Back in 2019, Lil Nas X released a song that changed pop culture, music and the ideas around what was considered “country music.” As controversial as the song was to some people for using elements of hip-hop and therefore not being able to be considered “country” enough, there has long since been a tradition of this in the space. With artists like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line pulling from these same sounds, it felt to people in the Black community that his removal from the Billboard Hot Country chart may have had something to do with race. Since then, music has been flooded with people hopping on the horse (ha) to give their own variation on the track, including styles from rap, soul, R&B and pop music. But Black artists in the country music space is nothing new.
In Ken Burns’ 2019 documentary series Country Music, he dives into some of the greatest country legends and their careers, but one of the themes throughout is that country music has always been a place for Black artists, but they have largely been left out. From a 2019 TIME article, they stated regarding the documentary that, “Burns’ shows that, just like in rock, jazz and pop, every facet of country — from its instrumentation to repertoire to vocal and instrumental techniques — is indebted to African and African-American traditions, but commercial decisions by white industry executives led to their exclusion from the genre for decades.” They delve into the specific history of instrumentation, composition, spiritual and religious songs/lyrics, and how they were taken directly from Black culture and used by other artists in modern country music. During segregation (and beyond) many Black artists were not credited for their work on songs or records and they were often pushed to the outskirts of the genre. You can read more about this in the TIME article here.
For me, Lil Nas X was not the first to break through in recent years as a Black artist flipping country music on its head and creating space for those who have seen country music as a place for mainly white artists. There are more instances than I mention here, but as a teenager hearing Nelly & Tim McGraw’s song “Over And Over” on every radio station and not just country radio was a huge deal. It was country, but it had a such a good beat and it was Nelly (!) who had just released Nellyville a couple of years earlier. It was unexpected in the best way.
Many other southern US artists such as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Young Thug, and many more have been crossing over from rap to country and mixing the two together for a while now. And more traditional musicians like Charley Pride, Darius Rucker and even Tina Turner have paved the way for what is happening now. Even more recent contemporary traditional singers like Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton have been charting and performing country music on the largest stages. However, the crossover content has exploded within the past few years with artists like Blanco Brown, BRELAND as well as Willie Jones. There is still a long way to go for more equity and equality in this space, but innovation in the genre continues to come from Black artists whose music needs to be heard.
Check out my playlist of songs from Black country musicians I’ve been loving recently, as well as some tracks I feel have influenced what is now happening in the genre.
Artist: Willie Jones
Track: Down For It
Willie Jones could be one of the next big stars in country music. He has a sound that mixes a lot of country with some elements of hip-hop and sounds a lot like some other charting artists. This song interpolates parts of T.I.’s 2008 song “Whatever You Like” if that gives you any idea of his style. He is one of my favorite artists of 2020 and beyond.
Track: Diamond Studded Shoes
British-born singer-songwriter, Yola takes country music and puts the soul in it. This protest song about the UK’s former Prime Minister cutting funds to the community while wearing “diamond-studded shoes” is upbeat and powerful, just how Yola described she wanted it. Not a new name, Yola picked up 4 Grammy nominations for her beloved album Walk Through Fire.
Track: Miles (feat. Breland)
Tiera is someone you need to know about. The first time I heard her soft, pop country voice, I knew this was going to be my new favorite artist. CMT highlighted her as an artist to watch for in 2021 and artists like Kelsea Ballerini are excited about her, which if you hear this song, you’ll understand why.
Artist: Adia Victoria
Track: South Gotta Change
This bluesy-sounding protest song appropriately titled “South Gotta Change” is one of the songs that prompted me to look more into Black country musicians making music in the genre today. Regarding the song, Adia said, “is a prayer, an affirmation, and a battle cry all at once.”
Track: I’M NOT OVER YOU
In early 2020, RMR (pronounced “rumor”) broke the internet and went viral when he released his song and video for “Rascal” which is a version (with a lot of the lyrics changed) of Rascal Flatts’ hit song “Bless The Broken Road.” He doesn’t make just country music, and the album released by this new viral sensation has a number of fresh-sounding songs from all genres (including my pick “I’M NOT OVER YOU”) and features huge artists like Future, Lil Baby, Young Thug and Westside Gunn.