Beyonce’s album highlights black women changing counter music

Nashville (AFP) – “Twenty-three in Music City / With dreams and high heels / Singing to a blue-eyed crowd / Will they love me too?” sings Julie Williams at the Blue Room in Nashville.

The 26-year-old, who is biracial, is one of many black female artists carving out space in the country music capital, where predominantly white male gatekeepers dictate who makes it — and who doesn’t.

Country megastar Beyoncé’s long-awaited album, out Friday, has spotlighted the efforts of black performers — a vital part of the genre’s history — to create a more inclusive Nashville.

“Who’s excited for Beyonce’s new country album?” Williams shouted to applause.

“Is that what all the white girls have felt this whole time? Like, when they look at someone who’s at the top of their craft and just killing it and you’re like, ‘Wow, this could be it’s me”. — it’s very exciting.”

Speaking to AFP backstage, Williams called Beyonce’s move “a milestone in bringing black country into the mainstream”.

Williams is among about 200 acts affiliated with the Black Opry, a three-year-old collective that showcases and amplifies the voices of black artists working in genres including country, Americana and folk.

Julie Williams (C) sings with Lizzie No at the Blue Room in Nashville
Julie Williams (C) sings with Lizzie No at the Blue Room in Nashville © SETH HERALD / AFP

“I’ve always been a huge country music fan my whole life, and I’ve always felt isolated in that experience. Especially as a black, queer woman, you don’t see a lot of representation — not with the artists, the fans, the marketing material “, Black Opry founder Holly G. told AFP.

“Once I started the Black Opry, I realized we’re all out there — we’re just not given the same platform and opportunity as some of our white counterparts.”

“Trying to Open the Doors”

The institution’s name is a direct reference to the Grand Ole Opry, the country’s nearly century-old performance space whose complicated history has been shaped by performers of color but has also featured figures associated with racist ideologies.

Megastar Beyonce's long-awaited country album has put a spotlight on black performers' efforts to create a more inclusive Nashville -- here, Chapel Hart is seen performing at the city's Grand Ole Opry.
Megastar Beyonce’s long-awaited country album has put a spotlight on black performers’ efforts to create a more inclusive Nashville — here, Chapel Hart is seen performing at the city’s Grand Ole Opry. © SETH HERALD / AFP

The conversation about the marginalization of black country artists has gained new traction after Beyonce’s announcement, said Charles Hughes, author of “Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.”

“When we start to see things change behind the scenes,” he told AFP, “the effect of Beyoncé’s moment … will be felt, hopefully, by these communities, musicians, songwriters and fans and others who have tried . to open the doors”.

Country is a primarily American musical style with African influences: the banjo grew largely from instruments brought to the Americas and the Caribbean by enslaved people in the 1600s.

However, the contemporary country has developed an overwhelmingly white, macho, conservative image, with industry leaders proving resistant to change.

In the 1920s, industry professionals developed the terms “hillbilly” and “race” records to define popular music charts. These labels grew into country and R&B, respectively.

Prana Supreme (L) and Tekitha Diggs of ONE The Duo sing an a cappella version of one of their songs in Nashville
Prana Supreme (L) and Tekitha Diggs of ONE The Duo sing an a cappella version of one of their songs in Nashville © SETH HERALD / AFP

“That initial division was just based on the color of their skin, not the sound of the music,” said Holly G.

These divisions have persisted, meaning that black musicians — especially black women, as female artists generally have a significantly harder time getting airplay on mainstream country radio — face significant obstacles. .

“The song might sound exactly like some other people on the radio, and they’re like, ‘Yours ain’t country,'” Prana Supreme, part of mother-daughter act ONE The Duo, told AFP.

“And I’m like, hmm, what’s the only difference here?”

‘Culture mover’

Even Beyonce has said she faced industry resistance.

Country is a predominantly American style of music with African influences, yet contemporary country has developed an overwhelmingly white, macho, conservative image, with industry leaders resistant to change
Country is a predominantly American style of music with African influences, yet contemporary country has developed an overwhelmingly white, macho, conservative image, with industry leaders resistant to change © SETH HERALD / AFP

“My hope is that years from now, the mention of an artist’s race as it relates to publishing genres of music will be irrelevant,” Beyonce said recently.

Calling her a “culture mover,” Prana Supreme said Beyoncé’s moment in the country is important not only to show that black artists are an integral part of the country, but also to show black fans that the country is also for them.

“Southern culture is black culture,” she said.

Her mother Tekitha said Beyonce is a needed “champion”, not least to show the industry its blind spot: “You need a force to come in and say to the market: ‘Oh, wait a minute, there’s money here that y “Everybody’s leaving on the floor.”

Trea Swindle, a member of country singer Chapel Hart, said the group has seen an increase in attention and airplay since Beyoncé’s announcement, adding, “It’s opening up country music as a whole to a whole new demographic.”

Chapel Hart's Trea Swindle laughs off those who say her band isn't 'country'
Chapel Hart’s Trea Swindle laughs off those who say her band isn’t ‘country’ © SETH HERALD / AFP

The members of Chapel Hart grew up in a small southern town and laugh at anyone who says they’re “not country.”

“Honey, go to Poplarville, Mississippi — no matter if you’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic — it’s Poplarville and you’re going to have that country experience,” Swindle said.

“Place is a feeling. Place is a way of life.”

Holly G said she’ll believe ordinary change will happen when she sees it.

Robert's on Broadway is one of many live music venues in downtown Nashville
Robert’s on Broadway is one of many live music venues in downtown Nashville © SETH HERALD / AFP

“Beyonce is one of the most powerful celebrities in the world. And she was able to use that to see success in this space,” she said.

“But I think that’s because the industry is afraid of Beyoncé — not because they’re open to supporting black women.”

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