Beyonce tops US Billboard Country Music charts with 'Texas Hold ‘Em’


Beyoncé topped the US Billboard Country Music charts with her single Texas Hold ‘Em. PHOTO | AFP

The typical image of a country artiste is that of a white, mostly male, singer, dressed in jeans, a cowboy hat, and boots, strumming the guitar with folksy tales of love and heartbreak, joy and despair, success and failure.

That traditional image has in recent years been turned on its head thanks to the disruption caused by artists not typically associated with the genre. Unlike in the past, when genre categorisation was clear cut, today the lines between country, pop, hip-hop, and R&B are blurred. Crossover is a trend in an era when artists often experiment across genres to reach new audiences and connect with markets which do not typically access their music.

There has been a huge uproar this week when one of the world’s biggest pop stars, Beyoncé, topped the US Billboard Country Music charts with her single Texas Hold ‘Em. The opening lyric from her 2019 single Black Parade was a hint that she had dropped about returning to her roots in Texas, one of the bastions of cowboy culture.

The 42-year-old’s foray into country music has kicked up a storm since the single was released on February 11 alongside another country song, 16 Carriages. A country music station in Oklahoma initially refused to play the song, but later added it to its playlist after an online furore driven by the Beyoncé fanbase, popularly known as Beyhive. Named after a poker game, Texas Hold ‘Em, with its uptempo and lively tone, features Grammy Award winner Rhiannon Giddens, an advocate of the reclamation of country music instruments by black musicians, playing banjo and viola.

Amid the backlash, Beyoncé’s mother, Tina, rushed to her defence posting on Instagram: “We have always celebrated cowboy culture growing up in Texas”. The 70-year-old said cowboy culture did not just belong to White culture only, but there was a huge black cowboy culture

This is not Beyoncé’s first foray into country music. In 2016 her song Daddy Lessons was rejected by the Recording Academy’s country music committee making it ineligible for the country Grammy Awards. She later performed at the Country Music Association Awards along with the Dixie Chicks (Now known as the Chicks)

Her IVY Park Adidas fashion clothing design was inspired by Black cowboys and cowgirls, celebrating the “oft-hidden history of Black pioneers within cowboy and cowgirl culture and their continued influence and impact on the American Rodeo.”

The new singles are the first releases from the second album in the trilogy of Renaissance albums, provisionally titled Act II, due on March 29, and a hint that the singer will adopt a country music edge, a huge departure from the dance and house style of its 2022 predecessor.

In the US, some critics have argued that many white country artistes incorporate black sounds into their music, while the gesture is not reciprocated for black artists venturing into the country. Tracy Chapman became the first black songwriter to win Song of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards, thanks to a cover of her 1988 song Fast Car by country star, Luke Combs, who was born two years after the original version was released.

The duo performed the song to a standing ovation during the Grammy Awards earlier in February. As Chapman told Billboard magazine, “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I am honoured to be there.”

The controversy surrounding the categorisation of Beyoncé’s new songs has rekindled the debate around country music, the composition of the style, and the barriers that exist on the path of artists outside the genre venturing into country music.

In March 2019, Billboard removed the hit song Old Town Road by rapper Lil Nas X (Montero Lamar Hill) from its Hot Country Songs chart, claiming the “rap-country” style did not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music” to make the chart. The single holds the record for the longest-running No. 1 single in the history of the US charts.

Music historians have also been digging into the past to reveal the influence of the blues and other black heritage genres on the foundation of country music. Some of the earliest performers of country music were black musicians, and the banjo, the stringed instrument that is a mainstay of country music, is based on instruments brought to the Caribbean and North America by slaves in the 17th century.

It is also impossible to ignore the impact that political polarisation in the US has had on country music, which attracts a fanbase that is largely conservative and whose views would be at odds with Beyoncé’s outspoken support of social and political causes like the Black Lives Matter campaign against police brutality.

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