Lil Nas X proves Black artists and Country music are not mutually exclusive.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, by now you’ve heard the viral Country-Trap hit “Old Town Road (Remix)” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. It’s currently the top track in America, entertaining both hip-hop heads and square-dancing country fans alike. However, without the power of the internet, the leading Hot 100 track would have taken a much different path.
Originally released December 2018, Lil Nas X’s original “Old Town Road” was a minute and fifty-three seconds of cool guitar plucks accompanied by banging bass, autotune, and very amusing cowbougie lyrics (yes, I made that word up). The song was a chart-topper on music streaming platforms and was ranked in Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. However, according to Rolling Stone, Billboard removed the original version of “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs category stating, “Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts.”
The statement continued, “When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
Hmmm sounds about white along with the conversations (or lack of) that continue to remove Black artists from country music despite its Black origins. However, with the help of the internet, Lil Nas X recruited Billy Ray Cyrus to jump on the track and yeehawww we’ve got a top country hit.
As of early April, a Billboard report read: “‘Old Town Road’ jumps from No. 15 to No. 1 on the Hot 100 dated April 13. The song… debuts at No. 53 on Country Airplay. On the week of March 16, Billboard placed the tune, released by Sony’s Columbia Records, on the Hot Country Songs chart, where it debuted at No. 19.”
The young rapper’s plight drew on a recurring discourse that argues Black artists and Country music are mutually exclusive from each other and that’s not the case. While there aren’t many Black artists in the country category, country music is rooted in American blues and folk, heavily influenced by African-Americans. Black people have been and always will be an integral part of country music.
For historical context, The Pointer Sisters released an album in 1974 (That’s a Plenty) which included the country hit “Fairytale.” Their track was such a success they were asked to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, becoming the first black female group to do so. They also won Grammys for Best Country Song and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Tina Turner’s first solo album, Tina Turns the Country On! was actually a collection of country covers in which she also received a 1975 Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance Female
Earlier this year, Solange released When I Get Home a visual album with multiple nods — from lyrics to aesthetics — to Black cowboys and cowgirls.
In October of 2018, Black country breakout star Kane Brown took home 3 American Music Awards for Favorite Country Male Artist, County Song, and Country Album. He also took home the Country Music Television Awards’ Collaborative Video of the Year award earlier in the year. While his triumphs seem indicative of a shift in the culture, Brown has openly addressed racism he’s felt in the country music scene saying, “there’s a lot of racism out there,” and singing about “getting looked down on just because of your skin” while at CMA Music Festival according to the Tennessean.
And let’s not forget Nelly’s “Over and Over” featuring Tim McGraw. The song is technically hip-hop and described as “nothin’ country about [it]” by McGraw, but it was definitely “country” to Nelly.
Black artists can’t continue to be boxed out and erased from the country genre. If anything, Lil Nas X’s ability to captivate not just the internet, but the entire music industry with his now No. 1 Country fused trap hit, is a further indication of what we can accomplish and achieve.
Like Lil Nas X said, “Can’t nobody tell me nothing!”
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