Rhiannon Giddens: Country Music Belongs To Everyone

Black artistry is woven into the fabric of country music. It belongs to everyone

Rhiannon Giddens

With Beyoncé becoming the first Black woman to top the US country charts, musician Rhiannon Giddens, who plays banjo and viola on Texas Hold ’Em, explains how capitalism and racism warped the genre

What is country music? Who is allowed to play it? Whenever a Black artist puts out a country song the judgment, comments, and opinions come thick and fast. “That’s not real country!” “That’s cultural appropriation.” “She needs to stay in her lane.” Or, as Dukes of Hazzard actor John Schneider so charmingly stated in a discussion earlier this month: “You know, every dog has to mark every tree, right?”

All of these comments, which range from simply ignorant to downright misogynoir, presuppose that commercial country music – a music of guitars, banjos, and fiddles; of pick-up trucks, heartbreak and that down-home lonesome sound – is a legacy that belongs only to white, rural southerners. And that supposition is just plain wrong.

Real history is messy and complicated. To get to the truth we need to rewind back to centuries before Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash – to the music created by enslaved people and a recording industry set upon segregation. Enslaved people of the African diaspora created the banjo in the Caribbean in the 1600s. This is historical fact. They also played other stringed instruments (such as the violin) and, whether enslaved or free, Black string bands became the de facto entertainment and dance bands of European societies from Barbados to Monticello to Rhode Island; from balls to banquets to political rallies. These musicians mixed with poor people of all colours and ethnicities who brought their own musical traditions into the mix over generations to create a truly American folk music.

By the 19th century, this folk music became the foundation of blackface minstrelsy, America’s most commercialised and racialised form of entertainment, that influenced every form of popular music that followed. From one century to the next, Black folk were in the thick of it, playing fiddles, banjos, and eventually the guitar and harmonica. They creatively mixed, matched and played for themselves and their local traditions, while also navigating popular demand within a wider musical and professional context.

Then came the creation of the recording industry in the 1920s, and everything changed.

We have been led to think that genre is an inevitable and immutable category of musical expression, but we should not confuse genre with tradition. Tradition is shaped according to the inner logic of specific communities through long processes of creative engagement, as we can see in the work of Gaelic-speaking bagpipers from the Highlands, ngoni-playing djelis from Mali, fiddling ballad singers in the Ozarks, and countless other musical traditions from around the world. Tradition has a cultural function for the people in a community. Tradition is story songs; dance songs; spiritual songs; work songs; played and sung in immeasurably different ways, according to the understanding of the community.

Genre, on the other hand, is a product of capitalism, and people with access to power create it, control it, and maintain it in order to commoditise art. In the 1920s, recording industry executives quickly realised that in order to maximise record sales, they needed to market them. In order to market them, they needed to create categories where they could reduce the totality of the American experience to a few buzzwords, and because this is the US, our cultural lenses are conditioned to project racial categories on to everything. The result was the Great Segregation of American Music.

Before the 20s, American musical sounds were remarkably fluid, with regional styles carrying more importance than race; but once there became an industry with a lot of money at stake, everything changed. Musicians naturally kept gravitating towards making mixes and blends, and the industry continued to separate. Race and hillbilly gave way to country and R&B in the 60s, which led to rock and hip-hop records in the 80s, ad nauseam.

In this moment, after 100 years of erasure, false narratives, and racism built into the country industry, it’s important to shine a light on the Black co-creation of country music – and creation is the correct word, not influence. Black musicians, along with their working-class white counterparts, were active participants and creators, not empty vessels with good rhythm. We would not have any of what we call country without the history of the black string band musicians, who helped form the nexus of American music for 100 years or more before record players.

Nobody owns an art form. Everyone is allowed to enjoy and make country music, especially when done with respect, understanding and integrity. But let’s stop pretending that the outrage surrounding this latest single is about anything other than people trying to protect their nostalgia for a pure ethnically white tradition that never was. The fact is, we’ve all been lied to; poor people of all backgrounds came together to make the music that the industry named country, and its birthright is one of the best things about being American.


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