The history of Black people and country music

Lil Nas X isn’t an anomaly because black people have been a part of country music for a long time.

When the writer and activist James Baldwin took part in a Cambridge University debate about America’s race problem in 1965, he invoked the trope of the Western film to argue that the American dream had indeed come at black people’s expense. For all of their contributions to the United States, African Americans existed on society’s margins.

“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance … has not pledged allegiance to you,” he said. “It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”

The nearly all-white Cambridge audience chuckled at Baldwin’s recollection of this epiphany. They may have been English, but they viewed the “cowboy” to be white because American pop culture had made that idea global. More than 50 years later, that perception still holds. Most things country-and-western, including cowboys, music, and fashion, are widely linked to white men, from John Wayne to Johnny Cash.

No moment in recent memory demonstrates this quite like the debates sparked by the wildly successful single “Old Town Road,” recorded by African American rapper Lil Nas X, who describes the song as “country-trap.” In March, Billboard removed the track from the Hot Country chart (where it had broken the Top 20), explaining that it had been a mistake to categorize it as country.

This led Lil Nas X supporters to argue that Billboard’s move stemmed from either racial bias or bias against rap music. Country-pop songs have been staples on country charts for decades, but “country-trap,” “hick-hop,” and “hip-haw,” as rap-country blends have been nicknamed, have yet to become standard in the genre. Since some fans blame this on anti-blackness, Billboard’s decision to pull “Old Town Road” from the country charts has raised questions about the purpose of musical genres and the historic exclusion of African Americans from country music.

“When one understands that ‘country’ music is a marketing genre and that black country people are a culture, one begins to peel away the layers of perception and the definitions of who should be playing a certain type of music and why,” Dom Flemons, the neotraditional country musician known as the American Songster, told me.

In late May, the debates about “Old Town Road” stretched beyond the music when Wrangler announced it was launching a Lil Nas X collection. The news prompted some consumers to accuse the jeans company of “taking the cowboy outta country” and threaten a boycott.

The fans who were angry that the company would team up with a rapper essentially characterized the pairing as “cultural appropriation,” a charge that has generated outcry from African Americans who balk at the idea that cowboys or country music should be considered the sole provenance of white people.

“The idea that Lil Nas X is perpetuating some form of cultural appropriation by recording and having success in the country genre is simply absurd,” pop culture commentator Jawn Murray told me. “How can you appropriate something you played a significant part in shaping?”

Josh Garrett-Davis, the Autry Museum of the West’s Gamble associate curator of Western history, popular culture, and firearms, said the efforts to whitewash the country-and-western tradition go back years.

“There’s a lot of media, whether the classic cowboy paintings or the Wild West shows, that were all sort of reinforcing this idea that the cowboy hero is white,” he told me.

The racial segregation of musical genres would also perpetuate the idea that African Americans played no role in country-and-western customs. Still, the black influence on these practices lives on through the black rodeo, the black musicians recording country music today, and the millions of African Americans who remain connected to their country roots.

Fifty-four percent of African Americans live in the South; that figure includes Lil Nas X, who hails from Atlanta. But many of the black people located elsewhere have close ties to the region too. I was born in Chicago to an African American mother from Jackson, Tennessee, the destination of my first plane flight.

By elementary school, I spent summers there with my aunts, uncles, and grandmother, who enjoyed canning and baking but could also handle a rifle, if need be. In fact, my grandmother took me on a wild quail hunt when I couldn’t have been older than a second-grader. Inevitably, I’d leave Tennessee with words like “yonder” and “reckon” in my vocabulary, much to the amusement of my Midwestern relatives when I returned to Illinois.

As an adult, I live in Los Angeles, but the influence of the South on my early years hasn’t vanished. It’s why I gravitate to Southern gothic films like Eve’s Bayou, why the last book I finished was A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo, and why I’ll randomly call my mother to verify whether I went to Dollywood, Opryland, or both one childhood summer. While I don’t own Wranglers, I have cowboy boots from Tony Lama, Frye, and Tecovas — symbols of the four years I spent living in New Mexico and Texas during the aughts.

The high concentration of African Americans in the South, largely the legacy of slavery, means the disputes that have surfaced in the wake of “Old Town Road’s” success are about much more than cowboys and country music. The narrow framing of the African American identity as urban and the erasure of black people from the American mythos lie at the core of these controversies. By rejecting the notion that country-and-western culture is wholly white, black people aren’t just pushing for historical accuracy but demanding — as Baldwin did decades ago — to be acknowledged as authentically American.

The dialogue about black people in country music isn’t new

Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, said that country music has long struggled with its relationships to blackness and black musicians. Also director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College in Memphis, Hughes said that black music history has shaped country music nonetheless.

“But the space for black artists has been very limited,” he told me. “Black musicians have been very marginalized. I think the reason this [‘Old Town Road’ debate] has become such a massive cultural moment is that our understanding of rural comes from country music, even though African American folks have long been a central part of the story.”

Even a superstar like Beyoncé faced barriers when she tried to go country. In 2016, the Grammys rejected her song “Daddy Lessons,” featuring the Dixie Chicks, for consideration in the country category although it included guitars, a banjo, and horns — for a Zydeco twist. And when she performed the song at the 2016 Country Music Awards, some country music fans lashed out. Wrote one CMA viewer of Beyoncé, “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!!! When have they ever invited ANY country singer to their BET awards…NEVER!!!!STOP IT.”

Another viewer demanded a boycott of the CMAs, lest Beyoncé “ruin our music,” to which another responded, “‘your music’? you mad and don’t even know the history of country music.”

That history includes the banjo, a country music staple that likely evolved from a three-stringed West African instrument known as the akonting. Prohibited from playing the drums, which they could use to send messages to each other, enslaved Africans in the US perfected their banjo skills and also thrived as fiddle and harmonica players. In the 1920s, these black musicians played blues songs for African American audiences and folk songs for white listeners. Their tweaks to the blues ultimately gave rise to bluegrass and western swing, which became country-and-western.

Racial segregation in the music business has muted this history. The tunes black people recorded were classified as “race music” and separated from country-and-western.

“It’s really a result of the way the recording industry in the early 20th century developed this idea of musical genres,” Hughes said. “The categories would be defined by race or ethnicity. They [record executives] wanted to be able to sell records to a particular market, so the string band traditions were moved to the category of hillbilly music, which later became country, and sold to white audiences. The gospel and the blues were sold to black audiences.”

Although these genre divides were arbitrary, they changed the once flexible nature of Southern music, according to Grammy-winning musician Flemons. Artists began to record music in ways that easily lent themselves to classification, and after World War II, “race” music and “hillbilly” became “rhythm and blues” and “country and western,” respectively.

“This is the main reason most people would never associate black music and country music as having the same root,” Flemons explained. “This does not mean that black audiences do not know or like country music.”

A 2018 CBS News poll of 1,009 people found that 7 percent of African Americans consider country to be their favorite genre, roughly the same percentage who listed rock, rap, or classical as their preferred form of music. R&B was the most popular among black survey respondents, with 39 percent identifying it as their top musical style. By comparison, 26 percent of white respondents listed country as their favorite, edging out all other categories.

My mother is a black country music fan. While reporting this story, I phoned her to confirm her favorite country artists — Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle, Glenn Campbell. The conversation took a turn when she recalled asking my grandmother, her mother, if she was familiar with Carl Perkins’s music. He was the rockabilly pioneer who influenced the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Elvis Presley, who famously covered his “Blue Suede Shoes.” My grandmother quipped that of course she knew Perkins’s music; she’d grown up with the man.

Although Perkins was white and my grandmother was black, they were both the children of struggling Tennessee sharecroppers, a population among which the racial divides of the Jim Crow South weren’t as fixed. After his rise to stardom, Perkins discussed how an elderly black field worker named John Westbrook taught him guitar. His story isn’t an anomaly.

“There’s a laundry list of black background vocalists and musicians who have recorded and toured with white country superstars,” Murray, the pop culture commentator, told me, “giving them that authentic bluesy-soul that has helped translate their country records into megahits.”

The marketing of country as “the music of white America” may have cemented the idea in the public imagination that African Americans had little to do with the art form, but it didn’t stop African American artists such as Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Big Bill Broonzy, the Pointer Sisters, and Linda Martell from performing country.

Today, African American artists continue to leave their mark on the music, especially Darius Rucker, one of three black men, along with DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride, to be named a Grand Ole Opry member. An eclectic mix of black artists, including Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mickey Guyton, Cowboy Troy, and Flemons are also thriving in the country and folk music scene. Cowboy Troy is a country rapper, but he certainly hasn’t made the splash that Lil Nas X has.

Flemons, who last year released the album Black Cowboys, said he’s always used his music to blur the lines between genres.

“As a 21st-century musician, I have not found a need to limit my interests or my music to arbitrary lines set 100 years ago,” he said.

African Americans played crucial roles in the Old West

Just as country music has never been an exclusively white art form, the Old West itself was never solely white. Scores of indigenous peoples lived on the land before anyone of European descent set foot in the region. Moreover, people of color played important roles in Lewis and Clark’s two-year expedition to explore the West in the early 1800s. Without the help of Sacagawea, the enslaved Shoshone woman who translated for Lewis and Clark and knew which foods to eat and the layout of some of the land to be explored, the expedition may have ended in failure. York, the black man William Clark enslaved, also helped the expedition succeed. As with many African Americans who ventured West, however, York’s contributions were often omitted from history books.

“One of the missions of the Autry Museum is to expand that often narrow or mythic perception people have of the American West,” Carolyn Brucken, the Autry’s chief curator and director of research, told me. “You can’t talk about the beginning of the American West without talking about African Americans and Native Americans.”

In Texas, many black men became skilled cowhands when white ranchers left their land and cattle behind to fight in the Civil War. When enslaved black people won their freedom, the ranchers hired them to be ranch hands and cowhands, or “cowboys.” Brucken estimates that at least one out of four cowboys was a black man.

The Bull Dogger (1923) movie poster, Norman Film Manufacturing Company, 1925. Lithograph. 
Autry Museum

Photographs of 19th-century cowboys reveal pride on their faces and self-expression in their choice of clothing, Brucken said. They mostly wore functional apparel that allowed them to tend to cattle. “At the same time, you can see rodeo performers modifying them into an early version of the street style look,” she said. “They decorated their chaps, and by the early 20th century, they were influencing one of the first subcultures, railroad workers, who started imitating how they dressed.”

Since African Americans made up a significant percentage of cowboys, Brucken says they have just as much right to country-and-western culture, including the clothes and music, as anyone. But while black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux, Fred Williamson, and Mario Van Peebles depicted the experiences of African Americans in the West in films like The HomesteaderAdios Amigo, and Posse, most major Western films left out the experiences of African Americans.

“Is it white centrality or white supremacy?” Garrett-Davis, also of the Autry Museum, asked about the role of whiteness in the Western. He’s unsure whether Westerns alone are responsible for the racial myths about the cowboy. “I don’t know that they’re only to blame, but they are to blame to a degree. If they weren’t challenging American race relations, they were complicit.”

The black rodeo tradition continues to thrive

Black rodeos across the country work to dispel the notion that there were no black cowboys. For 35 years, the traveling Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR) has paid tribute to the “forgotten cowboys of color.” Started in Denver in 1984 by music promoter Lu Vason, the rodeo is named after Bill Pickett. Born in Texas in 1870, Pickett was a Wild West show performer and actor who invented the rodeo event known as bulldogging, or steer wrestling. Bulldogging is still practiced today, but the name Bill Pickett often elicits blank stares from the public, according to BPIR president Valeria Howard-Cunningham.

“I’m not sure before we started the rodeo how many people knew about Bill Pickett,” she told me. “You know, being a person in the Wild West, he was the first black actor in a Western show. Some people — they don’t know anything about rodeo or black rodeo. It’s just not something they’re interested in.”

Ramontay McConnell, a 23-year-old rodeo competitor.
 Nate Trang

The Arizona Black Rodeo in Phoenix, which began about 15 years ago, also educates the public about the black presence on the frontier. It includes events such as bronco busting, steer and calf roping, bull riding, and women’s barrel races. Black women such as Mary Ellen Pleasant, Biddy Mason, and Stagecoach Mary Fields were not cowgirls, per se, but they are Western legends just like cowboys Bill Pickett and Nat Love are.

“We can incorporate how important the black cowboy was to American history,” Cloves Campbell, Arizona Black Rodeo’s coordinator, told me. “You’ll see cowboys dressed up in certain outfits to show the history of the cowboy, the Buffalo soldiers, and their contributions to the West.”

Today, some African Americans still identify as cowboys. Rodeo competitor and horseman Ramontay McConnell is one of them. The 23-year-old leads trainings and clinics on roping and reining horses, agility exercises, and cow pinning. When he steps out in Portland with muddy boots, a cowboy hat, and a horse, he definitely turns heads, he told me.

For the most part, people respond positively to the sight of a black cowboy. While McConnell often dresses the part, other times he mounts his horse in athletic wear.

“Wearing boots and jeans doesn’t make a cowboy a cowboy,” he said. “People think a cowboy is the Marlboro Man chewing tobacco or smoking cigarettes on a horse.”

Lindon Demery waits for the start of competition and his turn in the junior barrel racing event at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on April 1, 2017, in Memphis.

This is also why McConnell, a country music fan, said he considers the backlash Wrangler has faced for collaborating with Lil Nas X to be “nonsense.” He believes the time has come to expand the cowboy’s image.

Flemons said the Lil Nas X debate extends beyond cowboys to all the African Americans who headed West to achieve the American dream. Since black people are typically associated with urban environments — although most do not live in inner cities — their legitimacy as country people isn’t universally accepted.

That “Old Town Road” has broken streaming records and won support from none other than country giant Billy Ray Cyrus, featured on the remix, signals that there’s more interest in the black-and-country perspective than entertainment industry executives likely realized.

“This is what makes the controversy over ‘Old Town Road’ so interesting to me as a historian,” Flemons said. “[Lil Nas X] has decided to reference black rural culture and black cowboys in the form of popular music, and it is not only being celebrated by the audience; it is being demanded.”


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