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With Beyonc, black country singers finally put in the spotlight

  • March 27, 2024
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“In Music City, with dreams and high-heeled boots, singing to a blue-eyed crowd, will they want me too?”: the one who hums this verse on a stage in Nashville, America’s country capital, is a mixed race woman.

Julie Williams, a 26-year-old artist, talks about her childhood in the South of the United States still haunted by the slave past, and recounts her fight to establish herself in this town in Tennessee nicknamed “Music City”, where careers are made or are defeated by white men.

It is the release on Friday of a country album by one of the biggest stars of the moment, Beyoncé, which sheds light on the long history of black artists in this extremely popular musical genre in the United States.

“Who can’t wait to discover Beyoncé’s new country album?” Julie Williams shouts to applause. “Is this what all the white girls have been feeling all this time?”

She continues: “When you see someone who is at the top of their game and who is tearing it up, you say ‘wow, that could be me’, it’s awesome!”

The highly anticipated release of Beyoncé’s album “Cowboy Carter”, which enjoyed worldwide triumph thanks to R’n’B and pop, is quite simply a “historic moment” to propel “black country”, confides the singer to AFP behind the scenes.

Julie Williams is one of the 200 members of the Black Opry, a collective created three years ago to carry the voices of black artists in genres often perceived as reserved for white artists, from country to folk.

“I have always been a big fan of country music and I have always felt isolated,” says Holly G, founder of Black Opry, saying she is not “represented” enough, “especially as a black and queer woman”. “Neither among artists, nor among fans, nor in marketing.”

“When I started Black Opry,” she continues, “I realized that we were all there, but we just didn’t have the same platform or the same opportunities as our white colleagues.”

“What a difference?”

With Beyoncé, black country singers finally put in the spotlight

Trea Swindle of the country group “Chapel Hart” on March 14 in Nashville / SETH HERALD / AFP

Beyoncé’s new album could change things, believes Charles Hughes, author of a book on country music and racial issues in the South of the United States.

People say “cool, Beyoncé is starting to play country, here are a bunch of other artists to listen to,” the Memphis researcher told AFP.

“When we start to see things change behind the scenes, the effect of the Beyoncé moment will be felt,” he continues.

Country is a musical style that draws on the African-American roots of the United States: the banjo, for example, was one of the instruments brought by African slaves deported to the Americas and the Caribbean in the 1600s.

However, black artists have historically been kept out of the musical genre and contemporary country maintains an image of white, macho and conservative music.

At the turn of the 20th century, with the advent of the charts, the music industry even categorized popular genres: country for whites, R’n’B for blacks.

“This initial separation was based solely on skin color, not music,” emphasizes Holly G.

And these labels persist.

“The song can sound exactly the same and people say to me, ‘It’s not country,’” quips Prana Supreme, a member of ONE The Duo, a country music group. “And I’m like ‘hmm, what’s the only difference?’

“Iconoclast”

With Beyoncé, black country singers finally put in the spotlight

A street in central Nashville, Tennessee, March 13, 2024 / SETH HERALD / AFP

Beyoncé herself has not escaped the conservatism of country music.

The Texas native recently said she hopes that in the coming years, reference to an artist’s skin color or ethnic origin “will no longer be necessary.”

For Prana Supreme, Beyoncé’s country moment, which she describes as “iconoclastic”, will allow African-American artists and fans alike to reclaim this genre. “Southern culture is black culture,” she argues.

Trea Swindle, a member of the country group Chapel Hart, also believes that Beyoncé “opens up country music to a whole new audience.” “Honey, go to Poplarville, Mississippi, whether you’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic, it’s Poplarville, and you’ll have that country experience,” she laughs.

But Holly G, from the Black Opry collective, is cautious, believing that Beyoncé could remain the exception because of her extraordinary stature. “It’s because the industry is intimidated by Beyoncé, not because she’s willing to support black women.”