The reason that colleges and universities began taking into account ethnicity in enrollment practices years ago was under the idea that more diversity within a student body would lead to more exposure to differing perspectives and backgrounds, breeding a healthier experience for students and the learning environment overall. Of course race doesn’t always denote a difference in perspective, so it’s not a perfect system. But this same idea is what has many now insisting on diversity throughout all institutions, whether it’s a corporate environment, or the commercial music realm.
Now more than ever, the media and others are demanding more diversity in country music during a politically-charged moment in history that often focuses on the identity of entertainers just as much as the value of the entertainment they produce. For an African American artist such as Jimmie Allen, this can be advantageous. But unfortunately for country music, Jimmie Allen and his #1 single called “Best Shot” is just the same generic song we’ve heard time and time again from countless white dudes, just now it’s emanating from an African American.
The revolving carousel of the Music Row assembly line is like an endless parade of the same guy with many faces, and Jimmie Allen just happens to be the next one down the conveyor belt. One guy may have a beard. The next may wear his baseball cap with the bill pointed in the right direction for once. Now it’s a black dude. But the song remains the same, and so do the results. “Best Shot” is spending its second week at the #1 spot on country radio, despite offering little to anything of substance, not really resonating with listeners beyond radio, and not sounding country at all.
“Best Shot” is just another sappy and mawkish R&B-styled love song with an electronic drum beat pandering to the women who listen to radio by portraying a man as inferior to them. If it feels like we were just discussing this, that’s because we just were in the context of Kane Brown’s new record Experiment, where the majority of the songs take this same approach. And if you want to know why country radio can include so few songs from women, but still appeal to them as the majority of country radio listeners, it’s because of songs like “Best Shot.” You don’t need women when you have men willing to sing one song after another about how awesome women are. It could be any country mainstream male singing this song. It’s just part of the facade country radio has constructed to fool you into thinking it is offering the public anything resembling variety. So why not run a black guy through the hopper, and earn brownie points with the gullible media looking for political narratives, and get them off your back when it comes to the question of ethnic diversity?
If you wanted to incorporate African Americans making actual country music in to the mainstream to add some real variety, the draft class could be incredible. There’s Mickey Guyton, who’s been completely forgotten despite being signed to a major label and releasing an excellent radio-ready single in 2017 called “Nice Things.” There’s Tony Jackson, who might have one of the best voices in all of country music at the moment. There’s Rhiannon Giddens, who’s been introduced to the mainstream recently by singing with Eric Church on his hit “Kill A Word.” There’s Aaron Vance, Charley Crockett, Valerie June, AHI from Canada, and so on and so forth, and all whom that if given a chance in the genre could bring styles and perspectives inferred by their African American heritage to the country music platform, and lend to the diversity so many are calling for instead of just being the next generic dude through the pipeline with a radio hit.
In fact per capita, African Americans in the country space are better, more original, and more rootsy and respectful to the traditions of country music than Caucasian performers. There are so many bland white guys with #1’s on country radio right now, you need a cattle guard on the front of your vehicle just to get through the throngs of them lined up and down 16th Avenue in Nashville. It’s also this same male-dominated system that Jimmie Allen has benefited from that has put the women of country music at a measurable disadvantage.
It’s fair to ask if any specific musical genre needs to represent ethnic diversity within its ranks, or if it’s all genres of popular music acting together that lends to a diverse culture. What is a genre of music? It’s a distinct dialect of cultural expression, which often represents a specific regional or ethnic influence. With country music, that influence is rural whites from the American South, along with blues, string folk, and Gospel influences from former slaves who cohabited the region.
In North America, every major popular American music genre is primarily influenced and/or represented by African Americans, from hip-hop and rap, to pop, R&B, jazz, and even rock n’ roll, which was built out from the blues. Country music is the only genre that’s predominantly white. If you really want diversity throughout popular music, it’s important that genres celebrate their differences as opposed to trying to resolve them under the misguided notion of “diversity.” One of the primary things that separates country music from every other genre is that it’s humans playing actual instruments. When an artist like Jimmie Allen comes in and has a song spend two weeks at #1 radio backed by an electronic drum beat, all that accomplishes is making country music sound like everything else. It’s the death of diversity.
From a social standpoint, it is a positive that an African American like Jimmie Allen can have the #1 song on country radio, because it symbolizes that the barriers of opportunity for black performers have fallen, and least partially. But country music is not a predominately white form of music because there’s been a decades-long, deep-seeded effort to exclude black performers and fans. It’s simply that black performers and fans prefer different music than country. The ideal in country music shouldn’t be that a certain number of black performers are successful in the genre, it should be that any artist can find success in the genre regardless of their race, and that race becomes a non factor.
“Best Shot” is not a bad song, for pop. And it’s a sum positive that a man of African American descent can earn a #1 song in country music in 2018. But it would mean so much more if the song was actually country. Only then would it be an noteworthy accomplishment. Because as the success of Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown have illustrated, it’s not being black that puts a song or an artist at a severe disadvantage to success in country music. It’s being country.