Black History Month Spotlight: Exploring the Roots of Country Music

Black History Month Spotlight: Exploring the Roots of Country Music

As we approach the end of Black History Month, we would be remiss if we failed to touch on one of the most important aspects of cultural expression. Music! Join us at HBCU Leggings as we explore the profound impact of Black artists on the diverse tapestry of American music. Country music, in particular,  owes much of its distinctive sound and vibrancy to the creative contributions of Black musicians throughout history. Come along as we journey through the origins of country music, highlighting the pivotal role of Black artists in shaping its distinctive sound and style.

The Banjo: An African Legacy

The banjo, a quintessential instrument in country music, has its roots in West Africa, where it originated as the Akonting, a plucked string instrument native to the Jola people. Enslaved Africans brought their recollection of the Akonting with them to America, where it evolved into the banjo, becoming a symbol of cultural expression and identity. For centuries, enslaved individuals used the banjo to create their own music, drawing from African rhythms and melodies to craft spirituals, hymns, and field songs. Despite being initially associated with Black culture, the banjo would later find its way into mainstream American music, becoming a principal instrument in country music and gaining popularity within the entertainment industry.

Minstrel Shows and the Appropriation of Black Music

Regarding entertainment, the 1850s saw the rise of minstrel shows, an American theatrical form of entertainment characterized by stereotypical and often racist caricatures of Black people, culture and music. These shows introduced the banjo to white audiences, paving the way for the popularization of “hillbilly music” (a blend of folk and popular music) in the 1920s. Despite its Black origins, hillbilly music, later rebranded as country music, was marketed as "white music," erasing the contributions of Black artists from its narrative. However, it's important to acknowledge that the influence of Black music and musicians remained strong within the genre.

Pioneering Black Artists in Country Music

Throughout history, Black artists have played a pivotal role in shaping the sound and style of country music. Even before Beyoncé’s TEXAS HOLD ‘EM and Daddy Lessons (and highly anticipated country album coming out March 29th), Black country music artists have been molding the genre with their creative expression. DeFord Bailey, often referred to as the "Harmonica Wizard," was the first Black musician to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, the most renowned music festival for country music artists, marking a significant milestone in country music history. His distinctive harmonica playing style influenced generations of country musicians.  Charley Pride, known as "country music's first Black superstar," broke barriers and shattered stereotypes with his chart-topping hits and charismatic stage presence. His induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame marked a historic moment for Black representation in country music. Ray Charles, a pioneering figure in both R&B and country music, blurred genre boundaries with his soulful interpretations of classic country songs, paving the way for future generations of Black artists to explore new musical frontiers.

Contemporary Black Country Artists to Listen To

To honor and amplify the voices of Black country artists, here are six talented musicians whose music you should listen to:

Tracy Chapman: With her timeless hit "Fast Car," released in 1988, Tracy Chapman captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. Chapman's soulful vocals and captivating storytelling earned her widespread recognition, making her a household name. Her song "Fast Car" won the CMA Song of the Year for 2023, making her the first Black woman to do so. This groundbreaking achievement not only solidified Chapman's status as a trailblazing artist but also highlighted her valuable contribution to the contemporary country music scene. Through her evocative lyrics and heartfelt melodies, Chapman continues to inspire listeners and pave the way for future generations of Black country artists.

Charley Pride: As one of the most successful Black country artists in history, Charley Pride’s rich baritone voice and heartfelt lyrics have captivated audiences for decades. Hits like "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’" and "Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone" showcase Pride’s unique blend of country and soul.

Rhiannon Giddens: A Grammy Award-winning artist, Rhiannon Giddens seamlessly blends elements of country, folk, and traditional African American music captivating audiences with songs like “I’m on My Way”. Her powerful vocals and thought-provoking lyrics make her a standout figure in the contemporary country music scene.

Kane Brown: With chart-topping hits like "Heaven" and "What Ifs," Kane Brown has emerged as one of the brightest stars in modern country music. Brown’s smooth voice and modern sound appeal to a diverse audience, showcasing the genre’s evolving landscape.

Yola: Hailing from Bristol, England, Yola brings a fresh perspective to country music with her soulful voice and genre-defying sound. Songs like "Faraway Look" and "Ride Out in the Country" showcase Yola’s powerful vocals and poignant songwriting.

Mickey Guyton: Known for being the first Black solo female artist to be nominated in a Grammy country category, Mickey Guyton’s bold and empowering anthems have earned her critical acclaim and widespread recognition. Tracks like "Black Like Me" and "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" tackle important social issues with grace and honesty.

Are you familiar with any of these artists or their songs? Take this opportunity to continue to celebrate Black History Month by exploring their music and the stories they have to tell. 

From the roots of the banjo to the trailblazing achievements of pioneering musicians, it is clear that Black heritage is intricately woven into the fabric of this beloved genre. As we honor Black History Month, let us not only celebrate the past achievements but also amplify the voices of Black country artists, both past and present.Through continued appreciation and recognition, we can deepen our appreciation for this style of music and uplift the diverse voices and experiences of all its contributors.

As a token of appreciation for your continued support, we invite you to use promo code BETONBLACK24, at , which offers you 10% off on our entire store from February 1st to February 29th so you can celebrate Black History all year round.

Love and Leggings, 


Bibi Mama is a first generation Beninese-American actress born and raised in Mansfield, CT. Growing up she watched her father, an English professor and author, continue the Yoruba oral tradition through storytelling, which inspired her. She earned her B.F.A. from Howard University and recently finished her MFA at the Old Globe/University of San Diego MFA Graduate Acting Program.
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