Op-Ed: Opening Country Music’s Doors to More Black Artists Has Benefits Economically, Not Just Socially
For the past 100 years, mainstream country music hasn't had a reason — economic, social or otherwise — to open its metaphorical doors too far past the traditional (and often stereotypical) interests of white people. However, that doesn't mean country is somehow an all-white genre: A large majority of the country music fanbase is white, yes, but the music needs Black people, not just Black influence.
In the wake of America currently exploding like a raisin in the sun due to racist acts of violence, a problem that must promptly be remedied. Thanks to the United States’ current perfect storm of dire and radical socioeconomic conditions, the country music industry must immediately broaden its social perspective. For both the genre’s economic preservation and, more importantly, to highlight an intrinsic, industry-wide acceptance of the empathetic kindness needed to define America's future, it's necessary.
A plan that starts with equally platforming markedly more Black artists is radical, but essential, from both an economic and a social perspective.
Equally platforming markedly more Black artists is essential, from both an economic and a social perspective.
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.
Yes, a globally beloved sports franchise that won half of its games in 2019 will be worth more than the legacy of every single one of Hank Williams Jr.’s rowdy friends, Patsy and Loretta and their multitudes of spiritual progeny, plus all of your favorite guys who dig bodies like back roads. Desperate times call for the establishment of progressive standards.
Country music adapting to the commercial influence of Black artists, though, is ultimately no different than what is currently occurring via Korean pop ("K-pop") artists’ rise in the American mainstream pop music landscape. In the last two years, two groups in particular — the all-male rap-dance septet BTS and the all-female pop quartet BlackPink — have allowed for pop music in the United States to stave off the ill effects of industrial decline. After once being lightly regarded as a hysterical one-hit-wonder, the tides have turned.
In three years, BTS have achieved four No. 1 albums and five Top 40 singles; a sold-out, 12-date American tour; and upwards of nearly 10 billion global YouTube views via their band channel alone. As for BlackPink, they have one Top 40 hit and two Top 40 albums, have played Coachella and have upwards of 30 billion global YouTube views via their own channel. In a landscape in which Drake dominates with an astonishing 61 Top 40 singles or features and four No. 1 LP or EP releases since 2017, the impact of Korean pop stars picking up the slack for a depleted group of American artists is apparent.
In country music, strictly developed and strongly maintained demographics have established a standard that allows the genre to successfully exist as a hermetically sealed box, flying in the face of generations of industry changes and global cultural shifts. Whereas genres such as hip-hop, rock and dance have clearly, and quite successfully, invited and welcomed all interested demographics, country music has largely stood pat for 100 years. However, the current winds of change swirling in modern American life are stronger than the gusts that have increased country music's profits and driven its artistic expectations for decades.
There’s an established percentage of the genre's fans who live a suburban life, believe in conservative family values, and love hunting and fishing more than spending time on social media. (There is also a largely millennial segment of fans that spend significant time online via smartphones and lives in metropolitan areas.) Now, consider George Floyd and Breona Taylor, the African Americans whose deaths at the hands of white police officers are responsible for much of the current collective American trauma: Taylor was unmarried; Floyd was a single parent. They lived in urban surroundings (Minneapolis, Minn., and Louisville, Ky., respectively). And the movements for justice for them both have mainly been crystallized and advanced on social media.
There's very little that's analogous between old-school country fans and the movement to preserve Black lives. However, by respecting the art and craft of African Americans in country music, there is a measure of respect for the impact of Blackness upon the full scale and celebration of who and what gets to best represent American life moving forward.
Black American artists being more widely accepted and promoted in country music is an act of restorative justice.
Intrinsic to country music's roots are the banjo's origins as a West African-to-West Indian instrument adopted by white musicians in the antebellum South. The key to the genre's pop crossover in the TV era was artists such as Elvis Presley adapting Black blues, gospel, soul and rock artists (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Rufus Thomas and more) into their styles and presentations. Thus, when Beyonce attempts her best Chicks, Lil Nas X grabs at Billy Ray Cyrus and RMR attempts to corral the ghost of Johnny Cash, it should seem not scandalous, but fair.
Black American artists being more widely accepted and promoted in country music is an act of restorative justice that reparationally dates back to the era of 40 acres and a mule. At some point, white carpetbaggers of culture being asked to share "borrowed" Black cultural swag with aspirational Black country and crossover stars feels right.
Though we'd likely be hard-pressed to find an executive willing to cosign the statement, throughout its entire history, country music has impressively and systemically retained a "closed-door" policy to full-scale acceptance of artists of color. Charley Pride is a historically significant anomaly. Darius Rucker is a once-in-a-generation confluence of a Black man who partnered with white people to make rock music that agreed with middle-of-the-road white sensibilities rather than progressive Black expectations.
Black artists deserve to reclaim, and ultimately share, the instruments, inspiration and influence "borrowed" from them for 100-plus years.
Currently, artists such as Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen represent a broad sense that a progressed Black country movement is possible. Buoying their work with a second wave of diversely talented artists is paramount. These performers making country music that paints within, but without, the lines established by the white, but borrowed-from-Black, country music norm allows for the navigation of new sonic terrain.
In the wake of our nation's most challenging and dynamic times, immediately opening country's non-verbalized yet very apparent closed door to greater Black integration is essential. Black artists deserve to reclaim — and then yes, ultimately share — the instruments, inspiration and influence "borrowed" from them for 100-plus years. Doing so sets a course for an American future where "separate, but equal" and "apparently equal by law" no longer is the United States' reality. Ultimately, moments such Lil Nas X adding Billy Ray Cyrus, Diplo and others to his 2019 mega-smash "Old Town Road" to gain mainstream country music and Billboard's respect will be passe.
A future where country music is a lucrative genre representing a country truly equal and positively agitating for equality is not just best: It's possible, and it and can occur.
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