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Beyoncé is bringing her fans of color to country music

But will her enthusiasts be welcomed into genre?

By GARY GERARD HAMILTON, Associated Press
Published: April 18, 2024, 6:01am
2 Photos
FILE - Beyonc&eacute; performs at the Wolstein Center, Nov. 4, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. With the release of &ldquo;Act II: Cowboy Carter,&rsquo;&rsquo; Beyonc&eacute; has reignited discussions about the genre&rsquo;s origins and its diversity.
FILE - Beyoncé performs at the Wolstein Center, Nov. 4, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. With the release of “Act II: Cowboy Carter,’’ Beyoncé has reignited discussions about the genre’s origins and its diversity. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

NEW YORK — Dusty, worn boots. Horses lapping up water. Sweat dripping from the foreheads of every shade of Black skin as country classics blare through giant speakers. These moments are frequently re-created during Tayhlor Coleman’s family gatherings at their central Texas ranch. For her, Beyoncé’s country album, “Act II: Cowboy Carter,” was the granting of an unlikely wish.

“There is something to be said about the biggest artist in the world coming home to the genre that … we all kind of love but never really felt welcome into — it’s really hard to put that to words,” said the 35-year-old native of Houston’s Third Ward, the same area Beyoncé lived in as a child. Loving artists like Miranda Lambert and Shania Twain, Coleman hoped this moment would come. “I was praying then that one day she would make a country album … Beyoncé is more country than a lot of people making country music today.”

Beyoncé’s latest project is not only No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for the second consecutive week, but she became the first Black woman to top Billboard’s country album chart.

“There’s nothing that that girl can’t do. … That’s inspiring to me,” said country superstar Lainey Wilson, who took home the country album Grammy in February. “I’m excited to see the fans that didn’t know they liked country music find out that maybe they like it a little bit.”

Beyoncé’s steamrolling into country music — and her motivation behind it — has reignited discussions about the genre’s origins and its diversity. But with increased interest from Beyoncé’s fans at a fever pitch, is Nashville prepared and willing to welcome them in? Will new listeners of color and others curious about the hoopla stay or will their interest in the genre wane?

Power play

“I will be honest with you: I think that it’s a Beyoncé thing. I don’t know that it’s a country music happening because that would mean the industry would have to do something … I think it’s one of those cultural moments for Black people, specifically Black women,” said country artist Rissi Palmer, host of the Apple Music radio show Color Me Country which has created a centralized community where fans of color can enjoy the genre.

“It’s really funny to me to see a lot of country radio programmers trying to take credit for what just happened with Beyoncé. That wasn’t country radio … that was her power, her money and — the acknowledgment of her brand. The fandom did that,” Palmer said.

Tanner Davenport, co-director of Black Opry, worries the massive achievements of “Cowboy Carter” could have unintended consequences, such as country music executives not feeling an urgency to platform existing and future Black artists. Black Opry was founded by Holly G in April 2021, as she examined her relationship with the genre during the social justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The organization aims to amplify Black voices in country, Americana, blues and folk music.

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“Once ‘Act II’ has ran its course and gone away, there are going to be programmers … looking back at this moment and saying, ‘We’ve already done this. We’ve given a Black woman a No. 1,” said Davenport. “If they can really start to dial into the audience a bit more, I think they can start to see progress within this and capitalize on this moment because I think there’s a huge undermining of the Black dollar and how far it can go.”

Not an anomaly

Reyna Roberts’ parents filled their house with music. Roberts, a rising country artist featured on “Cowboy Carter” with vocal credits on “Blackbiird” and “Tyrant,” said some questioned her musical aspirations.

“People are always so surprised. But I’m like my parents played country, they played trap, they played rock, they played classical, they played blues … Anything that I’m creating is all truly authentic,” said Roberts, who hit a career breakthrough in 2020 after shout-outs from superstar Carrie Underwood and Mickey Guyton, who in 2021 became the first Black woman to co-host the Academy of Country Music Awards. (Charley Pride was the first Black co-host of the CMA Awards in 1975.)

Roberts is part of a new generation of artists, like Shaboozey, Tanner Adell and Willie Jones, who are fusing country with other genres like hip-hop.

While Wilson, one of the biggest artists in the genre, hopes some Queen Bey fans will explore country, a significant percentage of Black listeners already exists. A 2021 Country Music Association self-commissioned study, “Country Music’s Multicultural Opportunity,” examining potential audience expansion opportunities, revealed that 26 percent of Black respondents said they listen weekly.

“I don’t think they have gotten to the point where they feel as safe to be at country shows … the broad listenership in country music is going to be reflected in the streaming world,” said Davenport. He says the Black Opry is strategizing ways to capitalize on Beyoncé’s momentum so curious fans can find spaces “where they can exist and not feel threatened.”

Safety and feeling comfortable in a country music environment is often on the minds of Black country musicgoers. Davenport was in the audience during Beyoncé’s 2016 CMA performance with The Chicks which sparked a much-documented racist online backlash, and is believed to be the genesis for “Cowboy Carter” with the superstar expressing on Instagram, “I did not feel welcomed.”

During the performance, Davenport says a woman near him yelled, “‘They need to get that Black b—- off stage,” adding, “I started to realize, OK, this is truly a space in which I don’t feel comfortable in, and I don’t feel safe in.”

That same CMA study found that 20 percent of concert attendees of color experienced racial profiling or harassment. The polling included noncountry music listeners, and up to 31 percent of that segment said they don’t listen because they “wouldn’t be safe/comfortable at live events.”

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