“Old Town Road” and Racism in Country Music

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Krysten Heberly

Over the past week, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding race within country music, after the hit song, “Old Town Road” was removed from the Billboard Hot Country Chart.  Billboard claims that the decision is because the song, “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Many are arguing that the decision is racist and that Lil Nas X has earned his place in the country charts, as the song is not fundamentally different from other country songs which have charted in the last few years.

After the song was cut from the Country Billboards, Billy Ray Cyrus joined the track to try and convince Billboard to reconsider. About his decision, he tweeted, “It was so obvious to me after hearing the song just one time. I was thinking, what’s not country about it?” Cyrus has a point, considering how similar the track sounds to other modern country songs.

If the issue is the trap beat behind the infectious vocals, then bands such as Florida Georgia Line should also have their songs removed for doing the same thing. If the issue is the lyrics, then apparently country music can no longer include lyrics about horses and tractors. The only glaring difference between “Old Town Road” and much of the country music on the radio today is that the singer is not white.

It should be noted that there have been hundreds of Black country singers over the years who have helped to inspire and shape the genre. DeFord Bailey, one of the first country music artists, was the one to inspire the name of the Grand Ole Opry. Charley Pride, who gained prominence in the 1970s, rose to fame with hits like “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” and continues to create both country and gospel music. He is currently still on tour throughout the United States.

Even the roots of country music were found in the Appalachian Mountains, with both Black and white musicians creating a new kind of Antebellum sound that was inspired by European influences, as well as Black Gospel ones. Before 1930, it was common to find both Black and white musicians who could be described as country. It was only because of Jim Crow that the idea of “Black” music and “white” music became the norm, largely excluding Black musicians from the country music scene.

In today’s country music, there are some Black musicians who rose to fame in recent years, including Kane Brown and Darrius Rucker. However, Black artists in country are still rare, and they often stick with a smoother sound remnant of ‘90s country, rather than the modern hip hop beats and lyrics often associated with new country. The issue with Lil Nas X is that he is utilizing the current model for country songs while also being Black. This combination is the reason that he has been removed from the Billboard Country charts, not because the song is not “country” enough.

Lil Nas X has received a plethora of support from within the industry since his song was removed from the charts. Brian Killmeade from Big & Rich told Fox Nation that we should, “Let the fans decide. I mean, country music – I go back to guys like Johnny Cash when he showed up in Nashville; they said that is not country music.” Killmeade has a point, and it is this kind of outlaw status that is garnering Lil Nas X support from country artists and fans alike.

“Old Town Road” is a perfect example of the direction in which country music is going.  Combining a new-age sound with classic lyrics is the kind of combination that is bringing country music into the 21st century. It is time for Black artists to take their place on the country music charts, without being affected by a kind of racism that stems from the Jim Crow era. It is time for Lil Nas X to make his rightful return to the top of the Country Billboard chart, where he belongs.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment

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