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Beyoncé's Act II and Country's Black Roots: Theater Arts Professor Discusses The Genre's History

In a Q&A segment, Pat Parks, a professor in the Howard University College of Fine Arts, discusses Beyoncé's pivot to country, Black country artists, and the genre's ties to other Black American music genres.

Beyonce Knowles-Carter

While musician and megastar Beyoncé achieved the historic feat of becoming the first Black women to sit atop of the U.S. and U.K. country charts since “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” went no. 1 on February 22, the beloved Black-American legend has already ruffled the feathers of country music’s landscape, showcasing its racist past as the genre is systemically, dominated and culturally embraced by white Americans.  

Pat Parks is an assistant professor in the College of Fine Arts who specializes in the entertainment industry at the intersection of culture and commerce. A practitioner, professional entertainment consultant, and Memphis, Tenn. native, Parks engaged in a question-and-answer segment about country’s misconceptions as a white genre, and how Beyoncé’s musicianship has created a ripple effect of awareness around the genre’s Black roots and its descendants today.  


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How has country served as the soundtrack to Black American life? 

PP: As a Memphian, with those roots, country serves as the soundtrack to my Black American family because it was their way of life.  

Many of the people that I know, our great grandparents in Tennessee, grew up on folk music and bluegrass. My grandmother’s favorite artists are Willie Nelson and Kenny Rodgers, you can’t get more folk than that, and they of course grew up on traditional gospel. The majority of those people grew up in the country. They were farmers and some of them were sharecroppers even. Music was a means to push through, so those stories that country music tell, they resonate with those people who have a very rustic life. 

So it’s always been present. 

That's one of the things that is so confounding for me with a lot of generally white critiques of Black people wanting to be ‘included in the conversation.’ As it relates to country, the critique is often on the basis of ‘You don't live this life’ when, in fact, we do. So, from the cultural resonance and credibility standpoint, a lot have that card and the card does not decline. 

This is a whole ’nother aspect of who we are as Black people in this country, and a lot of it has spiritual ties and roots. A lot of it has ties to our ancestral DNA, and our ancestral experience. From the slave songs to the spirituals to gospel to blues to modern R&B, jazz and what we know as hillbilly music that's now country music, that line is drawn directly from slave music. 

From a cultural and commerce perspective, what are some of the systemic discriminations that racial minorities in the country music landscape typically face? 

PP: An infinitesimal percentage of Black country artists are breaking through, and that is because of systemic discrimination. It’s coming from your programming directors at the radio station and is coming from the executives that refuse to play Black country music artist’s videos. You cannot chart if people are not listening to your music. You cannot chart if you’re not being streamed.  So, from a systematic standpoint, you are excluded. So, you could be making the best, most traditional country music, you could be making contemporary country where there’s some fusion involved, but if no one hears it, you know nothing is happening. From the standpoint of the apparatus of the music industry, if you cannot get airplay, if you cannot get streams, you cannot get above the line in media. It’s almost as if you don’t exist to the broader audience.  

In the last 10 years, a few hundred Black artists have made country music albums. It’s not that we’re not part of the “country community,” however you can count on one hand the number of Black artists that have made it into the top 10 on the Billboard country music charts. The same thing has actually happened for women of any color as women are largely excluded from the country music airwaves. 

Beyoncé has tapped other Black country professionals such as Rhiannon Giddons, who champions the banjo as a Black American instrument. How important is Beyoncé working with other Black country artists who speak to its Black history?   

PP: Rhiannon, Mickey Guyton, and other rising stars like Camille Parker, or even K. Michelle, they all benefit from a huge talent like Beyoncé shining a light in the space, which provides light for them in many ways that they have been waiting on for years, if not decades.  

How important is that as other Black artist reclaim country’s Black origins? 

The numbers don’t lie and the spike in streams and views of their music on YouTube and other platforms have hit triple digits just in the last week or so because Beyoncé has been introduced into the country music genre. My hope is that that continues with Beyoncé’s inclusion and reclamation of the country music genre for herself and other Black and other marginalized artists.  

I believe if she helps support the infrastructure that is already in place to push more diverse talent in, that would be a win no matter how she did it. We just need someone like Beyoncé to shine a light on it and to lock arms with those that are really doing the work and have been doing the work right. Sometimes it takes a greater cultural influence to shift the culture. 

Where does 16 CARRIAGES and TEXAS HOLD ‘EM fall on the country music spectrum?   

PP: Country music is very vast, and culturally, country music started to be more of a fusion of genres in the last few decades. I would say Beyoncé falls right of center on the ever-expanding country music continuum where it’s becoming a little bit more progressive and pop. 

16 CARRIAGES as a ballad would be more of that traditional, left-leaning, Dierks Bentley, Reba McEntire sound and I think TEXAS HOLD ‘EM is definitely that Casey Musgraves, Taylor Swift, Shania Twain area of country. 

Beyoncé's Country Music Awards performance with The Chicks in 2017 garnered racist backlash. How does that moment foreshadow what Beyoncé is currently experiencing and what lies for Act II?   

PP: History is repeating itself, because racism is like an old habit. It dies hard. We can see that with how the radio stations responded, and that’s what we can look forward to. [KYKC radio station] declined to play the music because he had never heard the song. Now that’s a problem. What I take more issue with is that radio executive didn’t even inquire to the label. ‘Hey, does Beyoncé have a country CD coming out that we don’t know about?’ That wasn’t even an inquiry before he pulled himself together to write an e-mail to say, ‘principally, we will not be playing Beyoncé’s music at our station.’ He’s since retracted that statement but had this not hit the news, he would’ve, as the kids say, ‘stood on business’ and maintained that he wasn’t playing Beyoncé, and that often reflexive, exclusionary [response] is part of our culture. It’s an exhausting yet predictable outcome that we come to expect not just as artists but as Black people in America.  

In a way, this is just a very traditionally American response. 

PP: The racism that we experience in a number of industries, inclusive of the music industry, often seems to have a stubbornness to it that is hard to quit. So, when you have folks like Beyoncé with an outsized brand and outsized talent in so many areas of entertainment face the backlash... just think if you don’t have that brand power, that brand recognition, and you’re an upstart, emerging talent in the music industry, you’re going to get door after door closed. And its going to take so much more for you to persist in the genre and even more to breakthrough in country.  

But I’m sure you’ve seen several stories of “10 Black Country Female Artists to Watch,” kinds of publicity or stories. These 10 Black female artists, dare I say 100, have been waiting in the wings for years. Beyoncé being who she is just gives outlets a reason to compile these lists. For this, I am glad Beyoncé has entered the proverbial chat and caused what could be a true Renaissance in country music for Black and other marginalized artists.  

With the release of two country songs “16 CARRIAGES” and “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” Beyoncé announced that Act II of her RENAISSANCE era will be a country album, paying homage to her Houston roots. The album is set to be released on March 29.

Pat Parks, Assistant Professor and Area Coordinator (Theatre Arts Administration)  

Prof. Pat Parks (they/them) grew up in Memphis, studied voice and dance, and received their undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and graduate degree from Harvard. Parks began their career in government and corporate roles as a CIA Profiler, management consultant, and business psychologist & executive coach for Fortune 500 companies. Parks has consulted for marketing/PR firms, artist development companies, production studios, and record labels. Most recently, they were named the Success Coach for the inaugural mtheory/Country Music Television (CMT) Equal Access Program created to provide racial minorities and LGBTQIA+ artists and artist managers greater access to the country music ecosystem. Prof. Parks also worked with Wasserman Music to bring an accelerator to the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts featuring agents, tour managers, executives, and artists.   
Areas of Expertise: performance outcomes in the entertainment ecosystem, entertainment industry career trajectories and success of racial minorities & LGBTQIA + leaders, racial minorities and LGBTQIA+ individuals' activism in the arts, technology in the arts economy (e.g., AI, augmented reality, etc.) 

Professor Parks