Beyoncé’s new album demands respect — and highlights an American travesty

When I think about the celebrity machine that is Beyoncé, I also think of a comment that a reader sent to me regarding the pitfalls of celebrity culture: that it forces us to look up to celebrities instead of the role models who live and work alongside us. There is incredible power within ourselves and our communities to mobilize and make change.

It’s no secret that I am critical of racial capitalism, particularly when powerful people, Black or White, use Black liberation aesthetics for profit and entertainment, while Black people are still fighting discrimination and state brutality. The liberal version of this racial capitalism also rations opportunity, marking the “first” or “only” Black person to (be allowed to) achieve some milestone normally reserved for White people. Beyoncé, in my opinion, has long been a page from this playbook — and is again now. With “Texas Hold ’Em,” her recent hit single, Beyoncé became the first Black woman to reach No. 1 on the Billboard country songs chart.

But in a time of explicit backlash against Black progress, and particularly against Black feminist intellectual thought in schools, corporations and universities, Beyoncé’s new album, “Cowboy Carter,” demands respect. While I can’t go so far as to say that Beyoncé resembles anything like a Black resistance leader, this work — with its subtle subversions and odes to Black history — contains some lessons for this moment.

The album made a splash even before it was released. By identifying the work as country, Beyoncé forced a conversation about the exclusion of Black people from the history of country music and of cowboy culture altogether. This hit home for me — as a first-generation Texan, I grew up going to rodeo shows in Fort Worth for fun. The city is also home to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, named for a great Black cowboy and the longest-running Black rodeo in the United States.

That Beyoncé, at 42, having worked in the entertainment industry since she was a teenager, is still conquering new charts is a testament to her work ethic, longevity and sheer cultural staying power.

Still, in the Year of Our Lawd 2024, why are we still recovering Black roots and recognizing Black breakthroughs? Beyoncé’s triumph is America’s travesty, no matter how good the PR about racial progress might be. Do Black women have to be billionaires to make a dent in the country music industry? For now, it seems so.

As for the album itself, whether “Cowboy Carter” really is a country album almost doesn’t matter. Sonically and creatively, it is one of Beyoncé’s best albums, period.

What feels most country about “Cowboy Carter” isn’t that it fits into our prescribed ideas of what country is or who is allowed to sing the style. The album is rap (“Spaghetti”), it’s pop, it’s opera-lite. (The track “Daughter” has Bey testing her alto chops.) It’s just good music. “Cowboy Carter” is the album of someone who seems finally free to do what she wants in the wide-open space of possibilities. That’s what the Wild West represents in the White imagination: a chance to “Go West, young man,” reinvent yourself and conquer whoever gets in the way of your (manifest) destiny. Beyoncé is set on opening the frontier of country music for today’s Black artists.

One track, more than the others, speaks to my complicated feelings about this artist and her latest creation. The song “Blackbird” was written by Paul McCartney of the Beatles in response to the injustices of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s — particularly those of Black girls in the South. Beyoncé’s version features Black country singers Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts, as if to say: I’m not the first and not the only.

McCartney said he wanted to give those oppressed children some hope amid the overwhelming injustice. But could we have new songs for the injustices of our time? The thing is, we are in a civil rights pushback. Gains in voting rights and affirmative action are under attack. Black women, most of all, are under attack. Beyoncé has always preferred to use the revolutionary words of others (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, poet Warsan Shire, Malcolm X) rather than take the risk of making music that directly addresses current struggles.

Reclaiming country as a Black musical genre is certainly important, but selling a lot of records at the same time is the path of lowest risk. What is safer than a Beatles song written by a White man?

I’ve stopped looking to Beyoncé to use her art or her platform to give hope to people in times of struggle. Being a Black woman doing whatever the hell she wants is itself a form of resistance. I have no choice but to Texas two-step and tip my hat to Ms. Carter for doing just that.

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