from the inhumane working conditions.
The droves of low-budget American western films were affordable and easy to find. There was one problem — the British feared that the native Africans would see the Native American characters in the films as inspirational heroes.
With the given power dynamic, cowboys were an easy substitution for British rulers–invading, seizing land, labeling natives as ‘primitive’ or ‘savages,’ and invoking violence. So excessive edits were made to the films before screening — they were scrubbed and sterilized, removing any possible scenes that would show a white character as bested, outsmarted or overpowered.
The accidental side effect of this Imperial propaganda became that Africans identified with the cowboy and saw the character as an empowering inspiration.
It was obvious that Africans resented their low political, economic, and social status in relationship to Europeans and there was relatively little outlet for the consequent aggressive feelings. The hard-fighting cowboy, moving freely on his horse in wide-open spaces, surmounting all obstacles and always winning, is indeed an attractive hero for a people intensely fearful of losing some of their wide open spaces to Europeans, who until recently held all the power. (Powdermaker)
Conversations in Cape Town could be overheard with words like “howdy” and “pardner,” and traditional western wear — cowboy hats, neckerchiefs and boots — were either imported or handmade by inspired South Africans.
Excitement about the films became excitement about the songs —imported records from Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and Jimmie Rodgers were in incredibly high demand. Ads for ‘Waiting for a Train’ ran in the paper promising “You can feel like Jimmie Rodgers himself!”
The voice in the record belonged to Jimmie Rodgers. He was singing a song called ‘Waiting for a Train’ with guitar accompaniment. The first time I heard that record, I took to it like a drunkard takes to drink…I didn’t want anything to go wrong. Not while I was listening to that record.(Boetie)
According to Christopher Ballantine and other cultural scholars, the voices of Jimmie Rodgers and other country yodelers were mistakenly identified as ‘Africans in America’ — effectively sounding ‘black’ to African listeners.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that Rodgers’ voice led Africa’s racial imagination to a black singer. Not only was his singing style heavily rooted in vaudeville and minstrelsy, but his yodel also echoed the black South African tradition of falsetto singing. Musicologist Erich Nunn puts it best:
“The seeming acceptance of Rodgers’ music as ‘black’ by black South Africans points to ways in which intercultural musical exchanges can destabilize and transform the racial significances ascribed to musical performances, artifacts and forms.”
During the 1940s and 1950s, wind-up gramophones became more affordable, and showed up in many more homes in south and central Africa. A family’s record collection became a source of pride, and families would play their records out on the lawn for the entire block to enjoy. Seeing this spike in record sales, local labels began to focus on recording more local musicians to increase sales.
Zimbabwe’s interest in American country music in the 1930s had evolved into the omasiganda, a type of solo fingerpicking troubadour, wandering through towns, busking and performing at local events.
The biggest star of omasiganda was Josaya Hadebe, who has been credited for spreading the popular ukuvamba playing style — strumming 2 to 3 chords on the lowest strings while picking the high strings to create the melody. His song lyrics focused on morality and social values, but he was more known for his extravagant, colorful cowboy clothes and playful sense of humor within his songs. Crowds would immediately gather everywhere he played and tossed coins at his feet.
George Sibanda, a talented fingerpicking guitarist, also found early success in Bulawayo. Many have suggested Sibanda the first slide guitarist in Zimbabwe. His song “Gwabi Gwabi” found success in the West when it was picked up and featured in Wait a Minim, a musical stage show. Wait a Minim began its run in South Africa in 1962, later opened both in London and on Broadway in New York City. “Gwabi Gwabi” reached new audiences and has been covered by Arlo Guthrie, Taj Mahal and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, far after Sibanda’s untimely death in the late 1950s.
Sammy Ngaku was one of Kenya’s first and most popular yodeling guitarists. He recorded three songs with musicologist Hugh Tracey — Chemirocha I, II and III. Jimmie Rodgers was extremely popular in Kenya as well — so much so that a modern myth had began to develop around his songs. Initially, Tracey spread the idea that the Kipsigis tribe referred to Rodgers as Chemirocha — a half-man, half-antelope demigod who would wander the wilderness at night, singing his lonesome songs.
However, academics tracked down witnesses to this recording session over 50 years later. Josiah Arapsang, who was 8 at the time of the recording, had watched his father gather and organize all the musicians who performed that day. He laughed at Tracey’s interpretation of their myth:
He said that yes, the Kipsigis thought that “chemirocha” was half-beast, because they thought that all white people were half-beast — and not in the sense of deities. For one, the white missionaries who came through their village ate an unfamiliar food that looked like worms (white rice). Further, the missionaries preached about literally eating the body and blood of Christ. And then the Kipsigis men were rounded up, without warning, to give blood for the war effort.
“What the colonial government used to do,” Arapsang explains, “they will just collect you, put you into a vehicle, rush you to the hospital. The Kipsigis had never seen people hooked up to bags to give blood before.
So, as Arapsang says, they thought, “‘Aha! These people — they are man-eaters.’ As a result, they formed the idea that ‘yeah, this one is a human being, but half-animal, because he eats people.’”
Half-man, half-beast “chemirochas.” Far from the popular conception of the myth is the deliciously ironic truth: the Kipsigis villagers are the ones who actually thought the white Europeans were savages. (Kalaith)
But where did the yodel come from? How did yodeling become a marker for ‘authentic’ country music?
Yodeling began in two places —the Alps and Africa. Before the 19th century, alpine yodeling was a functional call, used to herd livestock and communicate to other herders through the mountains. What began in Africa became known as the blue yodel — a musical way express emotion in song.
The blue yodel originated with the Pygmy tribes in central Africa, known for their complex, polyphonic music. The Pygmies’ music traveled and influenced the Kongo in West Africa, which, of course, made its way to America through slave labor.
Long before the term ‘yodel’ came into play, a transcribed version of the slave song’s ‘falsetto leap/wail’ in the 1850s was written as “eeoho-eeoho-weeioho-i,” described as “a long, loud, musical shout, rising and falling, and breaking into falsetto.”
The blue yodel then became popularized in America in minstrel shows as a comedic, racist caricature. White performers would yodel in blackface as a punchline — yet the yodeling would stick and lend itself to white country music. Appropriation began as mockery, and decades later, the true origin is overlooked by the industry that profited from it.
In his book Yodel in Hi-Fi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica, Bart Plantenga digs deep into this cultural moment:
“…the Hollywood-accepted notion was that cowboys were white guys. Another myth deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious is that blacks, Africans, Afro/African Americans don’t yodel. Myths and misconceptions are difficult to eradicate; they operate like the big lie strategy. Tell a big lie, get the headlines, while the retraction that no one reads appears on page 6. It basically engraves enduring myths that people believe, prefer to believe, and will do anything to continue believing, including extraordinary efforts of collective denial.”
Movie censorship based in fear and control gave Africans a hero in the American cowboy. British colonists had accidentally inspired a country music movement in Southern Africa. Decades later, an African-American man challenged the segregated country music charts with a song. Just like the South African blue yodel singers, Lil Nas X claimed the cowboy aesthetic and imbued it with his own meaning.
The archetype of the cowboy appeals to many as a heroic figure — self-determined, belonging to nobody and nowhere, anchored only by his own sense of morality. But the cowboy’s appeal isn’t exclusively white, and his myth takes on a much more urgent and direct meaning when seen by a marginalized group.
Cross-cultural exchange of music was at an all-time high in the early 20th century — white performers were learning the African banjo, black performers were picking up the Irish fiddle. Songs were interpreted and re-interpreted back and forth between groups that the origins became indistinguishable and irrelevant.
But the music industry had been built around definitions, structure and categories. Segregation was forced into the music world as the term ‘race record’ was coined to separate music made by blacks from music made by whites. ‘Race records’ became an unpalatable term, so it was changed to ‘Rhythm and Blues’ in 1949, which became ‘Soul’ in 1969, ‘Black’ in 1982, back to the shortened ‘R&B’ in 1990, then ‘R&B/Hip-Hop’ in 1999.
What we saw in Billboard’s initial rejection of Lil Nas X was the tail end of a long struggle to keep music segregated. Keeping the dominant narrative of where music comes from becomes tricky when taking a closer look. Country music looks white from a distance, but the story of country is global, diverse, messy, complicated, and far from over.
I was inspired to research and write this piece by the ‘Bulawayo Blue Yodel’ compilation released by Mississippi Records and Olvido Records. It’s a fantastic, well-restored bundle of songs with beautiful artwork and an illuminating booklet included. If you enjoyed this article, support their work by streaming, downloading or purchasing the album from Olvido Records.
Nunn, Erich. Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination. University of Georgia, 2015.
Plantenga, Bart. Yodel in Hi-Fi: from Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.
Porter, Kenneth. “African Americans in the Cattle Industry, 1860s–1880s.” Peoples of Color in the American West, by Sucheng Chan, Heath, 1994, pp. 158–167.
Radano, Ronald Michael, and Tejumola Olaniyan. Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique. Duke University Press, 2016.
Ballantine, Christopher. “Concert and Dance: The Foundations of Black Jazz in South Africa between the Twenties and the Early Forties.” Popular Music, vol. 10, no. 2, 1991, pp. 121–145. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/853057.
Ambler, Charles. “Popular Films and Colonial Audiences: The Movies in Northern Rhodesia.” The American Historical Review, vol. 106, no. 1, 2001, pp. 81–105. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2652225.
Adjei-Kontoh, Hubert. “Lil Nas’ Song Was Removed from Billboard for Not Being ‘Country’ Enough. But Who Gets to Decide Categories?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Apr. 2019, www.theguardian.com/music/2019/apr/02/lil-nas-song-removed-from-billboard-not-country-enough.
Kailath, Ryan. “Chemirocha: How An American Country Singer Became A Kenyan Star.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 13 Sept. 2016, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chemirocha-how-an-american-country-singer-became-a-kenyan-star.