The song of the summer for 2019 has unquestionably been Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’, featuring 1990s country icon, Billy Ray Cyrus. As of 10 June, the country-hip hop crossover hit has topped Billboard’s ‘Hot 100’ chart for 10 weeks. It will probably soon eclipse Drake’s ‘In My Feelings’, the most recent 10-week top hit, released in the summer of 2018, and is creeping steadily closer to the record of 16 weeks, held by Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’ and Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s ‘One Sweet Day’.
Unlike those other top songs, though, ‘Old Town Road’ first appeared on Billboard’s country charts, an origin that not only makes it rare but also controversial. Since the song was first released in December, its popularity has been accompanied by confusion and outrage – not because its sound isn’t country, but because its singer is black.
In March, Billboard chose to pull Lil Nas X’s song from its country charts – where it had reached No. 19, and would have inevitably reached No. 1 – ostensibly for failing to embrace “enough elements of today’s country music”, while keeping it on the R&B/Hip Hop charts. More recently, many white country fans have taken to Twitter to voice their anger over Lil Nas X’s recent sponsorship deal with Wrangler jeans, a brand that has been connected with cowboy and rodeo culture since the 1940s.
Clearly, for the self-deputised gatekeepers of the country genre, Lil Nas X and his song do not belong.
For a genre that has historically been primarily associated with white artists and audiences, country music has always drawn heavily on African American musical influences, especially the blues. As a musical and poetic form and a performance aesthetic (the ‘man and guitar’ style, for instance), the blues has been the common denominator for nearly every country figure, from Jimmie Rodgers to Eric Church.
In terms of instrumentation, too, country and its adjacent genres, especially bluegrass, have leaned heavily on sounds derived from African and African American music. The banjo, for instance, finds its likely progenitors among a set of West African string instruments: the akonting, the ubaw-akwala, the xalam and the ngoni. If these instruments themselves did not cross the Middle Passage, knowledge of instrument design and performance style certainly did. Musically, then, country music has always been entangled with black culture.
But from very early on in the history of the country genre, artists, audiences and other key stakeholders, Billboard among them, worked to elide or erase that entanglement. When Billboard first started tracking country music hits in 1939, it did so on a chart called ‘Hillbilly Hits’ that was specifically mindful of sales to white audiences, either those in rural parts of the United States or those who had migrated to larger, urban centres. The blues, meanwhile, was lumped in with all other African American recorded production, ranging from jazz to comedy, under the now-infamous signifier ‘race records’. However much in common Rodgers and his blues contemporaries may have had musically, on the charts they were separated based on race.
These same racialised categories endure today on the Billboard charts, albeit with sanitised nomenclature. When the organisation finally did away with the “race records” category in 1949, it inaugurated the ‘rhythm and blues’ genre to replace it. Although rhythm and blues isn’t as messy as ‘race records’ either musically or politically, it nevertheless includes an impossibly huge breadth of music.
In recent years, a number of black artists have objected forcefully to the restrictive character of the R&B/Hip Hop chart, decrying the persistent notion that, despite no longer officially being designated ‘race records’, the updated chart works in a pretty similar way. In effect, the vast majority of African American artists end up on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, while white artists can be placed there or anywhere else.
Even before Cyrus had anything to do with it, ‘Old Town Road’ could easily qualify as a country rap or country trap tune, both well-established subgenres under the country designation. In fact, it’s worth observing that Lil Nas X doesn’t rap at all on the track.
More to the point: There has been comparatively little controversy over the incorporation of rap into the genre if it comes via white artists, including stars Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line (both of whom have spoken out in support of Lil Nas X) And yet Billboard pulled ‘Old Town Road’, a song with similar themes, after only a few weeks.
Why is a white artist permitted to stay on the country charts with a rap-based single, while a black artist is removed for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music?” The answer seems clear: It has little to do with the sound of the music, and everything to do with the race of the performer.
Mark Laver is an assistant professor of music at Grinnell College, where he teaches classes on jazz and popular music. © 2019, The Washington Post.