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On the surface, Beyoncé and Sacha have little in common.

Where Beyoncé was born in Houston, Sacha grew up in the tiny town of Warkworth, Ont. While the former was inspired to become a musician by a larger-than-life Michael Jackson concert, the latter credits her passion to the soulful Patsy Cline records her mother would play on repeat. 

And when at 17 Beyoncé had released her debut album with superstar group Destiny’s Child, Sacha was living on her own, working at Tim Hortons and only dreaming about getting behind the mic one day. 

But after Beyoncé released her recent country singles Texas Hold ‘Em and 16 Carriages, Sacha (who performs under her first name) saw her career linked with the superstar for three reasons: they’re women, they’re Black and they’re making country music. 

“Usually when people find out that I’m a country music artist, there’s this record scratching sound in the background,” Sacha said. “And it’s like, huh, like, shouldn’t you be singing this [other] type of music?”

A woman sings onstage with her arm outstretched.
Canadian country musician Sacha performs at a rehearsal in Toronto. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

As Beyoncé became the first Black woman to hit No.1 on Hot Country Songs in February, and with Friday’s release of her full country album, Cowboy Carter, that perception is starting to shift. They’re each testing how, and whether, the world of country music will adapt to accept more Black artists — both in the short-term and the long-term.

“[I] wake up the next morning, and I’m in Time magazine right up with a few other country acts that are female and of colour,” Sacha said, referencing one of many articles highlighting Black contribution to country music that were published following Beyoncé’s high-profile releases.

“Beyoncé was obviously the forefront of the write-up. But to have our names mentioned in there was an opportunity that we might not have gotten otherwise.”

‘A thrilling moment’

Sacha is among a slew of Black country artists riding what songwriter and My Black Country author Alice Randall calls a renaissance for Black country musicians. Even before Beyoncé’s foray into the genre kicked off conversations from both fans and critics, Randall said more listeners were becoming aware of Black musicians’ historical contributions to the genre.

“I think it’s a thrilling moment,” she said. “[The album] spotlights Beyoncé’s genius, yes, but also puts a light on all this other creative genius that is floating in country and Black-country space.”

A woman faces to the left of the frame. She is smiling slightly and lit by bands of light from a nearby window.
American author and songwriter Alice Randall says there has been a glass ceiling for Black women in country music. (Shore Fire Media)

During her 40 years in that space, Randall has seen a glass ceiling. Contemporary Black country artists like Rissi Palmer, Rhiannon Giddens and Canada’s Allison Russell each met similar obstacles — a lack of chart success despite incredible talent, followed by the assumption they can’t and shouldn’t make country music because they didn’t have the talent, the look or the discipline.

After the success of Beyoncé’s Texas Hold ‘Em, Randall says those ideas can rightly be thrown out the window. 

“But it suggests that there was something else. Why did people want to say that?,” Randall said. “Since I know Rhiannon Giddens had everything she needed to be at the top of the charts, I know Rissi Palmer had everything she needed to be at the top of the charts, I leave it to those people to discuss why they did not get to the top of the charts.”

‘Race records’ and ‘hillbilly music’

The reason is embedded in the industry’s history, University of Ottawa assistant professor and country music researcher Jada Watson argues.

Going back to the 1920s, record labels in the then-emerging industry categorized much of American music by the supposed ethnicity of its audience. Songs were labelled through marketing categories as either “hillbilly” or “race” records, with the former referring to “old time” music marketed to largely rural white populations, and the latter to jazz, blues and gospel music targeting Black listeners.

Those terms would eventually evolve into the genres of “country and western” and “R&B and soul,” Watson said. While those better reflected the style of music, that “racially encoded structural foundation” has continued to inform which artists are expected to succeed. 

That’s partially why Black artists have been absent from the charts, she said. Between 1958 and 2016, 95 per cent of songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart were by white artists, she said. And while there are recent public success stories such as Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, those three collectively hold over 90 per cent of airplay given to Black country artists in the United States. 

Airplay of Black country artists has remained at about one per cent over the last five years in both Canada and the United States, Watson said, and even huge success for a small few does little to open the doors for other Black artists, especially women.

“It’s sort of a form of tokenism, by pointing to three artists and saying that they’re representative,” she said. “Or that their successes stand in for all the Black artists who aren’t getting airplay.”

Portrait of Darius Rucker holding a guitar.
Darius Rucker and two others hold over 90 per cent of airplay given to Black country artists in the United States. (dariusrucker.com)

It could also inform whether the attention on Beyoncé’s country music changes those patterns. As her next album will be a collaboration with her husband Jay-Z, Beyoncé’s direct involvement in country music will likely end or greatly taper off. After that media spotlight ends, Watson said, the focus on Black country artists — and especially non-male Black country artists — could founder. 

“If the industry doesn’t respond to her being part of the ecosystem by also programming songs by the Black female country artists who’ve been there for decades,” she said, “then this is really not going to move the needle for women in the industry, specifically for Black women in the industry.”

Tricky choices

D’orjay has similar concerns. The Edmonton-based artist (who uses they/them pronouns) said they recognize and appreciate the increased interest. But that it took someone with as much sway as Beyoncé to make an impact underlines how difficult it is for smaller Black country artists to make inroads.

LISTEN | D’orjay on country music and Black queerness: 

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Edmonton-based artist D’orjay is a longtime country music fan. But is the industry ready for the singer’s ‘Black queer flow’?

With virtually none of Beyoncé’s resources, D’orjay said, they have had to make self-limiting decisions about their own music. 

“When I apply to put my music in the Junos and stuff like that, I’m making a choice,” they said. “If I want to stay true to myself I want to enter in [as a] country album, but there’s no way I’m getting votes. If I go into the alternative routes that I have, I’m probably going to have a better probability of getting the votes.”

If someone as powerful and successful as Beyoncé raises eyebrows when they opt for country, that doesn’t bode well for others’ chances, D’orjay said. 

“If we see Beyoncé getting that pushback, what do you think that we are experiencing here down in the trenches?”

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