NewsNationalScripps News

Actions

How Beyoncé's cross-genre album opened doors for Black country artists

Beyoncé’s honey-coated touch has reignited the conversation of country’s forgotten history while clearing a place for rising country stars of color.
How Beyoncé's cross-genre album opened doors for Black country artists
Posted at 9:22 PM, Apr 03, 2024

Beyoncé never said she was releasing a country album. But what the Beyhive wants, the Beyhive gets. And it didn’t take long for her to make history as the first Black woman to top Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart after dropping the first two singles from her album, “Texas Hold 'Em” and “16 Carriages.” 

Now that “Cowboy Carter” is out, it’s even more clear the album does not fit perfectly into the seemingly narrow walls of the genre — but the debate on whether or not it is considered country doesn’t reflect the bigger picture of how Beyoncé’s honey-coated touch has reignited the conversation of country’s forgotten history while clearcutting a place for rising country stars of color to shine.

“What I'm hoping is that Beyoncé has a big enough platform and a bold enough presence, that it can shift, a little bit more permanently, perceptions and fan resistances. But she's not the first, she's just in a really wonderfully poised position to make a bigger statement,” said Dr. Jocelyn Neal, a renowned scholar, professor and chair of the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who has literally written the book on country music’s history. 

Neal said musical genres are complicated categories that are always in negotiation. While musical sound, legacy and history certainly play a role in sculpting a genre, audiences have more agency in defining it than many may think.

The rhetoric of debating what is or isn’t country music — or any genre, for that matter — is not a new phenomenon, Neal explained. Part of a fanbase’s bond over their shared taste in music can often include decrying whatever is being popularized at that time in the genre. 

However, country music’s history and origin are less disputable, though its roots are deeply tangled. 

Commercial recordings of country music began in the 1920s, with artists like The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers laying the foundation. “The First Family of Country Music” used a local African American musician named Lesley Riddle as an influence for their style of guitar-playing, and for helping to gather song material. “The Father of Country Music” said he drew inspiration from Black blues artists and chants he heard from Black railroad workers as he worked with them — all of which is documented in various historical accounts, including at the Country Music Hall of Fame

Even the banjo, one of the most notable sounds used throughout country music’s history, was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants, according to the Smithsonian.

You would be hard-pressed to find a corner of country music that isn’t connected with African American influence. And yet, in its 100-year history, country has never been marketed that way. The genre that has one of the most diverse convergences of audible elements has notoriously been the least diverse with its commercialized artists and audience. 

Enter Beyoncé. “Cowboy Carter” is not the Houstonian’s first step into the world of country music, but it is her biggest. 

In her own words, Beyoncé said, “The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations.”

SEE MORE: Beyoncé makes history as the first Black woman artist to top country charts

“This is not really a test case of ‘can a Black musician get access to country radio or get recognized by the country fanbase?’ because Beyoncé is already so much bigger than that,” explained Neal. “She's shaping the conversation from the incredibly powerful platform of her own voice.”

And her voice is already amplifying other Black female country artists, like Reyna Roberts. 

Roberts gained over 100,000 followers on her social media and a spike in streams within a week of Beyoncé announcing Act II of her “Renaissance” trilogy. Even though Beyoncé said “Cowboy Carter” was not a country album, it ignited a search for Black country artists. 

Roberts is featured in one of the songs on the album, “Blackbiird,” alongside Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell and Tiera Kennedy. It’s a cover of a song originally written by Paul McCartney of The Beatles at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. McCartney said in a 2018 GQ interview he intended the ballad to inspire hope, specifically for Black girls. Beyoncé’s version of the track, with her deliberate decision to feature Black country women, was co-produced by McCartney. 

The feature opportunity was a dream come true for Roberts. The 26-year-old said her childhood was always filled with sounds from every genre of music, with her favorite artists ranging from Gretchen Wilson to Led Zeppelin. But her biggest inspiration has always been Beyoncé. 

“That has always been a goal of mine,” said Roberts. “As long as I can remember, she’s shaped my whole voice, my career and my artistry.”

One of the things Roberts loves the most about Beyoncé is her catalyzing ability to mix genres, emerging from any box the industry has tried to put her in. 

“You feel like you're immersed into the music,” explained Roberts. “It's not just like you're listening to a song. You feel like you're there in the song, because of all the things and all the elements that are used.”

Roberts, who refers to herself as the “Princess of outlaw country,” said when she began songwriting in high school, she found most of her music aligned with country music. While she has faced roadblocks in the industry, she said she’s also had many champions behind her, including Reba McIntire who recently took her on tour. 

Despite the limits that have historically existed for someone who looks like her, Roberts has been determined to fork out her own country back road by focusing on authenticity – with her fiery locks and unapologetic outfits. 

“When people listen to my music, I want them to feel like a bada**, like they're confident, like they can conquer anything,” said Roberts. “To me, that's what the meaning of outlaw country is. To break the mold and to do things that are different, to do things that are iconic.”

And what could be more iconic than being featured on a Beyoncé album? 

SEE MORE: From Miley to Dolly, here's who will be on Beyoncé's 'Cowboy Carter'


Trending stories at Scrippsnews.com