Country’s Real Black Voices Should Be Raised, Not Stifled by Hip-Hop

Yola/Charley Crockett/Aaron Vance/Rhiannon Giddens/Mickey Guyton

“Real country music is for everyone. If radio would play this kind of music, people would respond in a big way, just like they do at the live shows.”

—Charley Crockett

Since the murder of George Floyd and the proceeding political and cultural uproar, country music has been an especially lucrative target of cultural intellectuals and media think piece types as a clearly white-dominated art form throughout its commercial history. Many periodicals and writers have offered their submissions to the public discourse about how unfair, or problematic, or in some cases, outright racist country music has been or currently is, some with very salient and informative perspectives that are important to submit into the public forum, and some with more emotional-laden assertions that may distort or miss key facts or clarifications critical to the issue.

Since many of these articles and features are being authored by individuals distinctly outside of of country music’s fandom, knowledge base, or established journalism corps, they sometimes get certain details incorrect. And since many of these articles seem to be inspired by other articles on the subject, the same mistake or misnomer may run like the thread through many of them, like the idea that black contributions were stricken from the country music history books. Though many music listeners both inside and outside of country music’s established fandom may be surprised at the level of contributions of black musicians to country, when regarding the major historical works on the subject—from Bill C. Malone’s definitive and academic Country Music USA, to the recent 16 1/2-hour Ken Burns PBS documentary on the subject—the contributions of black performers are expressly laid out, especially in regards to the formation of the music.

However instead of nit picking these think pieces as they come down the pike, it’s been deemed important here at Saving Country Music to cede the floor and the podium to other voices on this subject, and allow them to speak their minds and raise their concerns, and to be mindful to not be the white guy in the room who stands up with his finger in the air to offer the inevitable “But…”

Nonetheless, a couple of articles on The Boot recently by a writer Marcus K. Dowling raise some especially important concerns. This is not a rebuke on Mr. Dowling, more a spirited rebuttal due to the concerning approach he’s chosen to take to the subject of race and country music.

The first article published on July 7th called Country Music’s Opening Its Doors To Black Artists Has Benefits Economically, Not Just Socially is very well-written and thoughtful. The upshot is that country music should not just be more inviting to black performers due to the social progress it brings, it may be essential to the genre’s very survival due to contractions in the economy brought on my COVID-19.

“A plan that starts with equally platforming markedly more Black artists is radical, but essential, from both an economic and a social perspective,”
the article states. “Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, most industries are expected to lose 75 percent of their expected income in the 2020 financial year. Additionally, experts predict that COVID-19 will spur a simultaneous national economic recession and depression of a yet-to-be-determined length. As of 2018, the country music industry was rumored to be worth roughly $20 billion. Subtract 75 percent of that worth, and the result is that country music’s worth as an industry would end up being less than, at present, that of the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys.”

Certainly there are economic concerns for country music stemming from COVID-19, but what the article fails to explain is why country music is unique in that concern. If “most” industries are looking to lose 75% of revenue (football included, which would make the Dallas Cowboys worth significantly less as well), why does this put country music in a unique economic situation that would call for a “radical” plan?

In truth, every genre of music is suffering, and probably needs to have some plan moving forward. But every genre is different. In fact country music has fared far better than all other genres through COVID-19. On June 9th, Bloomberg posted a story entitled, This Is One Genre of Music That Isn’t Hurting Right Now. The alternative title to the article was, Why Country Music Is Thriving in the Coronaviurs Pandemic. The article goes on to explain that while music listening has fallen by about 550 million streams a week, or 3.4%—with dance, Latin and hip-hop/R&B suffering the most—country music has increased an average of 11.1% or 127 million streams a week, with that number continuing to increase over time, with one week registering a boost of 22%. And that boost has been felt across the board, from newer more radio-friendly artists, to classics.

Why is country music faring so well? One theory is because it’s comfort music. It’s nostalgic. Meanwhile country artists are also better equipped to offer alternative entertainment such as live streams. As songwriters, they can go acoustic, or perform drive-in shows. So even though the losses in live music are significant and alarming, country artists have more options than performers from other genres.

But moreover, the argument that country music must adopt more black artists for economic survival seems disingenuous, or hiding an agenda. It’s common in politics to attempt to appeal to people’s pocketbooks if you feel you may otherwise not reach them with a message, or to use fear to entice them further to your side. The economic argument feels sort of, “Well, agrarian whites will never invite black artists into country music naturally, so we must convince them it’s to their economic advantage or necessity to do so.”

But the economics of it should be beside the point. It should be the insistence on everyone in the country music community to be inviting to artists and fans of every race, nationality, and persuasion. Economic concerns should not only be secondary, they should be inconsequential. If country music loses money from being more inviting to black country artists, so be it. This discussion also shouldn’t be solely focused on black artists and fans. Hispanics make up the largest increasing minority demographic in North America. Thus it stands to reason courting artists and listeners of Hispanic origins would also be important if we’re looking at this strictly from an economic standpoint. Country music should be open to everyone, as long as their country…

…which brings us to the other recent article also posted July 13th on The Boot entitled, Hip-Hop Influences In Country Music Are A Gateway To Greater Representation In The Genre. Sort of a companion piece to the first article, the title seems to advocate for more hip-hop artists in country as a way to close the diversity gap, but the article itself spends a significant amount of time explaining how this has already happened.

“We are now in an era in which hip-hop controls a cultural conversation that was once awkwardly shared between the genres,” the articles states. “Similarly, American musicians and fans now seem to be bored with an industry that’s a shell of itself in many regards, and we’ve progressed past a place where country music existed on a metaphorical island unto itself. Just as the British Invasion flocked to the Delta blues, it’s the country artists inspired by rap-infused trap music who have achieved significant popularity in recent years.”

This in many respects is true. If anything, it’s severely behind-the-times in its observation. Seven years ago this week, Saving Country Music posted an article called How Hip-Hop Stole Country: The Arrival of the Mono-Genre. It makes similar observations to the article in The Boot, but with one additional and critical observation: with country music becoming nothing more than a subgenre of hip-hop, it’s not the introduction of diversity in country, it’s the death of diversity throughout American music as everything now sounds the same regardless of the genre.

Another critical point missed in celebrating hip-hop’s incursion and dominance in country music is along with bleeding diversity out of the music as opposed to introducing it, it also shades out actual black country music artists native to the country genre.

Many of the recent think pieces and features about country music’s racial issues speak about how at the beginning of the genre, black performers had a much greater share in the music, but were edged out as labels and charts gentrified, primarily after World War 2. As Saving Country Music has pointed out on numerous occasions, the artists often helping to keep the actual roots of country music alive are African American, more so per capita than white performers. Artists such as Charley Crockett, Rhiannon Giddens, Aaron Vance, Sunny War, and so many others are the ones helping to keep country music history alive in the modern context.

By importing influences and/or artists from hip-hop, you’re helping to shade out these important black country artists, as Rhiannon Giddens once pointed out when the CMA Awards brought Beyonce in to perform. Country music already has many black performers within its midst who have devoted their lives to the genre. Uplifting their voices as opposed to stifling them by bringing in commercially-oriented hip-hop acts is the way to sustainably and equitably make sure black voices are part of the country music community moving forward, while also helping to illustrate how African American influences have always been part of the genre.

Both of these articles in The Boot also smack of a hidden agenda. The same writer, Marcus K. Dowling, also wrote an article on August 8th, 2018 in Medium called Country Music Is Inevitable and Can Save Our Collective Souls. In the article, Dowling lays out a political strategy of how to flip America from red to blue, and identifies country music as the vehicle to do so. This was a similar thought process many academic papers emanating from critical theory proponents took around the election of President Trump.

“The backbone of Trump’s election success share demographic and locational similarities to the stereotypical demographics of country music,” the article observes. “Roots and perpetual appeal in Appalachia that extend along a similar line of white European immigrants Manifesting their Destiny across America’s plains and rural Southwest, near, around, and beside their one-time enslaved property.”

The articles goes on to surmise that if country music could be “radicalized,” then it could have “wildly advanced potential” for asserting a political agenda. Remember, in his article on the current economics of country music, Marcus K. Dowling also called specifically for a “radical” plan to save country from commercial collapse.

Marcus K. Dowling has the right to hold whatever political beliefs he wishes, and even to assert them through his passion for country music. But making arguments that country music needs to include more black artists for its economic survival, or needs to import more hip-hop influences to meet those diversity requirements—both of which are respectfully misguided ideas—might also be made with a more ulterior, political motive. There would be more honor in simply saying that country music needs to adopt more liberal ideals. Then we could have a more good faith discussion.

There is a pernicious idea embedded within the current racial reckoning that if an institution is more white than black, the only answer for this racial discrepancy can be racism and exclusion. Most certainly there has been moments in country music—especially in its early formations as a commercial enterprise—where black performers were either edged out or given less opportunities systematically. But that is not the fault of the fans and artists of country music today, who have embraced a wide array of artists from diverse backgrounds, from Kane Brown to Darius Rucker, to dozens more within the ranks of independent country and Americana performers often overlooked by well-intentioned, but less knowledgeable cultural writers outside of country music. As country music developed, it developed a wider appeal among white populations, perhaps partially due to the very early exclusion of black performers, but perhaps mostly due to simple appeal because it speaks to agrarian the landscapes where a majority of white people live.

The vast majority of music in America is black-influenced and performed. This is the resounding statistical truth even though blacks only make up 13.4% of the population. Hip-hop is the most dominant music in America by far—so much so it has significantly encroached into country to the point where it overshadows most country influences. Pop and R&B are also predominantly African American. It stands to reason that the 73% white population of the United States would find appeal in some form of music that speaks to them, to their lives and experiences, and there is nothing inherently racist about that. In fact dissecting modern mainstream country music, you’re likely to find less than 73% actual country influences in it, and are likely to find more hip-hop influences. Hip-hop doesn’t need country for support. It’s so dominant, it is taking over everything else, encroaching on creative freedom, including on other forms of black music as Questlove once proclaimed.

Country music has already lost the cultural war. But country music has never been about winning it. It’s been about preserving rural American expressions and stories. Re-integrating important black voices into that living tapestry should be a priority for the genre moving forward, especially when considering the exclusion of these founding influences during the earliest formations of the music. But performing this important re-integration as either a commercial enterprise, or via hip-hop appropriations will only be effective at eroding what makes country music so vital and important and unique in the first place, while simultaneously pushing out actual black country performers, injuring the ongoing effort to resolve country music’s racial concerns.

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