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The tide of Black women in country is a phenomenon that much of the world has suddenly become aware of, thanks to Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter” and the lesser-known artists being championed through guest slots on the album. Does this mark the true signal change that advocates for diversity in country have long dreamed of? Or is the real progress within the ranks of the music industry that could allow young Black country artists so lacking that the current excitement might be destined to go down as a glorious blip?

These were among the topics of a presentation by the Black Music Action Coalition at Live Nation’s Beverly Hills headquarters Wednesday, with Mickey Guyton, songwriter-artist INK (who is a key contributor to “Cowboy Carter”) and academic researcher Dr. Jada Watson among the panelists offering both hopeful and cautious thoughts on the genre’s progress. Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, the BMAC’s CEO-president, asked many of the tough questions, joined by Billboard moderators Melnda Newman (who oversees the magazine’s Nashville coverage) and Gail Mitchell (who manages R&B and hip-hop reporting).

Beyond a Q&A with the well-established star Guyton, the gathering at Live Nation also offered a performance by Carmen Dianne, a young singer championed by the Black Opry movement, and just the kind of aspirant who could benefit from the current wave of receptivity to Black women artists, if it indeed endures. It’s a sign of just how influential Guyton has been — but also how rare she has been — that Dianne used part of her short stage time to cover Guyton’s “Black Like Me.” Dianne cited Guyton’s role modeling as critical in her passion to pursue country: “I remember where I was when Michael Jackson died,” Dianne said, “and I remember where I was when my mama told me there was a Black girl country singer. And that’s just made the hugest difference in my life.”

In the future, will a young girl with Dianne’s inclinations be able to easily point toward just one? “Cowboy Carter” is giving a leg up to Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Tanner Adell and Tiera Kennedy. What comes next for them and others like them remains to be seen.

“If we don’t take this moment and turn it into a movement, we let us all down,” Prophet said in his introductory remarks.

Watson cautioned that there is a huge disparity between the journalistic attention and any kind of airplay that extends beyond OK returns at country radio for “Texas Hold ‘Em.”

“Country radio really is the distribution engine that controls the industry,” Watson said, “and in 2023, songs by black women received 0.02% of the airplay. And so when ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ came out… I will stress that they played the song… Usually it takes six to eight weeks for a song to even debut on the chart, and it hit No. 29 on March 23. It’s starting to decline, and I have genuine concerns about that. But what’s happening is that country radio is not using that as a pathway. This was like a gift to say, here’s this phenomenal song by one of the most recognizable audience artists in the world. You’re not going to get a huger artist than Beyoncé handing you this… Play it, but also recognize that you have so many Black women in Nashville that you can play alongside it. You can play Mickey. You can play Rissi Palmer, Miko Marks, Tanner Adell, Reyna Roberts, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy. You can play Roberta Lea, Julie Williams, Madeline Edwards, a whole collective called the Black Opry, et cetera… If you remove ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ from radio, songs by Black women are currently receiving 0.02% of the airplay again, and if you add that song, it’s 0.24%. So we’re still not in a great place,” Watson added, in what may count as an understatement.

The odds are tough enough with the major-label support that Guyton has had, but among the artists name-checked by Watson, only Spencer is signed to a Nashville powerhouse. “I don’t think it hurts to mention names,” she said: “Both Tanner and Tiera lost their deals around the time that the Beyonce record came out.”

As far as INK is concerned, that development was probably for the best. “How stupid do you think Tiera and Tanner’s labels feel right now?” said the songwriter. “I’m glad they made that decision because now (the women are) empowered. It’s like you (the labels) don’t deserve to win, if you keep missing opportunities… I love the fact that (Kennedy and Adell) ate down on this album, they got dropped from the same label, and now they’re popping. Now they have the leverage.

“But even with that,” INK continued, “I still see a problem, because these four ladies have separate identities and they were put on a song by Beyoncé. And now I see they just want to group them all together, but you still have to recognize individuality. It is not just about, ‘Oh, let’s put these four together, ’cause Beyoncé put these four together. It is the people at the labels, and the people running the award shows, that have to find moments for people’s individualities to show.” (At the recent CMT Music Awards, the four women presented an award together, but Spencer was given her own performance slot, singing a duet with Parker McCollum.)

Melinda Newman, Dr. Jada Watson, INK, Gail Mitchell and Willie “Prophet” Stiggers speak on a panel at Black Music Action Coalition, in partnership with Billboard, presents “Act II: A Conversation Around Three Chords and the Actual Truth” held at Live Nation HQ on April 24, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California.
Michael Buckner for Billboard

INK has not released her own planned album yet, although she was recently featured on a hit by the Chainsmokers. But as a songwriter, the Atlanta native had only good things to say about how she has been received in that role in Nashville.

“Shout to Kacey Musgraves,” said INK. “I actually met Kacey because Parkwood, Beyonce’s company, sent us down there and it was (Beyoncé’s) idea for us to just go to Nashville and really be on the ground and working with those types of people.” Prophet interrupted her, saying, “ I don’t want to skip past that! You just said Parkwood sent you down there to work?” INK reiterated that Parkwood’s boss encouraged her writing stable to go to Tennessee and “bring that spirit” that was coming up in “Cowboy Carter” writing situations to Nashville. “With everything she represents, being from the South, she loves that.”

And with Musgraves, INK said, “Kacey was amazing. We made five songs in one day … We were writing a song and took a lunch break, and we were sitting on the couch, eating our food… and I just started singing something and Kacey goes, ‘Stop. What’s that? Whatever that is, put the chicken down.… I’m 100% real. This is special and you need to record this right now.’ So I recorded it in one take, and it’s actually gonna be a song that I’m gonna use for my album. But that’s what it takes. It takes people to recognize and to say, ‘This is something special. Let’s push it to the forefront and rally around this until it becomes special.’ Because I only got here by people recognizing the special, and I only got here by people wanting to help.”

INK attends Black Music Action Coalition’s Act II: A Conversation Around “Three Chords and the Actual Truth,” Featuring Mickey Guyton at Live Nation on April 24, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California.
Getty Images for Black Music Act

Guyton also had positive experiences to cite, amid all the reasons for cynicism. In her separate Q&A at Live Nation, she said, “If I see someone that I think is talented, I am going to call anybody that I know and say, ‘Sign this person.’ For example, the War and Treaty is now signed to my record label. Cindy Mabe (the UMG Nashville chief) found them through me. And I know y’all know Ms. Tanya (Trotter) did ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ in ‘Sister Act 2.’ That woman is everything to me. And that is how you see real change, using your platform to help someone else. We’re so in this ‘There’s only one spot’ mentality because we fought for wherever we are. … But you giving somebody else a platform isn’t gonna take away from you; if anything it’s going to make you look better.”

But Guyton has been in this too long to have offered the BMAC audience any false hopes about charting real progress.

Referring back to music companies’ pledged commitments to do their part to enact reform in response to the racial controversies surrounding several racially charged murders four years ago, Guyton said, “You know, when this movement first happened in 2020, I was seeing change and we were allowing ourselves to have hope. And it’s 2024 now. And I’m so grateful for Beyoncé, because before that it felt like it was waning. Not felt like it  — it was. And even now, sometimes I still feel ike viral moments last like, what, two weeks? And then we’re onto the next.

“I’ve seen these viral moments happen. There’s a group called Chapel Heart that had this major viral moment on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ and they’re a super fun, Black, female country trio, and they could not get a record deal in Nashville. And I I don’t know what’s gonna happen, and that’s again why I will drill this in everybody’s mind, or I’m at least try to do that: We must show the monetary value in Black art. That’s really what it boils down to.”

Mickey Guyton speaks onstage during Black Music Action Coalition’s Act II: A Conversation Around “Three Chords and the Actual Truth,” featuring Mickey Guyton at Live Nation on April 24, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California.
Getty Images for Black Music Act

Guyton grew emotional as she explained that “speaking out and calling out racism does come with a price, and I’m still healing from a lot of things that were were said to me when I was just trying to fight for equality in country music. Nothing more, nothing less. I wasn’t telling you who to vote for; I wasn’t telling you anything other than just give people an opportunity because they’re talented and they deserve the same chances… People said horrible things to me; up until before I was about to give birth to my son, I was cyberbullied, and the things that people were saying to me still mentally fuck with my head, to be perfectly honest. I have to stay off of social media and just still continue to do the work and try to show people: Hey, we’re here. Here we are in 2024 and y’all are just now finding out that I’m here. And it’s not your fault by any means.

“Nashville has been wanting to bridge the gap, and I know a lot of artists that want to see Black people at their shows, but they don’t know how. And Nashville doesn’t necessarily know how to extend the arm and or extend the olive branch… When this was starting, I remember going up to my record label and I said, ‘I’ve learned to be comfortable being in a room full of people that don’t look like me. And now it’s your turn.’

“This is a new landscape,” Guyton concluded. “We may not see the true change that we want to see in our lifetime, but this right here gives me so much hope.”

Intentionality of support is key to Guyton. “Because if they don’t see the monetary value, like they’re not gonna support us and put us on platforms that we so desperately need.” She offered the small examples she believes add up. “If every single Beyoncé fan would stream our song once every single day… I live in a predominately white neighborhood in Nashville. And my Black neighbor, I saw that he has a lawn service, and I canceled my other company that was mowing my lawn and I started supporting my neighbor… I ran into (fellow artist) Willie Jones at the airport yesterday, and there is a Black-owned pizza joint at the airport in Nashville called Slim and Huskies. Willie was like, ‘Let’s go to Slim and Huskies.’ This is what I mean by intentional consumerism. And that means in the film and television world as well, like you have to show these major corporations the monetary value in black art. Talk about it and you don’t do it.

“When this Beyoncé moment is done and all of our country fans are done with their boots and spurs, these Black country artists that you’re seeing and liking their posts, we will still remain. I’m still the only Black person in a lot of predominantly white spaces, like on actual boards, trying to help make decisions…  It’s so imperative that every single one of you, Black, white, whatever, show these corporations the monetary value in black art.”

Watson offered the audience at Live Nation historical context on how music came to be as segregated as it is, starting with, when the recording industry took the roots music that had common origins and separated it into “race” and “hillbilly” markets, the predecessors to today’s country and R&B/hip-hop worlds. “Every single decision that was made as a way to build the infrastructure and market music has been racially segregated,” Watson said, “and it is 100% percent still going on today. And if you think your DSPs are any different, they are not.”

Although the DSPs speak about promoting diversity, Watson said the algorithms keep underserved communities of artists in their own bubbles. “Spotify makes these curated playlists, right? So they have the Black country playlist, they have the Latino country Playlist, they have the women of country playlist, and so on. That’s the only place you’re going to find these artists, because they’ve been put in this digital siloed box. So if you then go to Rissi Palmer’s page and scroll down to the bottom and you’re looking for recommendations of who sounds like who, all of the artists at the bottom of the page are going to be the artists on the Black country playlist, because that’s the only place you see Rissi’s name in DSP training data is next to those other artists.”

Watson frankly cast doubts on how much this recent viral moment for Black female artists will create lasting results. “The streaming data suggests that there’s an appetite for it,” she said. “These four remarkable women who are all unsigned except for Brittney Spencer, their Instagram followers have gone up, their Spotify followers have gone up. their monthly listenership has bloody skyrocketed. But the concern — and this is where I am just nervous, and this is why you need to heed Mickey’s advice and stream — is that the conversion rate from followers to actual dedicated listeners has dropped to the floor. It’s one thing to go over and follow. It’s another thing to keep listening, keep streaming, come back, listen to new songs, listen to old songs, because actually that conversion rate is negative right now. And on the one hand, it’s fine because there’s still this rise in followers. But that’s going to plateau when Beyonce moves on to ‘Act 3.’ So, actually go and stream them consistently, and stay with them and follow them and go to their shows and buy their merch, because that conversion rate is troubling.”

Watson spoke of “the double bind of being a woman and a Black woman specifically in this space that is governed by white supremacy.” She said the fact that “the next generation is starting to come up and break through some of that systemic foundation” is countered by the fact that the problem may be “too ingrained, because they use the data that I’m talking about to make their business decisions. … They have yet to figure out that you actually need to put in women and artists of color to actually see them on the charts. You’re never going to get a chart that’s going to have Black artists or biracial artists or Mexican American artists if you aren’t putting them on radio, if you are not signing them to your labels, if you are not investing in their careers. You’re never gonna get it out if you’re never gonna put it in.”

A big part of the BMAC’s mission is to get more Black workers in positions of power — or any positions — in the industry so that these artists don’t seem so foreign. That is already happening to some degree in Nashville, as Guyton extolled just how many Black execs Mabe has hired since taking over the top spot at UMG Nashville. INK, for her part, spoke to being invited to a meeting of execs at BMI Nashville recently, and how receptive she found them, even though it was an all-white gathering, or seemed to be. The execs in question kept talking nervously about how they were waiting for a latecomer to show up, and INK was heartened to find the person in question turned out to be a Black woman in charge of marketing.

Watson put artist develpment historically in stark perspective: “Black artists have always been here, and I think this is a really important moment to say a few names. I’m just gonna name the Black women who have charted in country music. Let’s start with Linda Martel, who charted three songs in ’69-70. Then it was Ruby Falls, who charted nine songs in the 1970s. In 1974, the Pointer Sisters… Then in 1987, we have Dona Mason and Nisha Jackson, who each charted one song. In 1988, Kathy Bee charted a song. In 2008, Rissi Palmer charted three songs. And then in 2015, Mickey Guyton charted a song. And then in 2024, Beyonce charted ‘Texas Hold ‘Em.’” The applause from the audience gradually died down as this list went on, as its brevity and the huge recent gaps became apparent. “I have literally just named every — excuse my language — fucking Black woman who has ever charted in the history of that industry. Every one of them.”

Watson emphasized that there were no single easy answers to reverse this — just difficult-to-fathom combinations of solutions. “We need to think about holistic change. We’ve seen what happens when they throw Mickey Guyton in, but then they don’t support her. So you can’t just add and stir the missing ingredients to the industry. It’s never going to change because the system is white supremacist. If that system doesn’t change, then adding in whomever is missing is just going to be like another Tiera or Tanner being booted from their label because they don’t perform the way the white industry expects them to because they’re not designed to support them.

“Radio needs to change not only how they program, but how they also test audiences. Labels need to become more diverse so they can sign artists and then not put those artists in unsafe spaces. Because let’s face it, the touring circuit for country is a really problematic space for most Black audiences and Black musicians. So it really is holistic. You have to think about every level, from the artist to the songwriter, engineer, producer, everyone making the music, selling the music, promoting the music, distributing the music, and where it’s performed. It needs to be a wholesale wide, sweeping effort to understand the way in which this system is not safe in its current structure.”

Offered INK: “We need to be in the building, but a lot of times the building wasn’t built for us to enter. So if it was never designed for us to be in there, they’re just protecting what they feel like is theirs. So now it’s up to us to just come in and do our own thing. We’ve gotta open up our own Black country labels. It ain’t gotta be just for Black; if you’re white, we’ll sign you too, baby! If you’re rocking. But we have to have visions for ourselves and for our communities.”

Carmen Dianne performs at Black Music Action Coalition, in partnership with Billboard, presents “Act II: A Conversation Around Three Chords and the Actual Truth” held at Live Nation HQ on April 24, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California.
Michael Buckner for Billboard

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