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Black Artist Representation in Country Music Remains Woefully Low: New Study

Mickey Guyton
Phylicia J. L. Munn

Mickey Guyton

Recent gains for Black artists in country music show that, potentially, after decades of denial, some equity is occurring. Vocalist Mickey Guyton's nomination for best country vocal performance for Sunday’s Grammy Awards and for best new artist at April 18's ACM Awards (which she will co-host), as well as artists like Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown, who is bi-racial, routinely topping the charts, are profound steps.

However, data from a study entitled Redlining In Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020) from SongData's principal investigator, Dr. Jada Watson, shows that despite some improvement for Black artists in the past year, the genre is still woefully under-serving artists of color.

On the eve of unprecedented visibility for Guyton (the first Black female country artist to receive a Grammy nomination in 45 years since The Pointer Sisters received a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group), Watson’s 20-page report, released today (March 12) notes that even including crossover artists, only 2.7% of country radio airplay over the past two decades were for songs by BIPOC women.

According to Watson, the report focuses on the "race and ethnicity of artists, ensembles and collaborations over the last two decades. The study draws on datasets of songs played on country format radio, artists signed to the three major Nashville labels, and artists nominated for CMA and ACM awards to consider how industry practices work together to marginalize and deny opportunities to BIPOC artists."

Watson adds a telling note in light of recent events, "Because she’s talented, signed to a major label (Capitol Records Nashville), and a veteran artist, Mickey Guyton's recent success is amazing. But this report also highlights Guyton’s success occurring as simultaneously, systemic racial and gender-based inequities exist in country music that perhaps lie deeper than [this survey’s] data can denote."

Watson is not new to this space. In 2019, she released Gender on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart, 1996-2016, a study funded by the University of Ottawa and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

As for men and country airplay overall, the growth is paltry but noticeable over the past 20 years. Significantly, nearly 96% of the songs played by BIPOC artists were by men of color. Within that number, 3% growth occurred in the number of songs played by Black male artists (0.5% to 3.7%), along with a 4.5% (0.3% to 4.8%) increase in airplay length for those songs by Black male country artists.

Related to these figures are a few news notes from this year where both elevated levels of success and dynamic acclaim have been afforded to Black male performers.

Rucker’s "Beer and Sunshine's" rise to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart marked his 10th number-one country single. Additionally, Brown launched his own imprint, 1021 Entertainment, a joint venture with Sony Music Nashville, and  his own song publishing company, Verse 2 Publishing,  in tandem with  Sony Music Publishing Nashville. Sony Music Nashville has also signed African-American country performer Willie Jones (notable for the January-released civil rights anthem "American Dream").

Moreover, the study notes that because of Black women artists’ lack of airplay, they have failed to reach the Top 20 of the Billboard charts since 1969, when Linda Martell achieved the feat with “Color Him Father.” Because Black women artists have not ranked higher than the top 20, opportunities available to them within the broader industry at large have been limited. Also, notable is that Black LGBTQ+ artists are entirely absent from country’s mainstream industry. The exception is Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” achieved double-diamond-selling status though it received limited airplay on country format radio.

Black artists co-hosting awards programs, winning prestigious honors, co-owning their own imprints and publishing entities -- and in the case of Allen, achieving two No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay chart singles in three years -- are significant steps ahead. However, as Watson’s data shows, BIPOC artists -- in terms of percentage of songs played, of airplay, of charting songs, of artists signed to major labels, and award nominations -- still comprise less than 4.0% of the commercial country music industry.

Though Watson's data spotlights prominent spaces for fundamental change, she also notes that her work could be more comprehensive.

"I'd love to study the numbers of BIPOC label executives and employees, producers, engineers, studio and touring musicians, and songwriters employed in country music," Watson tells Billboard.

When asked about the far-reaching benefits of her research, Watson added, "I hope that Black country music fans use this data to empower them to demand change. Country's history and its contemporary data show that very little has changed about the genre in 100 years. The industry of country music must be held accountable for deconstructing a white-dominated system that has -- save a few tokenized Black men -- relegated Black artists, indigenous artists, and other artists of color to its absolute margins."

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