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The Uproar Over Beyoncé’s CMA Performance Ignores Country Music’s Black Roots

Some country music fans weren’t too happy Beyoncé performed at this year’s award show. This writer sets them straight on why she belongs

by George Johnson, November 3, 2016

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Beyonce performed at the Country Music Awards.

No, you read that right. Not the BET or MTV Awards, or Grammys, but the CMAs. On country music’s biggest night, it was clear that one star out shined them all. To the dismay of scores of country fans, the announcement brought sheer horror to the genre so loved by a predominantly white audience. Calls for boycotts, and thousands of tweets later, those who were upset all seemed to be saying the same thing— Beyoncé didn’t belong.

Many felt Bey had no business appearing, let alone performing, at the CMAs, despite releasing one of the best country songs of the year, “Daddy Lessons.” For those who were confused as to why Bey was in the building, including a somewhat angry looking Kenny Chesney, let me remind you of one thing.

Y’ALL DIDN’T INVENT COUNTRY MUSIC.

Today, country music is made up of mostly white artists, but it didn’t start that way. In the same way Black culture is often marginalized, then claimed as a “new” trend for the masses, country music has a long history of Black roots that are often overlooked. For that reason, we must take a look back at the ancestry behind not only the origins of the instruments, but also of the people who played them.

The banjo, similar to the Banjar played in Africa and was the foundation of early country music, was invented by enslaved Southern Blacks in the 1690s. The fiddle was an instrument also played by our enslaved ancestors after their white oppressors introduced it to them. Banjos were played on fields and plantations as “work music” and were often accompanied by field shouts and hollers, which over time transformed into Blues, R&B, and country music. With emancipation, however, many African-Americans shied away from the music because they wanted to forget their time of enslavement and anything associated with it. Additionally, minstrel shows, which often included the negative depictions of African-Americans playing banjos and eating watermelon, made many Black people want to distance themselves from the genre.

However, in 1927 the Black roots of country music resurfaced in a big way. It was during that time that a man by the name of DeFord Bailey performed his rendition of “Pan America Blues” on one of the biggest shows in country music radio. After his one hour performance, they changed the name of the show to what is now known as “The Grand Ole Opry.” Unfortunately, as with most traditions that are taken from us, Bailey, the first African-American to perform at the Opry would not receive recognition for his contributions until his death in 1982. Other Black country music artists like Charlie Pride and Aaron Neville have also been staples of the genre for decades, yet rarely receive the same acclaim as their white counterparts.

When you look at the crossover artists, country music has always been a part of the Black community. Ray Charles played the harmonica in the 1940s and performed many gigs with a band called “The Florida Playboys.” In 1962, Charles released a country album called Modern Sound in Country and Western Music, which many consider one of the greatest country music albums of all time. Tina Turner also included many country influences in her music and released the Grammy-nominated album, Tina Turns the Country On! Major white country music artists like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley took much of their style and music from Black artists like Charles and Little Richard. During those times, however, crediting Black artists for music sung—and essentially stolen—by white artists was not common. Many of these artists would not get the recognition, nor the royaltie,s they deserved until much later in there life.

The notion that Beyoncé, a Black women from Texas with the accent to match, shouldn’t be performing at the CMA’s is not only a slap in the face to country music’s Black ancestors, but to the many Black artists currently burning up the genre. People like Darius Rucker and Rhiannon Giddens, a banjo-playing member of the Grammy winning group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, earned the right to be celebrated. And we can’t forget the powerful and soulful Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, and her infusion of rock and soul into genre.

The backdoor racism displayed by disgruntled country music fans who claimed Beyoncé didn’t belong only shed more light on how racially divided “Post Racial America” actually is. Fortunately, Beyoncé told us how to deal with the criticism when she sang, “When trouble comes in town, daddy said to shoot.” By performing at the CMAs and receiving a standing ovation for the her performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Dixie Chicks, Queen Bey helped to remind country music of its roots.

Congrats to Queen Bey on making our 2016 #EBONYPower100 List! Check out the full list HERE.


George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. He has a monthly column in A&U magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.

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