'People assume I'm a rapper': can country music get over racial prejudice?

Kane Brown
Kane Brown was snubbed by this year’s Country Music Awards but won all three of his categories at the cross-genre American Music Awards. Photograph: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

In November, something unprecedented happened in the world of country music: two black artists reached No 1 spots in the same week. Jimmie Allen, a 32-year-old singer and songwriter from Delaware – an east coast state not normally associated with country – became the first black artist to chart a No 1 debut single for country radio airplay with his song Best Shot. And YouTube-covers-artist-turned-country-star Kane Brown hit the top spot on the Billboard album chart with his second album, Experiment.

Allen first moved to Nashville in 2007 and spent the best part of a decade trying to get signed. “At first, things weren’t going my way,” he tells me. “I was something new – no one was going to take a chance on a black artist from Delaware – so I lived in my car for four months, working in a gym where I would wash my clothes and shower. I did any job you could think of, from waiter to janitor to personal trainer.” His persistence clearly paid off but Allen is emphatic about the effort it has taken. “I was one of those guys where nothing ever fell into my lap, I had to go out and work for it,” he says. “Especially since there is a lack of experience of people who look like me.”

Brown also spent several years on the sidelines. He auditioned for The X Factor but walked away because of attempts to put him into a boyband. He built a dedicated fanbase after posting videos of covers, and his September 2015 version of George Strait’s Check Yes or No went viral with more than 7m views. By October, a teaser for his own single Used to Love You Sober reached more than 11m views in two weeks.

Country music still suffers from an image problem. It is stereotypically associated with cowboys, pick-up trucks and the vast expanses of America’s midwest, you might think it exists only to fulfil a yearning for a faded view of the US. This assumption is compounded by the fact that despite still being the most popular genre for radio play in the US – finding more listeners than news shows and pop stations – country artists are overwhelmingly white and male. Over the past decade, the only black artist of the genre to find mainstream success is Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker, charting six No 1 hits since 2009; he is one of only three black artists to win a Grammy in a country category. Looking further back, there are only a handful of black artists who have crossed over: singer Charley Pride stands out with his 29 country No 1s from 1966 to 1987.

Jimmie Allen
Jimmie Allen became the first black artist to chart a No 1 debut single for country radio airplay with his song, Best Shot. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Brown is conscious of how his mixed heritage has affected his career. “Some people automatically assume I’m a rapper,” he says, “but why wouldn’t I be country? It’s the music I’ve always listened to, and there are a lot of people that look like me who listen to and love country music too.” With his newfound fame, Brown is using his music to change perceptions, even targeting the NRA in American Bad Dream, a song about the Parkland high school shooting. “Now you got to take a test in a bulletproof vest / Scared to death that you might get shot,” he sings. This is all the more radical given country music’s ties to gun advocates, which was called into question after last year’s mass shooting at a country festival in Las Vegas.

Brown’s approach has earned him fans of “all shapes, sizes, races and ages,” he says, making him the first artist to top all five Billboard country charts at once in 2017. Yet this year he was snubbed by the Country Music Awards, not receiving a single nomination, while at the cross-genre American Music Awards, he won all three of his categories. “In country music we are still behind the times,” Allen explains. “Outside of country music, it wouldn’t be new to anyone to be a black pop artist or a white rapper, but this genre is different.”

The lack of black acts in country music is particularly marked since, Allen argues: “Country music came from black people – it all started with the blues and bluegrass.” The banjo – an instrument central to the genre – originated in West Africa, and early country stars such as Hank Williams were mentored by black musicians.

Charley Pride
Charley Pride had 29 country No 1s from 1966 to 1987. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Allen believes that black artists were edged out of country music in the second half of the 20th century because “by then, a lot of black people were involved in Motown, so they missed out. Their following generations would then similarly play in R&B and soul styles.” Such speculation does not account for the fact that major acts like Ray Charles released wildly successful country crossover albums at the time – and yet traditional country music remained largely white.

Allen sees his and Brown’s music as continuing in country’s lineage, though, and at last they are receiving mainstream recognition. They will perform together on a nationwide headline tour in 2019. “Me and Kane are continuing in the tradition of country music because we’re not the first black artists to do it,” he says. “And it’s not just about black people saying they can do country, it’s about anyone in a career field that they’re chasing where they don’t see anyone like themselves.” Brown adds: “I want to be a role model, to show fans that no matter where you come from or what happens in your life, you can define who you are as a person. That isn’t specific to being any colour or background.”

Ultimately, to be a country artist now “you don’t have to be a cowboy or have banjos on your song,” Allen says. Instead, his and Brown’s music, premised on modern production values and lyrics on the theme of self-acceptance and tolerance, could finally rid country of its stereotypes.