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Beyoncé is getting played on country radio. Could her success help other Black women?

The cover photo from "Texas Hold 'Em," one of two new country singles by Beyoncé that debuted during Super Bowl LVIII.
Courtesy of the artist
The cover photo from "Texas Hold 'Em," one of two new country singles by Beyoncé that debuted during Super Bowl LVIII.

When an employee of the KYKC, a country music radio station based in a small southern Oklahoma town, hit send on an email earlier this week responding to a listener's request to hear a new song, they probably didn't expect to make national headlines. The employee later claimed they had not watched the second half of the Super Bowl and were not aware that one of the world's biggest pop stars had released a new single that opens with a banjo riff when they sent the reply. But soon, that disappointed listener was posting a screenshot of the email response, which read: "Hi — we do not play Beyoncé on KYKC as we are a country music station."

The response set off a rapid chain of events: Beyoncé fans who had seen the screenshot wrote or called KYKC to request the song in droves. Within a few hours, the station was playing the song, "Texas Hold 'Em," on its air. Beyoncé's team serviced the single widely to country radio, and by the end of the week, it had become the singer's first single to appear on Billboard's country airplay chart, having gotten spins on 100 stations nationwide.

But that initial exchange reignited long-running conversations about racism in country music, and the backlash solidified a complaint against country radio stations in particular: that they act as gatekeepers of a stereotype that the genre is limited to white artists. That complaint has proven valid and meaningful. And the efforts of Beyoncé's fans to challenge that perception offers the chance to demystify the crucial role that format plays in the careers of musicians chasing commercial success. Country radio continues to be the most effective way to obtain listeners for artists working in the genre. Success within the format also determines eligibility for Country Music Association (CMA) awards. In short, it's both the surest pathway to legitimacy in a tight-knit industry as well as a source of financial benefit.

As much as Beyoncé's challenge to the machinery of country music throws a light on the problem Black artists and women face getting played on country radio, the attention also creates a paradox. Her megastardom and the efforts of her huge, vocal fanbase obscure the presence of countless more Black artists of the past and present who have pushed to gain acceptance within country music and mostly been frustrated in that pursuit, despite the fact — as the rollout of Beyoncé's upcoming album, initiated during the Super Bowl, has alluded to — that the genre has always taken from Black music and culture.

Research has confirmed a stark racial and gender divide. Inone study of over 11,000 songs played on country radio from 2002 to 2020, Jada Watson, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa and the principal investigator of SongData, found that artists of color represented just 3% of country airplay, two-thirds of which were by solo male artists.

The overwhelming whiteness of artists played on country radio is indicative of how the popular music industry remains one of the most outwardly racially segregated spaces in American culture. Not only is this segregation commonplace, it is actively encouraged as business practice and has only strengthened over time.

Over the past half-century, the rise of format radio has played a key role in maintaining racial segregation in the ways popular music is recorded, marketed and sold. While the vast majority of country radio stations did not play Beyoncé's new singles (in addition to "Texas Hold 'Em," she also released "16 Carriages," on Super Bowl Sunday) upon their release, this practice also reflects the fact that the singer's promotional team did not initially service the singles to country radio, either. Because Beyoncé has always been classified as a pop and R&B artist, it should not come as a surprise that her team did not immediately promote the singles to country formats.

Country music as a genre ≠ the format of country radio

As Amy Coddington, an assistant professor of music at Amherst College and the author of the book How Hip Hop Became Hit Pop: Radio, Rap, and Race, explains, "Radio isn't music, radio uses music. The whole point of playing music is to cultivate a certain demographic." In other words, radio formats have primarily not been defined by sonic boundaries, but by specific audiences that the stations (and their advertisers) want to target. Country format radio stations have almost never thought of their listeners, or the artists they use to obtain those listeners, as anything but white.

Despite the genre's multiracial roots, country music has always been marketed with only a white audience in mind. When it was first invented as a marketing category in the 1920s, it was sold as hillbilly and old-time music and was associated with a white, rural and Southern audience. This category was established alongside the creation of "race records," which was designated for Black artists and consumers.

The artificial separation of these categories did not reflect how musicians and fans enjoyed music in practice. Instead, it was a testament to the era of Jim Crow segregation that dictated life in the early-20th-century South. Music executives did not permit Black artists to record songs that they identified as hillbilly or old time, which whitewashed the presence of Black fiddlers and banjo players, even in spite of the latter instrument's African roots. (More recently, musicians like Rhiannon Giddens — who is featured on "Texas Hold 'Em" — and Dom Flemons have worked to reclaim this history.)

By the 1950s, format-based radio emerged as a new marketing technique to attract specific listening audiences. One of the earliest formats established was the Top 40 station, which evolved alongside the growth of rock and roll and a growing teenage demographic that was the format's target. Another new format was the easy listening station, which played middle-of-the-road pop music that was intended to reach an adult, middle-class (and implicitly white) audience. R&B stations were intended for a Black audience. The benefit of crafting specific targeted audiences was that stations understood that if they reliably played a certain type of music, they could reach a particular demographic interested in that music. In turn, those listeners proved valuable to advertisers drawn to the thought of playing commercials for an audience specifically targeted to what was being sold. Ad revenue kept stations in business and playing music.

The perception of country music as a genre associated with a poor, rural and Southern demographic meant that the country radio format faced unique challenges during this new era. When the Country Music Association was founded in 1958 as a trade organization for members of the country music business, its primary goal was producing market research that showed country listeners were, in fact, middle-class (and implicitly white) and, as such, could be presented as attractive to advertisers who would, in turn, fund the creation of more country radio stations.

One of the earliest boosts to the country radio format did not come from the CMA, but an album that was not even played on the format. When Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962, its success brought a new level of legitimacy to country music. Hugh Cherry, an influential country radio deejay from the 1940s to 1970s, later reflected that the album was "one of the great boons to country music," adding that it "took country music to an audience who had never been presented with it." Still, Modern Sounds failed to be identified as a country album because Charles was Black. Instead, it was played on pop, R&B and easy listening formats. It was not until 2021 that the CMA formally recognized Charles' contribution to country music and its members voted to induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Joining forces, carving out space of their own

Modern Sounds may be the closest historical precedent to the current moment, when another Black star outside of the industry is bringing country music into mainstream conversations in new ways. (Other exceptions include Tina Turner's 1974 Grammy-nominated album Tina Turns the Country On! and The Pointer Sisters' Grammy-winning song from the same year, "Fairytale.") But unlike Charles, Beyoncé is now receiving airplay on at least some country radio stations and opening possible new avenues of acceptance for Black artists in country music.

But for all the discourse surrounding Beyoncé's reception on country radio, it is important to remember that, as one of the biggest celebrities in the world, she will continue to have a successful career no matter how the country music industry receives her. The same cannot be guaranteed for the many Black country artists of the past and present who have fought for recognition in the genre.

When Cleve Francis — the only Black artist signed to a major country record deal in the early 1990s — was dropped by Liberty Records in 1995, he cited a lack of radio airplay among reasons he didn't succeed in the genre. Later that year, he established the Black Country Music Association (BCMA) to create community and opportunity for Black country artists, and to educate the public on the history of Black country music.

Frankie Staton, who first came to Nashville to pursue a music career in the early 1980s and who oversaw the BCMA in its early years, says Beyoncé's inclusion on country radio represents a hopeful moment: "For Black Country Artists of the past, it validates our efforts. For present artists, hopefully, it will open doors ... for the future artists, it will stop the inquisitions into why they are playing country music, and [claims of] 'I don't know of any Black Country Singers,' for the world knows who Beyoncé is."

A generation after the BMCA was created, Black country artists and fans who are working in the genre every day continue to push for recognition and sustainable careers, even if it means building new platforms to do so. In 2020, singer Rissi Palmer created the radio show "Color Me Country" to promote the music of Black, Latinx and Indigenous country artists. The show is named for the 1970 album by Linda Martell, the first Black woman to earn a hit on the country music charts. Martell's granddaughter, Quia Thompson, is working on a documentary about her grandmother. In 2021, a country music fan named Holly G founded the Black Opry for Black country artists and fans. Since then, the organization has blossomed to create a record label, Black Opry Records.

It remains to be seen whether Beyoncé's presence on country radio will make the format more open to playing artists of color in the future. So far, there is not indication the singles have challenged the system and its goal of targeting affluent white listeners. As one country radio programmer recently told Variety, "​​The core country audience is still that 35-to-45-year-old soccer mom, and they don't just listen to country, they listen to pop, where Beyoncé has a huge impact. So why wouldn't it work?"

Whether or not this moment changes future programming at country radio, it is clear Beyoncé's foray into country music has helped shed light on the presence of Black country artists. Artists like Tanner Adell, whose song "Buckle Bunny" includes the lyric, "looking like Beyoncé with a lasso," have noted the profile boost "Texas Hold 'Em" has given them, revealing the strong demand for Black country artists and a growing community of Black country fans who will continue to build and broaden long legacies of Black country music.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amanda Marie Martínez

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