Music

Beyoncé’s Country Pivot Illuminates the Genre’s Black History (and Present) — But Don’t Call It a ‘Reclamation’

When Beyoncé says something, people listen. When she planted her iconic silhouette squarely in front of a towering screen that simply read “feminist,” thousands of essays and think pieces followed. When she sang, “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation,” everyone heeded; whether they were boycotting her or queuing up for her then-record-breaking Formation World Tour, people fell in line. Last year, when Queen Bey requested that attendees of the last few shows of her historic Renaissance World Tour wear their “most fabulous silver fashions,” they packed stadiums dressed in outfits shinier than a disco ball. As per The New York Times, searches for silver clothes and sparkly, mirrored cowboy hats increased by 25% that same week. 

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We listen to Beyoncé because she’s one of the most important artists of our time and very arguably our greatest living entertainer. But we also listen to Beyoncé because – at least since 2013 – she is notoriously silent. Silence, of course, is a part of the present-day Beyoncé brand. How else would the First Lady of Music, deemed as such by one Clive Davis, flawlessly execute her industry-shifting surprise drops or differentiate herself from the hordes of pop stars bending to the algorithmic whim of TikTok and the like?  

Because Beyoncé says very little – and when she does, it’s normally in a very highly curated setting – we collectively project a lot onto her. And we also take her fans’ musings and theories as something of an extension of her artistic intention and the inner workings of Parkwood Entertainment, her production company. This curious phenomenon – the idea that through her current sting of releases, Beyoncé is “reclaiming” whitewashed genres — ran parallel to the entire Renaissance era, and now it’s trickling into Act II. That idea, however, glosses over the contributions of Black artists who have been holding down these genres before the Renaissance trilogy came to life.

As the entire world knows by now – yes, even that one country radio station out in Oklahoma — Beyoncé used her eye-popping Verizon commercial to launch her new album cycle during the 2024 Super Bowl (Feb. 11). That same night, two new country songs (“Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages”) appeared on digital streaming platforms, alongside a bevy of chatter that Act II would find Beyoncé “reclaiming” country music as a Black genre — just as she did for the Black queer roots of dance music and culture on Act II’s predecessor, the Billboard 200-topping Renaissance

But nowhere in the note Beyoncé posted to her website before Renaissance dropped in its entirety (Jul. 28, 2022) — which detailed her latest endeavor as a “three-act project,” and delved into her connection to dance music via the impact her late Uncle Johnny had on her life — does Beyoncé say or allude to “reclaiming” dance as a Black genre. Nor is that stated as an explicit intention of Renaissance or any of the subsequent acts. If anything, the note points to a personal and artistic renaissance for the 42-year-old music icon.

“Creating this album allowed me a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world,” she mused. “It allowed me to feel free and adventurous in a time when little else was moving. My intention was to create a safe place, a place without judgment, a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom. It was a beautiful journey of exploration.”

Of course, it’s relatively easy to turn everything Beyoncé does into a grand political spectacle. Ever since her eponymous 2013 surprise album – and especially since 2016’s Peabody-winning Lemonade – we collectively view Beyoncé’s art through an intensely political lens. That’s not wholly incorrect to do so, and Act II is no different. However, when that lens isn’t informed by a nuanced or comprehensive understanding of contemporary mainstream country music, the contributions of Black artists preceding “Texas Hold ‘Em” can get unfairly muddied. The idea that Beyoncé is single-handedly reclaiming musical genres with white-washed roots presupposes that Black people have been absent from those genres until this three-act project – and that is not the case. While Black artists may not have been directly at the forefront of mainstream dance and country music in recent years, they have been taking up their rightful space and making meaningful strides in their respective fields. 

A year before Renaissance lit up dancefloors around the world with sing-along smashes (“Cuff It”) and Miami bass-indebted rump-shakers (“America Has a Problem”), KAYTRANDA became both the first Black and first queer winner of the Grammy Award for best dance/electronic album. Earning the award for Bubba – which topped Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums Chart – KAYTRANADA has spent much of the young decade continuing to bridge the worlds of R&B and house, just as Beyoncé would do with Renaissance.  

The same year as KAYTRANADA’s historic Grammy win, SAINt JHN – a Guyanese-American producer and singer – earned the top spot on Billboard’s 2020 Year-End Dance/Electronic Songs chart, becoming the first Black artist to do so since Lil Jon in 2014 and the first Black artist to do so unaccompanied. It should also be noted that Renaissance is the third consecutive album by a Black artist to win the best dance/electronic album Grammy; Black Coffee snagged the award in 2022 for his Subconsciously LP. 

Renaissance didn’t “reclaim” dance music as a Black genre; Black artists who call that space home were already keeping the spirit of the genre’s originators alive. What Renaissance did do, however, is help educate the masses on where dance music and club culture comes from. Whether via collaboration (Honey Dijon, Syd) or sampling (the “I Feel Love” flip on closer “Summer Renaissance” remains a career highlight), Renaissance was a musical encapsulation of Beyoncé’s artistic aim for this past half-decade: using her platform to highlight, uplift and pay homage to often unsung movers and shakers across genres.  

She’s done this in flashes throughout her career, but her vision truly sharpened on The Lion King: The Gift, her compilation soundtrack for the 2019 photorealistic Lion King remake that doubled as a love letter to Afrobeats, which was then only just starting to cross over to the global stage. On that record, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200, Beyoncé tapped African talent from across the continent, including artists like Burna Boy, who would go to be a formidable top 40 presence in the following decade (and help bring Afrobeats along with him). 

Should she continue this endeavor with Act II, she will once again be entering a space that – while relatively foreign to her career– boasts a small, but mighty collection of Black artists taking up as much space as they can. Before “Texas Hold ‘Em” made Beyoncé the first Black woman in history to top Hot Country Songs, stars like Darius Rucker (11) and Kane Brown (13), who boast a combined 24 top 10 hits on the chart, have been making noteworthy strides within the contemporary Nashville machine. 

In the years immediately following Beyoncé & The Chickscontroversial 2016 CMAs performance, stars like Mickey Guyton and BRELAND also made great strides for Black artists in Nashville. In 2021, Guyton became both the first Black woman soloist to earn a Grammy nomination in the country field (best country solo performance for “Black Like Me”) as well as the first Black woman to receive a new artist of the year nod at the CMAs. BRELAND, who first exploded onto the scene in 2019 with the “Old Town Road”-evoking country-trap hybrid “My Truck,” has earned six top 40 hits on Hot Country Songs in just four years. Alongside “My Truck,” Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” — which topped Hot Country Songs and hit the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 – also made a huge impact in 2019. 

There’s also an ironic outlier in Tracy Chapman, a cross-generational storyteller who perhaps always fit into the sprawling lineage of country music as proven by the enormous success of Luke Combs’ cover of her seminal “Fast Car.” Thanks to Combs’ take, Chapman became the first Black woman to score a No. 1 at country radio with a solo composition, the first Black songwriter to win song of the year at the CMA Awards. 

As evidenced by the historic achievements of “Texas Hold ‘Em” — now also the first country song by a Black woman to reach No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 — progress for Black artists in country music, especially Black women, has been very minimal and very slow. But while many Black female artists have struggled to thrive in country as they may have deserved, they’ve still been present and impactful, and the word “reclamation” erases the strides they made before the launch of Act II. As a billionaire, Beyoncé is effectively an institution, so she can’t really “reclaim” anything. What she can do, however, is pay homage to both her own cultural and familial roots – which, in this context, she first extensively explored on Lemonade standout “Daddy Lessons” — as well as the whitewashed roots of historically Black genres. 

Beyoncé’s presence can start a conversation and keep it going, but a genuine, full-scale reclamation would require a concerted reconfiguration of the industry of each genre she forays into. Beyoncé making a country album won’t magically get more Black female country artists record deals, nor will it magically spur country music awards institutions to nominate and honor Black women while they’re still here. Instead, Beyoncé’s presence can illuminate the other Black women (and men) in country who have been carrying the torches of pioneers Linda Martell and Charley Pride even when things looked far more dire for Black country artists than they do currently.  

It’s like she croons in “I’m That Girl,” the opening track on Renaissance, “Touching everything in my plain view/ And everything next to me gets lit up too.” This isn’t reclamation, this is one of the most important entertainers in history using her platform to highlight artists – often those who share some of her social identifiers – who may never experience a fraction of her reach or recognition. 

And, for what it’s worth, Beyoncé is already making good on that lyric just two weeks into her country era. Rising country singer Tanner Adell – best known for the spunky “Buckle Bunny” — experienced a 188% increase in official on-demand U.S. streams for her catalog in the weekend following the release of “Texas Hold ‘Em,” according to Luminate. Adell, a Columbia labelmate of Beyoncé’s, has fully leaned into the Beyoncé Country Boom by posting TikToks drawing links between her own music and that of Beyoncé.  

During the same period, Martell – the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry – saw her catalog streams leap by 275% from the weekend prior. History-making country star and Apple Music Country radio host Rissi Palmer also received a catalog streaming boost of 110%, and catalog streams for Rhiannon Giddens – who plays banjo on “Texas” — jumped by 50%. Even K. Michelle – who, at press time, has less than a handful of country songs available on streaming – saw a significant boost, with her twangy “Tennessee” rising 185% in streams following the release of “Texas Hold ‘Em.” 

In an interview with News Channel 5 Nashville, Alice Randall, the first Black woman to co-write a No. 1 country song (Trisha Yearwood’s 1995 hit “XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)”), said: “It’s almost a full-circle moment for me… I almost want to cry. I wanted to see a black woman get to the top of the charts, and I can retire now!”   

This is the real power of Beyoncé’s three-act project, and it will likely stand as the biggest example of the trilogy’s impact. It’s all about bringing names like Alice Randall and Tanner Adell and Linda Martell and Rissi Palmer to the forefront, so they can stand alongside Beyoncé’s — in the hopes that once she moves on to the next act, they can remain at the forefront for decades to come. 

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