On the July 19 episode of America’s Got Talent, Chapel Hart—a Mississippi-bred trio of Black women—performed their twangy riff on Dolly Parton’s iconic plea to the other woman, “You Can Have Him Jolene.” When they finished, the audience jumped to its feet, roaring its approval, applauding and chanting “Golden Buzzer,” the signal to move the country group to the next round. Moments later, judge Simon Cowell told the women, “I needed you today.”
The face of lead singer Danica Hart was soaked in tears by then—the glory of the moment, of being so enthusiastically praised, washing over her in waves. But it was her response to Cowell’s question about their efforts to make a name for themselves in mainstream country music that provided the clearest view into her emotional state. There was heartbreak below that happiness.
“We’ve been trying to break into Nashville for the last couple years,” Hart said, “but it’s been kinda hard when, I think, country music doesn’t always look like us.”
Significantly, the “last couple years” refers to a time of marked disruption in country music, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades. Two summers ago, on June 2, 2020, Black music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas launched #TheShowMustBePaused, an initiative designed, as they wrote in an Instagram post, to “hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable” while pushing it to “protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent.”
That same day, eight days after the murder of George Floyd, Arlington-born Mickey Guyton dropped “Black Like Me.” On the macro, the haunting track provided a glimpse into her life as a Black woman in America. Drilled down, lyrics like “Now I’m all grown up and nothing has changed/Yeah, it’s still the same” were a searing indictment against her 10 years in the country music industry. If there were any doubts, her interviews on CBS This Morning, Entertainment Tonight, NPR, and numerous other outlets—where she consistently and courageously relayed details of being called the N-word, of facing questions about her sincerity, of trying to assimilate into an all-white world—put those to rest.
“It’s kinda hard when country music doesn’t always look like us.”
Taken together with the protests that followed Floyd’s murder and the general angst that accompanied a global pandemic, the focus on the music industry’s longtime mistreatment of Black creatives was too much for country music to ignore. But instead of taking personal responsibility for the industry’s sins, or offering the earnest apologies that can lead to real healing, individuals and corporations alike scrambled to save face. Diversity panels and task forces were convened, almost always organized by white folks who wanted to position themselves as forward-thinking leaders of a more diverse industry instead of the old-guard, status quo supporters they’d always been.
For the benefit of the outside public—including those skeptics still side-eying a people so backward they’d dared to turn their noses up at Beyoncé’s appearance with the Dixie Chicks at their beloved Country Music Association Awards in 2016—the industry went into overtime Blackening up its TV show stages. Guyton wasn’t just nominated for New Female Artist of the Year at the 56th Academy of Country Music Awards in April 2021. (Ironically, she’d been nominated for the same award six years earlier, following the release of her debut single “Better Than You Left Me.”) She also co-hosted the show with Keith Urban and became the first Black woman to perform on the ACMs when she sang “Hold On,” her cut from the soundtrack of the 2019 film Breakthrough.
Other organizations got in on the diversity action, too, adding a few new names (Breland, Brittney Spencer) to the preestablished handful of Approved Black Artists (Guyton, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Darius Rucker) and spreading them round and round and round again. It was a calculated move that would allow the industry to shirk past blame even as it evaded present scrutiny. And for the vast majority who didn’t know any different—who saw only what the industry wanted them to see—the effort to elevate any Black artists at all was monumental.
Meanwhile, those who, like me, decried unpaid TV performances as shallow performity could be accused of being too hard to please, of not being patient enough. And no one wants to be reminded that country music has always used Black artists to its advantage, even as it barred the vast majority from industry entry. The upholding of Ray Charles’ iconic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album as evidence of the genre’s elevation from and extension beyond its humble “hillbilly” roots looks and feels remarkably similar to country music organizations using inclusive stages to prove that their shows still belong on the national networks broadcasting in a post-George Floyd America. But the idea that the ACM or CMA would benefit even more than the few Black artists they handpicked for promotion isn’t the sexy, progressive prognosis that country music fans and insiders want.
They don’t want to hear that this revolution (or renaissance, or whatever we’re calling it) hasn’t been as transformative and widespread as articles and TV shows would lead us to believe. They don’t want us to know that the industry that Chapel Hart encountered in 2020 and 2021 still exists.
Back in 2020, I spoke to Charley Crockett in a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from Tupac’s politics to Crockett’s mixed ethnicity and, of course, the country’s racial reckoning. The occasion was the release of his album Welcome to Hard Times, and though it sounded inspired by the state of society, Crockett assured me it wasn’t. “You didn’t need this shit going on this year to know about these problems that we’re talking about,” said the singer, who grew up in Irving and started his music career in Dallas. “I recognize people are in different positions, but there are a lot of people who are in positions not to see it, and there are no consequences for them. Then there’s everybody else who’s forced to see it, deals with it, and suffers for it.”
The problem was that, in country music, the very group that had been responsible for the centurylong ostracization and economic oppression of Black creatives—that is, all those people who hadn’t seen it—was suddenly given free rein both to determine the means by which amends would be made and to execute them at its own discretion.
“It’s a strange time,” said Crockett, who will release his new album The Man From Waco on September 9. “There’s a combination of white consciousness, and then there’s this other fake white virtue signaling. … I see a lot of these people, you know, playing politics with their public image that are not doing anything in their life about shit, you know? And it’s all whites signaling to other whites.”
To understand country music is to understand Music City. Sixty years ago, when a different but similar movement was upon us, Nashville reacted in much the same way as its modern incarnation has. For generations before the launch of the movement led by Diane Nash, John Lewis, and other Black Nashville college students, Black Nashvillians had been pushed to the city’s margins, forced into the worst neighborhoods and the worst schools, told where they could shop and eat. Later, when protestors dared to reverse the trend, many white citizens resisted.
Some hurled slurs and picketed outside of schools; some bombed the home of civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby and the newly desegregated Hattie Cotton Elementary School. Those who weren’t involved were appalled, perhaps because of the atrocity of it all but most certainly because of its reflection on them. Despite the obvious, the glaring, the persistent, Nashville’s brass wanted the city to be seen as a progressive town, the antithesis of Birmingham or Selma.
So they conceded here and negotiated there, creating enough “change” to quench at least a few of the revolutionary flames lapping at their ankles. But according to activist C.T. Vivian, who co-founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference and was instrumental in the city’s 1960 sit-ins, the sweeping civil rights movement as we’ve come to know it was a failure in Nashville. A focus on token hires, the formation of integrated focus groups, and a steady-but-slow approach to the desegregation of schools (that left the richest white neighborhoods unaffected) gave the appearance of progress without actually moving the needle.
“Most often, [white liberals] had been acting as spokesmen for the Black community and now pointed to the accomplishments that had been made under their guidance,” Vivian wrote in his 1970 book, Black Power and the American Myth. “But once we investigated, these accomplishments proved illusory. It is true that there were Black ballplayers in the major leagues. There were token Blacks in the political, business, and military establishments. Some colleges had raised their pitifully small quotas, and a few schools had been forced to accept a few Black children. But the great mass of Black Americans were still being tortured.”
There can be no conversation about Black artists in country music without the inclusion of Charley Pride, the industry icon who lived in Dallas for much of his adult life. But that conversation cannot be complete without an honest appraisal of the doors that Pride’s success opened—as well as those that remained closed.
Indeed, even Simon Cowell’s response to Danica Hart’s tearful assessment of Chapel Hart’s industry struggles—“Sometimes you just got to break down that door, and you may have just broken down the door with that performance”—speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the entrenched nature of country music’s racism. There is no single door barring Black artists and other creators from country music careers. Rather, there is, and has been, a seemingly endless supply, with new ones popping up, fully formed, for each new artist who approaches the industry threshold. Just ask Bobby Womack. The R&B singer allegedly planned to title his 1976 country debut Step Aside Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger a Try before his label convinced him to go with the less inflammatory B.W. Goes C. and W.
In today’s era of social media and streaming that has given independent country artists such as Bangs, Texas, native Coffey Anderson the opportunity to reach fans directly, there are many who would counter that major label record deals and terrestrial radio spins are not the only markers of industry success. But as long as there are a number of artists who want to pursue mainstream country music, who want the contracts and the plaques (and the accompanying checks), they should be able to do that without seeing their race as a barrier that must be overcome.
And the question of the current state of Black artists in country music should be answered with their experiences, not those of the privileged, tokenized few.
Andrea Williams is a best-selling author who co-wrote the 2022 Amazon Music documentary For Love & Country. Editor’s note: D Magazine’s style is to capitalize both “white” and “black”when they refer to race. The writer prefers to lowercase “white.”
This story originally appeared in the October issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Still the Same.” Write to [email protected].