Beyoncé Is The Renaissance And The Reclamation

beyoncé cowboy carter country music album beyonce

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

When Beyoncé announced in a Verizon ad at the 2024 Super Bowl that she was releasing a new album, it quite literally broke the internet. To find out that the album is country? Oh let me tell you I yee’d and I haw’d. But even one of the most awarded singers of all time can’t evade the casual racism pointed at Black artists who venture into country music.

It’s only been a month since she announced her new album (Cowboy Carter, release date: March 29) and Beyoncé has not only dominated the charts with the first two singles ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ and ‘16 Carriages’, but she’s also ignited a conversation about the role of Black artists in the origins of country music. 

Fans, like myself, have thrown on our cowboy hats to support our queen and examine every Easter egg that Beyoncé has dropped, so let’s unpack it all.

Saddle Up, Beyoncé’s New Album Is Country 

Listen, I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of country music. It’s just not a genre I’ve found myself connecting to. In saying that, ‘Daddy Lessons’, which is a country song, was a standout from Beyoncé’s Lemonade. So that’s food for thought. But it wasn’t until Beyoncé released ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ and ‘16 Carriages’ that I found myself entering my country era. Talk about impact! 

Renaissance was a profound cultural moment, especially for queer people of colour who saw themselves in the music. From all accounts thus far, it’s safe to say that Cowboy Carter will have a similar effect. It’s already shaping up to be one of the biggest albums of the year and it was only just announced. 

I thought I couldn’t get any more excited about new Beyoncé music — but then I heard that she might have a cover of ‘Jolene’ on the album. The source? None other than the queen of country music herself, Dolly Parton, who said that she cleared a request to sample or cover her 1973 classic. “I think it’s probably gonna be on her country album, which I’m very excited about,” Dolly said and now my ears need to be blessed with the heavenly sounds that will be Beyoncé’s ‘Jolene’. 

Cowboy Carter has already made history, making Beyoncé the first Black woman in history to earn a Number 1 single on the Hot 100 with a country song. ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ was the fastest selling song in the US in 2024, selling 500,000 units in under two weeks. Beyoncé also became the first Black woman to ever debut at Number 1 on the Hot Country Songs Chart and the second woman to ever do so, alongside Taylor Swift. 

The influence Beyoncé has on the music industry, and culture at large, is undeniable. She’s now secured Number 1 hits across seven different Billboard multimetric songs charts as a soloist. And yet, despite this towering stature, she still hasn’t been accepted by the country music industry.

The Racism Has Already Started 

The announcement that Beyoncé would be going country stirred up a great deal of conversation about who is allowed to make country music. You’d think that a woman who was born and raised in Houston, Texas would qualify. But no. From what we witnessed online, there’s a great deal of racism within the country music industry.

This isn’t new. Country music has been profiting off of racism for years now — going as far back as the 1920s and ‘30s. The space is still so heavily guarded that it simply can’t handle a Black woman — even Beyoncé — entering it. When ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ and ‘16 Carriages’ were released, some country music stations in the US, like Oklahoma’s KYKC, refused to play the new songs telling a fan who requested them, “we do not play Beyoncé as we are a country music station.” As the tweet from the fan went viral there was a petition (with over 28,000 signatures) demanding country music stations play the new songs. 

According to another fan, a different Oklahoma station played the song and the host said “the music is country, the instruments are country, but something else about it makes me think it’s not country.” That “something else”, one could speculate, would be that Beyoncé is a Black woman. 

Even media outlets can’t bring themselves to call the album country. Variety referred to the album as “country-themed”, even after the name was announced with very clear country visuals and songs. 

This isn’t Beyoncé’s first time experiencing racist vitriol from the country music industry. Back in 2016, she performed ‘Daddy Lessons’ with The Chicks at the County Music Awards. It was an exceptional performance and one that I think about often. It didn’t stop conservative country fans from expressing their racism. The pressure led to CMA pulling the performance from their website (which they denied). 

The outcry was a reminder of who holds the keys to the gates country music. We were reminded again when Lil Nas X released ‘Old Town Road’. When country fans demanded Billboard remove the song from the country charts, they did just that. Billboard said, after “further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts”. Billboard was immediately accused of feeding into the narrative that Black people were not allowed to make country music, especially not a gay Black teenager. It wasn’t until Billy Ray Cyrus, who said the song was “so obvious[ly]” country when he first heard it, remixed the song that it was allowed to reenter the country charts. 

White artists who decide to make country music don’t seem to have the same experience. Even Lana Del Rey, of whom I am a heavily devoted fan, generated very little controversy when she said she was making a country album. Much like Elle King pivoting from rock to country with her successful album Come Get Your Wife.  

Just recently, Maren Morris said she was stepping away from country music because the industry continues to refuse to acknowledge the racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism that’s embedded in the genre. Popular country music singer Jason Aldean’s ‘Try That in a Small Town’ music video and lyrics were seen as a “racist dog whistle” that attacked the protests against police violence and alluded to lynchings of Black people. 

Obviously, not all country fans hold such narrow minded views. In fact, some are embracing Beyoncé’s venture into country, celebrating her transformation of the genre and making it her own. 

Is Beyoncé Reclaiming Music Stolen From Black People?

When Beyoncé announced that she’d be working on a three act project, starting with the Renaissance album, people originally thought that meant album, tour, and movie. Now that Cowboy Carter is officially Act II, it’s speculated that Beyoncé is seeking to reclaim the music that was stolen from Black people in three phases/genres — electronic dance, country, and rock music.  

While we don’t know if Beyoncé’s third act will actually be a rock album, it would follow the pattern. 

With Renaissance, Beyoncé was reasserting the role of Black queer and trans folk in early electronic dance music and the creation of Ballroom culture in the ‘80s. This move to country suggests that she may be trying to reclaim the genre after it was essentially stolen from Black people. It’s believed that the beginning of country music starts with the banjo, which is a descendant of the akonting, a West African instrument brought to America on slave ships. During the 1840s the banjo was exclusively used by Black people. The racist minstrel shows, which rose to popularity in the 1850s, used the banjo to mock Black music. It’s there that the banjo entered the consciousness of white America and led to the rise of hillbilly music in the 1920s. DeFord Bailey, a Black musician, was the first to play the Grand Ole Opry and heavily influenced what we know as country music. It is likely that Beyoncé is very aware of this history. 

On ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’, Beyoncé invited Rhiannon Giddens to play the banjo and viola. Giddens has long sought to educate people about the origins of the banjo and how it was used by African slaves in America before white people adopted it. 

Even the title Cowboy Carter is a nod to the Black history of country music. As fans figured out, The Carter Family is considered the “First Family of Country Music” and their success is owed to many Black musicians. The famous “Carter Scratch” was taught to Maybelle Carter by the Black guitarist Lesley Riddle. Carter is also Beyoncé’s married name so it all just falls together perfectly.

Even though Beyoncé hasn’t actually confirmed or denied any of this, we have gladly accepted the responsibility of picking  up all the clues she’s left and putting them together. What other artist can start such a stirring, restorative conversation about art and history before her album is even released? Thanks to Beyoncé’s desire to tell the truth and pay homage to the people that came before her, we are now richer for knowing this previously whitewashed history of country music. She is the Renaissance.

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Getty