Last Week Was The Greatest Black Week In Country Music History
Though gains for Black artists in country are still slow to develop, they’re happening in more substantial amounts than ever.
Last week marked such a profound level of unprecedented success for Black artists in country music that if you told me that sadly deceased, groundbreaking, African-American country icon Charley Pride also kissed an angel good mornin’ in heaven for good measure, I’d be hard-pressed to be shocked by the notion.
2021 has seen America’s national racial polarization best highlighted by country music. However, for as much as the genre’s top white artists perpetuate negative stereotyping, Black artists — by defying how they have been traditionally presented in the genre — create one of the most compelling stories of “we shall overcome” since the era of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In one corner, Morgan Wallen is likely as well known for having America’s number-one album for the past two months as he is for being considered the pinnacle of a century of anti-Black racist stereotyping of white males in the genre. Of course, given that white males have dominated the genre’s marketing and revenue since its inception a century ago, it’s a case of chickens not coming home to roost but now wantonly pecking at Black humanity.
However, in the other corner is Black humanity in country music more brilliantly represented than ever. Sunday evening saw veteran, Texas-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mickey Guyton appear at the Grammy Awards as not just the first Black nominee in 45 years in the genre for bombastic civil rights ballad “Black Like Me.” Rather, she also performed the song, accompanied by a choir, while spotlighted and clad in a golden gown. The symbolism was obvious: The Morgan Wallens of the world are no longer pecking at a strong-headed carcass of representation. Rather, they’re benignly gnawing at statuesque excellence.
Golden Guyton’s onstage presence led to her having an 850% increase in Spotify plays of “Black Like Me.” While those streaming stats are impressive, data released last week from Canadian researcher Dr. Jada Watson undercut — or rather demonstrably redlined — how Guyton’s success was rather astounding given that she “[had received] no support from country format radio,” which exacerbated the “historic underrepresentation of BIPOC women in [country music], which “impacts public perception of what it means to be ‘country.’”
Even deeper, Watson’s research noted that Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) artists make up less than 4.0% of the commercial country music industry. Moreover, her research noted that BIPOC artists received 2.3% of the airplay over the last nineteen years (95.7% of which went to songs by BIPOC men, 2.7% of which were for songs by BIPOC women — including cross-over artists).
Though heartbreaking, the silver lining provided by Watson’s work is that it — for the first time in country music’s nearly hundred-year history — denotes the baseline from which Black country artistry can grow in the genre.
Data-based demarcations are necessary if only because of the sheer number of mainstreaming Black artists and established Black country stars currently emerging in the genre. Five Black male artists — Blanco Brown, Breland, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, and Lil Nas X — have had platinum-selling hits in the past five years. Compared to decades prior, one of three artists — Ray Charles, Charley Pride, or Darius Rucker — have been the sole representatives of extraordinary levels of Black country success.
Insofar as Rucker, the week of March 11–18 found him celebrating his tenth Billboard Country Airplay chart number-one single in his storied career. Rucker is a vital figure in Black visibility in the past three decades in both rock and country. His continued success at such a critical juncture for Black performers in country music cannot be understated.
On the Black women’s side of the ledger, Guyton’s star-power continues to grow. On March 11, she was named the co-host of April 18th’s Academy of Country Music Awards alongside Australian vocalist Keith Urban. As well, she’s also nominated for “Best New Artist” (though she has been a mainstream label-signed artist for a decade) at the proceedings. Furthermore, her single “Black Like Me” has been tabbed for Adult Contemporary radio airplay, signaling a pop-aimed crossover.
She leads a group of other Black female artists who are all similarly expanding in their reach and impact within the genre and beyond. Vocalist Brittney Spencer recently performed alongside The Roots, plus joins Alabama’s Reyna Roberts, Mississippi’s Chapel Hart Band, and Canada’s Sacha as Black representatives on CMT’s 2021 Next Women of Country list. Related, via the network, this week, Chapel Hart Band released their latest visuals for their most pop-aimed single to date, “You Can Have Him, Jolene.”
As well, Rissi Palmer’s continued resurgence as a performer, educator, and arbiter of reparational social justice within country music continues to be one of the music industry’s most fascinating stories. Last week saw this story continue as it was announced that she’d grace country’s greatest stage — The Grand Ole Opry — on Friday, March 19.
Palmer’s the last woman in country music to ascend to the Top 20 of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with her 2007 debut single “Country Girl.” Currently, she’s the host of Apple Music’s “Color Me Country Radio,” a podcast that has provided a launching point for conversations about solving for racial injustice in country music with established white stars like Maren Morris and Cam, plus highlighting the legacy and future of BIPOC artists in the genre.
The past seven days have also seen the depth and scope of work from the banjo reclamation quartet Our Native Daughters spread in impact. 2019’s Songs of Our Native Daughters is an album that Rolling Stone and NPR note, respectively, is “a crucial pronouncement in folk music” that “[supplants] the portrayals of slavery as an abstract, ancient sin with the imaginative, immersive contemplation of its human impact and aftermath.”
Thus, in Our Native Daughters member Amythyst Kiah electrifying “Black Myself,” a Songs of Our Native Daughters anthem of Black identity and self-expression she wrote, there’s a sense of an awakening clarion call to arms for Black artists that becomes apparent. To wit, she notes, “when 2020, as a civil rights moment, started happening, [I realized] you can’t get much warier or stranger than being ‘black myself’ in America right now.”
As well, Kiah’s moment dovetails brilliantly well with the current creative output of another Our Native Daughters member, Allison Russell. The past week was as ideal of a time has seen Russell release stirring covers of Sade’s “By My Side, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” (translated into the Montreal native’s French), and Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted.” Russell’s current work being noted by its motivations in “resilience, survival, transcendence, the redemptive power of art, community, connection, and chosen family.”
Russell’s work — alongside that of Kiah, Guyton, established stars like Palmer and Rucker, plus the quintet of Black men with platinum-selling country singles — adds to a sense that reparational work amongst Black people is providing the structural foundations to sustain the groundswell of popularity for African-American country artists as their mainstream interest rises.
Ultimately, the past seven days for Black artists in country music have provided a refreshing counterbalance for the genre and America at-large. Currently, out of one side of country’s metaphorical mouth, it’s saying “the n-word.” Now, from the other, it’s “kissing an angel good mornin’. As far as creating the space where country music — as a unified whole — has a singular message? That moment is yet to come, but the sliver of hope that it reflects a positive reckoning that can translate to the rest of America now more than certainly exists.