Rhiannon Giddens On One of the True Causes of “Black Erasure” in Country

Before the controversy over the removal of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from the Billboard country charts would roil the country music world with accusations of racism and “black erasure,” it was Beyonce and her song “Daddy Lessons” from 2016 that had many outside of country hot and bothered that a black artist wasn’t being paid proper due and being excluded from the genre.

In fact, it was Beyonce’s perceived treatment by the country industry—and specifically the supposed disqualification of “Daddy Lessons” from being considered for country music’s Grammy nominations—that Rolling Stone and others specifically cited as the material basis for their reasoning that racism was behind Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” being removed from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Of course this account of events excludes a couple of critical points about Beyonce and “Daddy Lessons,” including that the song was never a particularly “country” to begin with, and since it was never released properly in the country format, it never qualified for any country awards in the first place, Grammy or otherwise.

The story behind “Daddy Lessons” also regularly glosses over the fact that Beyonce and the song weren’t snubbed by country music at all. The Country Music Association extended an invitation to Beyonce to be the marquee performer at the 50th Annual CMA Awards in 2016. Beyonce received the largest performance slot of the entire night in the dead center of the presentation, taking precious airtime from country artists, and generally overshadowing the rest of the performers and festivities with her presence. Headlines from ABC News and other outlets the day after were quite literally, “Beyonce Steals the Show.”

But even that wasn’t good enough for many of Beyonce’s notoriously fervent fans, along with her surrogates in the media. Some loud-mouthed country fans left comments under a video posted of Beyonce’s performance by the CMA saying that she didn’t belong there, stimulating cries of racism. To stem these criticisms and end the negative comments, the CMA removed the video, which only then emboldened the cries of racism and black erasure towards the CMA for not promoting videos from Beyonce like they did for other performers.

The matter was litigated in dozens of think pieces at the time, and “Daddy Lessons” is commonly the basis for academic papers and other intellectual treatises on how country music is exclusionary, if not outright racist, including a new chapter issued in the latest edition of Bill Malone’s definitive country music history, Country Music USA written by a professor named Tracey E.W. Laird. Tasked with covering the last fifteen years of country music matters, Laird did not focus on the wild popularity of Taylor Swift, the rise of Bro-Country, the Chris Stapleton phenomenon, or any other topics that had serious implications on the genre at large. Instead she framed the entire chapter around Beyonce’s experience with country and the political frame in which country music should be considered because of it, all for one song that wasn’t even released as a country music single.

As Saving Country Music pointed out during the heat of the Nil Nas X controversy, in the rush to brand country music racist for not including Lil Nas X on the country charts, many were overlooking or outright ignoring the contributions of black performers who had devoted their lives to country music, and had played the game by the rules as opposed to using memes and metadata manipulations to hopscotch competition to the top of the charts.

Principle among those artists was singer, songwriter, and country roots preservationist Rhiannon Giddens. The Lil Nas X controversy came about right after she released a concept album with three other African American women called Our Native Daughters. Giddens also just released a new album called there is no Other. The founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is considered among many fans an critics to be one of the premier talents of our generation both as a singer, songwriter, and contributor to setting the record straight about the influence of African Americans in country music over the years. She’s also been an actor on the hit show “Nashville,” and was one of the recipients of 2017’s MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grants.”

In 2016, Rhiannon Giddens was doing a lot to add an African American perspective and voice to country music, and helping to educate people about their contributions and influence in the music when she recorded a duet with Eric Church on the song “Kill A Word.” Not only did the song make it to #6 on country radio, and #9 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart (the same chart that supposedly excluded Lil Nas X exclusively because he was black), Rhiannon Giddens and Eric Church performed the song on the same 2016 CMA Awards where Beyonce appeared.

Beyonce’s inclusion in the presentation was criticized by Travis Tritt, and Alan Jackson reportedly walked out when Beyonce was performing. But they were not the only performers who took issue with Beyonce taking time and attention away from country performers that a country music awards show was supposed to support. In a barely-watched video released in 2017 (see below) and recently unearthed by a Saving Country Music reader, Rhiannon Giddens explains why she had a problem with the performance too.

“I’ve studied this music. You know what I mean?” Rhiannon Giddens says. “I’m not coming from another genre. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Justin Timberlake did it last year, and that was a lovely moment … I just know what angered me about it was that it overshadowed two other performers of color who were kind of naturally there—Charley Pride, who’s a huge figure, and then myself as a guest of Eric Church.”

The point Rhiannon Giddens makes is the same one Saving Country Music made in the aftermath of the 2016 CMA Awards. In an article entitled, “It Wasn’t Beyonce Who Challenged Racial Hatred at the 2016 CMA’s.”

What has been the result of Beyonce’s involvement in the 2016 awards? Division and acrimony. Some will tell you that Beyonce is just what country music needed to root out its racial bigotry … It has fanned the flames …

And though it seems that few, if any noticed, it wasn’t Beyonce that decided to tackle hatred and racism head on in her performance at the 2016 awards, it was Eric Church. The song that Eric Church decided to perform on the 2016 CMA Awards was called “Kill A Word.” It’s a duet with a black country music performer named Rhiannon Giddens. “Kill A Word” is a song about the very themes that have come to the forefront in the aftermath of the Beyonce performance, and all the seemingly endless racial threads that it has sprouted. It’s about how important it is that we listen to each other, and instead of shouting accusations, understand how divides don’t get broken down with insults and name calling, but get exacerbated by them.

Rhiannon Giddens goes on to say in the 2017 interview, “[Eric Church] was making a really particular point having me sing on his song. His song was all about turning hate into love, and getting rid of these words of anger. That upset me that it was overshadowed. [Beyonce’s performance] turned into a flashpoint, rather than a moment of, ‘Yeah, this is awesome!’ Because it didn’t feel organic. It doesn’t matter who you are, if the moment doesn’t come from the inside, the moment doesn’t come from a genuine desire to inhabit the music.”

The words of Rhiannon Giddens underscore how all of the controversy with Beyonce and now Lil Nas X, and the calls for “inclusion” of these pop/hip-hop stars in country, isn’t in any way aiding the breaking down of racial barrier because it’s being done for all the wrong reasons, and isn’t “organic.” In fact it’s exacerbating racial tensions. The other adverse affect is the overshadowing of artists such as Rhiannon Giddens who are strong, dedicated, talented, and skilled country and roots artists of color who get overlooked for, in Lil Nas X’s case, a performer who came to prominence with a 1:53 song pushed through meme culture.

“As somebody who has tirelessly advocated for getting the history of the banjo, the history of early American music, the history of blacks in country music, not the easy way … I didn’t go into pop … I took a really particularly … it’s a difficult route, and I’m proud of it,” Rhiannon Giddens says. “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

The true aspect of “black erasure” in country music at the moment is not coming from the removal of Lil Nas X from the country charts, or even the Beyonce incident back in 2016. It is coming from the media, who in their desire to paint country music as wholly racist, are overlooking many of country music’s African American contributors, or in some instances, purposely avoiding or excluding them from the conversation to strengthen their case. We saw this with how the media avoided presenting the legacy of Charley Pride—a Country Music Hall of Famer and one of the greatest-selling country artists of all time—who was inaccurately excluded in a viral tweet thread. Many in the media even avoided the recent successes of contemporary black country artists such as Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen when presenting the story of Lil Nas X, both of whom have scored #1 songs in country in the last year. Kane Brown will have the #1 song on country radio next week with “Good As You.” How is that possible if country music is systemically excluding artists of color?

As much of the pop media rage for “inclusion” in country, they have no clue who an artist like Rhiannon Giddens even is. Nor do they know about Mickey Guyton, Yola, Charley Crockett, Tony Jackson, Aaron Vance, and scores of other African American artists who as Rhiannon Giddens said have “…studied this music” and are “not coming from another genre.” These media members are often poptimists who use media to Stan for top-level pop stars such as Beyonce and Lil Nas X at the expense of the more substantive artists of our time in every genre. If country music is ever going to become truly inclusive, it’s these homegrown and devoted country artists who need to be supported and revered, not performers such as Lil Nas X.

This week, Lil Nas X spent his 7th week at #1 in all of music. He is now is a millionaire, and had so much expendable cash, he purchased a Maserati for Billy Ray Cyrus on the spot. Lil Nas X doesn’t need to be included on the country charts for his success. It’s country artists who rely on that chart for attention who need to make sure they’re not overshadowed by performers outside the genre like Lil Nas X and Beyonce. The same goes for the women of country music, who were recently overshadowed by the dominance of Bebe Rexha and her song “Meant To Be.”

Country charts, country radio, and country awards are for country artists. Country does not, and would never demand attention and inclusion from other genres. African Americans are a minority in America, but hip-hop is the most dominant genre by far, doubling the take of country last year. Hip-hop artists don’t need country music to succeed. It’s country music that needs to support its own if it’s going to survive moving forward, including, if not especially, it’s African American and women artists. These artists are often the ones leading the way when it comes to talent, creativity, leadership, and preserving the roots of the music while also finding ways to push them forward and make them more inclusive to everyone. And there is no better example of that than Rhiannon Giddens.