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Beyoncé’s new album opens country music’s door to Black artists

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Posted on: April 11, 2024

By KATELYNN WINEBRENNER

Beyoncé’s new album could break down the barrier that separates Black audiences and artists from country music, according to a University of Maryland (UMD) music specialist.

The venerated music icon experiments with country music on “Cowboy Carter,” a 27-track album that many of her 75.6 million monthly Spotify listeners are paying attention to, ethnomusicologist Stephanie Shonekan, UMD’s dean of arts and humanities, said. Because she is at the forefront of contemporary popular culture, Beyoncé’s foray into the genre also could make country more appealing to younger listeners, Shonekan said.

The album, which Beyoncé released on March 29, showcases “African-American connections and deep roots in country [music], asking really critical questions about the exclusionary practices in country culture,“ Shonekan said. “It offers us an opportunity to reflect on a difficult past in the United States.”

The track list includes her take on “Blackbird,” a highly political song that the Beatles wrote in 1968 as an homage to the Little Rock Nine — nine teenagers who became the first Black students to enroll in Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

The song opens with the lyrics, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly.”

Beyoncé’s selection of this song “reminds us that she has evolved,” Shonekan said. “In her [2016] album ‘Lemonade,’ she came out as an artist who is also an activist, who is also thoughtful about what is happening in the United States.”

Her version, stylized as “Blackbiird,” with a double letter i, features four Black female country artists, including Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tierra Kennedy and Reyna Roberts.

“I love that this is the track that she invites young, up-and-coming Black country artists to work with her,” Shonekan said. “I’m hopeful that this will be an opening, and there’ll be other artists to join the [ones] that are already doing some really wonderful work in country music.”

Beyoncé also covered country icon Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on the album. Recently, the song was covered by Parton’s goddaughter, Miley Cyrus, who makes a guest appearance on another “Cowboy Carter” song.

“It’s not simply a cover; she actually changes the lyrics and brings it up to the 21st century and to Gen X and maybe Gen Z, as well,” Shonekan said. “There’s a lot of excitement among young African Americans.”

Beyoncé adds new lyrics to “Jolene,” like, “Shoot your shot” and “You don’t want no heat with me.”

“Those are vernacular phrases that are very particular to this generation of young people,” Shonekan said, “so I love what she did with it — refreshing it and revising it and bringing it to a new generation.”

Not only do some of the changes make the song more palatable to younger listeners, but they also reflect a more feminist narrative, the dean said.

“She extends the progress of women, in a sense,” Shonekan said.

In Parton’s original, the lyrics include, “I’m begging you/ Please don’t take my man.” Instead, Beyoncé sings, “I’m warning you/ Don’t come for my man.” 

“It’s a really nice twist,” Shonekan said. “It gives a more powerful voice to this protagonist.”

The country music industry has a reputation for excluding Black voices, she said.

“They are few and far between,” Shonekan said.

By contrast, many white artists have easily integrated into traditionally Black genres like hip-hop and R&B.

“Think of all the boy groups, NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Justin Bieber,” Shonekan said.

“All these white artists have been welcomed in R&B,” Shonekan said. “So why should country music be closed?” 

Country artist Luke Combs received a Best Solo Country Performance nomination at the Grammy Awards this year for his cover of “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. 

Chapman, a Black singer, wrote and released the original in 1988. While the song was nominated for three Grammys after its initial release, it was not nominated in the country music category. During the awards show this year, Chapman joined Combs on stage.

“This is the first time that the country music establishment has given so much attention to a song written by a Black woman,” Shonekan said. “Why did we have to wait until 2024 to see someone like Tracy Chapman?”

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