When Will Country Music Recognize Its Black Roots?

Jimmie Allen became the first black man to win New Male Artist of the Year at the 2021 Academy of Country Music Awards

Anyone that has done their diligent research would be able to tell you that country has its roots in historically black music. Nearly every mainstream genre in music stems from jazz and blues, which were preceded by the first true American genre- the negro spiritual. Slaves’ source of musical education largely came from either their forced attendance at their masters’ churches, or from hearing their counterparts who kept their native music alive.

Whether they were lashed into singing work songs in order to finish their labor at a faster pace, or their musical gifts were used as selling points to slave traders, their options for autonomous performance were virtually nonexistent. These atrocities ushered in a new genre of music that would provide the framework for jazz music. The amalgamation of religious belief, a need for catharsis, and determination to achieve physical freedom all birthed an artform that would influence world music for years to come.

While there is no absence of successful black country acts, there is an obvious disparity in how they have been represented or supported by the larger country music fanbase.

This year, the Academy of Country Music Awards nominee pool consisted of five black singers, the highest count since its inaugural ceremony in 1966. Co-hosted by Mickey Guyton, it was the first time that a black woman hosted or even performed their own song at the awards. This elicits both an appreciation for the recognition of the contributions of black performers today and dismay for the countless number of artists who have been snubbed by an entity that would not exist without their groundwork.

In recent years we’ve seen the vitriol that has been cast towards black artists who dared to explore sounds that were not typically associated with them by the general public. Whether it’s Lil Nas X’s principle hit being removed from Billboard’s Country charts, K. Michelle’s former label discouraging her from releasing a full country record, or CMA viewers’ attempt at denying Beyoncé’s southern roots, the attitude toward black country artists has been sour.

The hypocrisy becomes even more clear as country music begins to embrace more 808-laden and sing-rapping styles that have often been reserved for urban music. With rap becoming the most consumed genre in the world, many artists and labels have turned a blind eye to their opportunistic interpolations while stifling certain outsiders who attempted to expand their musical lexicon. To no surprise, crossover artists like P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, and Lady Gaga have been welcomed in ways that their black peers have not.

It would be intellectually dishonest to say that we have been shut out completely. Artists like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Lionel Richie have released successful country records, there aren’t many recent acts that have been legitimized by country media. Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown’s victories at this year’s ACM awards are certainly grounds for celebration, but we must be consistent in our demands for black country artists to receive their just due. Crediting black performers is more than handing out awards; it is changing the fabrics of what we believe country music to be, as it is and has always been Black.

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Equally black and queer. Music fanatic by day, social commentator by night.

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Ressy The Writer

Ressy The Writer

Equally black and queer. Music fanatic by day, social commentator by night.

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