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Photo of album cover of Beyonce's new country album

Photo of album cover of Beyonce's new country album

Welcome to Beyoncé Country

Where the roots of country music really come from

Back in February, when Beyoncé's new track "Texas Hold ’Em" reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, it marked a first for a Black woman in the United States.

Though best known for her successes in the worlds of pop and R&B, the Houston-born singer also has deep country roots. But the Billboard honor has created a stir among some country fans who persist in gatekeeping the music genre.

Christina Zanfagna, an associate professor of ethnomusicology, wants to set the record straight.

“Country has always been connected to Black music since the beginnings of the Americas as we know it, but this history has been silenced and rewritten in ways that have erased the contributions of Black musicians,” says Zanfagna. 

“So to me, Beyoncé’s foray into country music was not a shocking move. Think about Lil Nas X, who had his famous pop country hit ‘Old Town Road’ years ago. What is shocking to me is when there is a backlash against Black artists performing country music. Or maybe it’s not that shocking given the roots of the American music industry.”

Ten days before the March 29 release of “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé—aka Beyoncé Knowles-Carter—acknowledged the idea for the album was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t,” after social media criticism following her first country single, performed at the 2016 Country Music Awards.

Yet, as she wrote on that same Instagram post, “My hope is that years from now, the mention of an artist’s race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant.”

We sat down with Professor Zanfagna—whose research focuses on Black American music’s relationship to religion, race, and geography in urban America—to learn more about the enduring ties between Black music and its country western cousin.

 

Can you enlighten us on the origins of country music?  

It’s one of those musical genres that Rhiannon Giddens, as a multiracial string player, talks a lot about, and discussed when she was here at Santa Clara as the Frank Sinatra Artist-in-Residence from 2019-21. Of course, Rhiannon’s banjo and viola playing is featured on “Texas Hold ’Em.”

Rhiannon’s music and research is really about unearthing the history of the Black string band tradition, which is where the roots of country really come from–like the playing of banjos in the United States and in the Caribbean in the 1600s, long before the Blackface minstrel tradition emerged in the 1800s. 

Africans created the banjo, and picked up the violin/fiddle as an instrument from Europe. Black bands were the major kinds of dance bands performing for white European audiences during the Slave Era. Aside from the important work of a handful of scholars, those Black string bands and their history have just been neglected and forgotten. But string bands were around for a long time, and they became the roots of bluegrass and country, and later, the blues.

You teach your students that “there’s nothing pure about music in America.” Why is that important?

The early genres of American music were generally a combination of European, African, and Indigenous music. But a lot of people don’t know about that history, and the early co-creation of American music genres. During the birth of the commercial recording industry in the United States in the 1920s, a very polarized optics of race began to shape how music was classified and marketed, and we still feel the effects of that. 

Music industry professionals at that time had this idea of marketing music along racial lines—“race” music for Black folks and “hillbilly” music for white folks. Race records included the genres of blues, jazz, and spirituals and early forms of so-called Black music marketed to Black audiences.

The “hillbilly” music, or so-called “white music” that was country, western, old time, etc., was marketed to white audiences. Inevitably, music on the ground was merging and mixing and crossing all of these boundaries. Musicians of various ethnic and racial backgrounds were playing together, or at the very least, listening to each other, and audiences bought across racial lines, too. 

But before commercial recordings, it was Black musicians, in particular, who were the ones moving back and forth between these cultural and racial and ethnic borders and creating something wholly new out of it–something wholly American. 

What are some of those “wholly American” music genres?

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, made up of a group of Italian and Irish Americans from New Orleans, was the first to record jazz and get credit for it—even though jazz music was originally developed by Black musicians in New Orleans who were synthesizing a variety of styles at the turn of the 20th century.

Or think about how swing became a “white” genre, even though that music is based on the big bands of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, and other Black band leaders who created it. But why does Benny Goodman become the King of Swing? How does Elvis somehow become the face of rock ’n’ roll, even though that music was forged out of early Black R&B, and then developed by musicians like Little Richard and Chuck Berry? And Chuck Berry’s roots in country music are strong. People forget that Ray Charles was heavily influenced by country, or that Tina Turner and even The Pointer Sisters recorded country albums. 

Then move up to something like hip hop, where Eminem becomes one of the most popular and well-known hip hop stars in a genre that Black and brown folks predominantly created. 

Whenever I teach my “History of Hip Hop” class, I first ask my students: What is your first memory of hip hop? And I would say for the last four to five years, many of them answer that it’s Eminem. This is their entry point into hip hop—through a white man. In all of these examples, there’s a pernicious whitewashing of American music history.

How much of a role does Beyoncé's gender play in the reception to her new album?

Gender is always at work. And this is where the intersectional politics really come into play. You can't just look at things through one social category. In this case, we have to look at some of the backlash Beyoncé has received through the intersection of race and gender, which in this case falls under the term "misogynoir," or when anti-Blackness and misogyny and sexism work together to undermine Black women. I remember there being more unequivocal support for Lil Nas X's "Old Country Road" recording, initially. But even in that case, gender politics and sexuality came into play, especially when he came out as gay.

People are reacting not just to Beyoncé’s race, but to her gender in terms of the liberty to experiment musically like this, even though she comes from Houston and was raised in that kind of Southern sonic milieu. So country was probably very much part of her early soundscape growing up. And she’s also standing on the shoulders of Black female country artists that came before her like Elizabeth Cotton, Linda Martell, and now Rhiannon Giddens.

You say music isn’t just about sound, it’s a cultural battlefield. How so?

Music is a cultural battlefield through which people are working out issues of race, issues of power, gender, class, religion, even territory. 

Listening to a few of her tracks on this album, I feel like she’s being very true to her own musical style—kind of pop, kind of hip hop, a little R&B, and a little gospel—it feels like a kind of modernized country. To me, it’s fascinating; she’s blurring genres and pushing music forward in new ways. She’s challenging the entrenched racial segregation of the music industry. She’s messing with listeners’ assumptions. She’s creating a conversation about race and sound in the public discourse that has been long overdue. 

In the end, whether you like Beyoncé's new record or not, it's her prerogative. So I always get upset when people try to legislate creativity and keep everybody in the same old boxesI just don’t think that’s where we want to go with musical expression.

 

 

Arts, CAS, Culture, Diversity, Faculty, Social Justice
Illuminate, music

Photo of Beyoncé's new album cover, "Cowboy Carter,"  by Blair Caldwell/Parkwood Entertainment

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