For many, the mention of country music triggers an image of a middle-aged white man wearing a cowboy hat, sitting on a porch chair, and nonchalantly sipping beer. The harsh reality, though, is that the majority of popular country singers are exactly that—middle-aged white men.
The country music industry has gotten away with its racist actions, and overly white charts and award shows. A recent example of this behavior is the controversy over Beyoncé performing at the 50th Country Music Awards in 2016 where she performed "Daddy Lessons," a country song off her album Lemonade with Dixie Chicks. A stunning performance was met with backlash from country music lovers; the upset was a result of her lack of country background and racism.
There's a blatant lack of African Americans on the country music charts and many unjustly blame it on their poor participation.
But this dogma that African Americans don't partake in country music is a myth. In fact, black Americans helped create country music. Research by Patrick Huber shows that there were at least twenty-two racially integrated proto-country music recording sessions and approximately fifty African American musicians who played on hillbilly records alongside white country musicians before 1932. However, because of white-dominated consumer preferences and Jim Crow laws, the musicians were often not allowed to collaboratively produce music. This manifested itself in different "categories" within the same music genre. White musicians' music was labeled country and western while black musicians' music was labeled "race music," which included blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues. However, the music came from the same foundation and resulted in similar melodies. The only notable difference was the color of the musician's skin; this division portrays the deliberate commitment to keeping the white identity "untainted" by black culture.
Now, you may be thinking "Well, times are different now. What's stopping them from joining the industry now?"
But it's unfortunately not that simple because of barriers to entry specific to African American musicians. Of the 136 inductees in the Country Music Hall of Fame, I counted less than 5 being people of color, an appalling 3.6%. It's overwhelming, uncomfortable even, for a person of color to join an industry where it's noticeable that they're the minority. Not to mention, it's daunting to perform for a predominantly white audience. People of color are set up to not feel welcome.
The lack of diversity in the country music industry outlines the U.S's underlying problem with race. As politicians scramble to address the frequent attacks on the African American community, the entertainment industry has become increasingly polarized. What we can do now is to open our eyes wider in order to acknowledge and address this issue.