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In the wake of Beyoncé, will black country singers take the spotlight?

Beyoncé, queen of pop but also of country.

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In the wake of Beyoncé, will black country singers take the spotlight?

Beyoncé, queen of pop but also of country. “In Music City, with dreams and high-heeled boots, singing to a blue-eyed crowd, will they want me too?”, Julie Williams, the one who hums this verse in Nashville, America's country capital, is a mixed race woman. On stage, the 26-year-old artist talks about his childhood in a southern United States still haunted by the slavery past, and recounts his fight to establish himself in this town in Tennessee where careers are made or broken by white men.

It's the release on Friday of a country album by one of the biggest stars of the moment, Beyoncé, which sheds light on the long history of black artists in this extremely popular musical genre in the United States. “Who can’t wait to see Beyoncé’s new country album?,” shouts Julie Williams, to applause. Is this what all the white girls have been feeling all this time?” She continues: “When you see someone who is at the top of their game and they're tearing it up, you're like 'wow, that could be me', that's awesome.” The highly anticipated release of Beyoncé's album Cowboy Carter is quite simply a "historic moment" to propel "black country", the singer confided to AFP backstage.

Also read “She’s less scary”: the return to favor of country music

Julie Williams is one of the 200 members of the Black Opry, a collective created three years ago to carry the voices of black artists in genres often perceived as reserved for white artists, from country to folk. “I have always been a big fan of country music and I have always felt isolated,” confides Holly G, founder of the collective, saying she is not “represented” enough, “especially as a black and queer woman”. “Neither among the artists, nor among the fans, nor in the marketing,” she continues. “When I started Black Opry [...] I realized that we were all there, but we just didn't have the same platform or the same opportunities as our white colleagues,” concludes Holly G.

Beyoncé's new album could change things, said Charles Hughes, author of a book on country music and racial issues in the American South. People say “cool, Beyoncé is starting to play country, here are a bunch of other artists to listen to,” the Memphis researcher told AFP. When we start to see things changing behind the scenes, the effect of the Beyoncé moment will be felt.”

Country is a musical style that draws on the African-American roots of the United States: the banjo, for example, was among the instruments brought by African slaves deported to the Americas and the Caribbean in the 1600s. Yet black artists have historically been kept out of the musical genre and contemporary country maintains an image of white, macho and conservative music.

Also read: Beyoncé rises to the top of country listening, a first for a black woman

At the turn of the 20th century, with the advent of the charts, the music industry even categorized popular genres: country for whites, R'n'B for blacks. “This initial separation was based solely on skin color, not music,” emphasizes Holly G. And these labels persist. “The song can sound exactly the same and I'm told it's not country,” jokes Prana Supreme, member of O.N.E. The Duo, a country music group. And I'm like 'hmm, what's the only difference?'"

Beyoncé herself has not escaped the conservatism of country music. The Texas native recently said she hopes that in the coming years, the reference to the skin color or ethnic origin of an artist “will no longer be necessary.” For Prana Supreme, Beyoncé's country moment, which she describes as "iconoclastic", will allow African-American artists and fans alike to reclaim this genre. “Southern culture is black culture,” she argues.

Trea Swindle, a member of the country group Chapel Hart, also believes that Beyoncé “opens up country music to a whole new audience.” “Honey, go to Poplarville, Mississippi, whether you're black, white, Asian, Hispanic, it's Poplarville, and you'll get that country experience,” she laughs. But Holly G is cautious, believing that Beyoncé could remain the exception because of her extraordinary stature. “It’s because the industry is intimidated by Beyoncé, not because they are ready to support black women,” she concludes.

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