New Beyoncé album is a welcome-back-to-country gift to Black Americans

When I was growing up in a small Ohio town in the 1980s, the rules were simple. Anything sung by a White person was White people’s music. Anything sung by Black people was Black people’s music.

The boundaries between the two were strictly enforced in our schools, where friendships between White people and Black people were rare and racial tensions ran high. Crossing the musical color lines resulted in public ridicule. So, if I liked any song by a White artist, I learned to listen to it in private and never tell anyone.

Back then, if you wanted to record a song that you liked, you had to wait by the radio, sometimes for hours, and press the record button on your clunky tape recorder at just the right time. (This often meant recording the DJ’s voice or a snippet of a local ad as well.)

So, I waited and recorded Duran Duran and A Flock of Seagulls in secret. I wasn’t alone: My father kept his Charley Pride tapes tucked away and would only get them out when no one else was around. In 1979, my mother made the mistake of buying a 45 of Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” and, when she put it on the turntable, her own family turned against her so hard that she didn’t dare listen to it again. At least not until she thought she was alone.

Back then, listening to White music was considered a betrayal of your Blackness. I still have Black friends who would read me for filth if they knew about my love of Silversun Pickups and The Shins. They would playfully, but seriously, suggest that my Blackness had been compromised. If they’re reading this, I guess they know now.

“Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé’s latest album, hit the airwaves on Friday, and it has me wondering how and and why my community got to that point. Even I rolled my eyes a bit when I heard Beyoncé was releasing a country-themed album. But when I heard the first single, “Texas Hold ‘Em,” I quit my eye-rolling. I liked it instantly; because it’s catchy and danceable but also because, as it was Beyoncé, I was allowed to like it.

And, when I saw the album cover, I had to chuckle. There she is, sidesaddle on a white horse, wearing a white Stetson and brandishing an American flag: Every stereotypical American symbol save a bald eagle and a rifle is there on prominent and tongue-in-cheek display.

Then there’s the music: I listened to the entire album on Friday and it is, as the kids say, “fire.”

Beyoncé takes the conventional elements of country with its twangy guitars and yodeling melodies and stirs in elements of hip-hop and R&B. This is not especially new: Modern country music has long borrowed from these genres, adding 808 kick beats, snap tracks and rap, producing such hits as Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Last Night” by Morgan Wallen.

The elements of hip-hop and R&B were accepted in country music because the faces of those who adopted them were White. Because in country music, it’s not just about what is created. It’s also about who created it.

Which helps explain why those who object to Beyoncé’s bold-seeming foray into country music don’t object to the music itself. They are more likely drawing a line in the sand about who is — and who is not — allowed to make it. They might even feel that someone who is not like them is trying to steal their culture for profit.

And that would be ironic. Particularly as we watch Luke Combs take Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to No. 1 on the country charts — something Chapman could never have done. You can take a Roy Hamilton and turn him into an Elvis Presley. You can take a Little Richard and water him down to a Pat Boone. You can recast a New Edition into a New Kids on the Block. The list goes on and on.

Some today call this cultural appropriation, but it’s also part of our history. It took me a little reading to find out that country music has always been Black America’s domain, drawn from our traditions. I didn’t know this before, and I feel this fact hasn’t so much been hidden from me but obscured by something deeper and more abiding and I was just shamed out of knowing it: I was never taught that there were Black cowboys or that the banjo derives from a West African instrument. And the shaming involved in keeping that information from me is part of a larger effort to tell Black people that there’s things we can’t do. Things we can’t have. Places we don’t belong and uniquely American things that don’t belong to us.

Listening to “Cowboy Carter” reminds me that there’s nothing Black people can’t have. Nothing we haven’t done. And that our culture and history are far deeper and richer than we have been led to believe. Black artists have been making country music since before it was even considered a genre. Beyoncé isn’t the first to do it; she’s just the most famous.

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