Beyoncé could be the death of country music's gatekeepers

And what genre's elites could be in Queen Bey’s sights next?

Kevin Mazur/GettyImages
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The dust has not yet settled after the surprise release of two new country-infused Beyoncé tracks. We haven’t even yet confirmed the rumors that the upcoming album Renaissance Act II will be a country album (though it seems pretty certain), but already the tracks are stirring up controversy. There were less than twelve hours between me learning these songs existed, and me hearing about the songs being kicked off country radio.

Renaissance Act II, so the rumours go, is the second part of a three-part project. The plan is for a trilogy of albums each devoted to reclaiming a genre that was pioneered by black musicians. 2022’s Renaissance was devoted to disco and house music, and following up disco and house with country, under the same umbrella with the same project name only really makes sense in the context of that project. 

And what a fantastic project!

Country music is ripe for such a reclamation, it was pioneered by black musicians. But this ain’t going to be easy. Country music has traditionally been hostile to black musicians, and though there are now many successful black country artists, I think country fans are more comfortable viewing them as participants in a white genre. If Beyoncé aims to reclaim country music, she’s courting controversy. 

Beyoncé has high aims of reclaiming country music

It's a controversy that needs to be courted. If the rumours are true about the Renaissance project, then it's an important project. The perception of country music as a white genre is suppressing a history of black musicians without whom the genre would not exist.

Think back to the controversy with Lil Nas X being kept off the country music charts... Lil Nas X never aimed to reclaim the genre, "Old Town Road" was a genre exercise. Think how much bigger of a kerfuffle that would've been if he'd claimed that a seat at the country music table was his right!.

And Beyoncé has been here before. Her 2016 album Lemonade included "Daddy Lessons," a country song that caused controversy and a racist backlash.

You could argue that the country music gatekeepers simply don't like dilettantes and dabblers. "Daddy Lessons" was one country song on an album that flirts with every other genre imaginable. Perhaps the country elites just prefer people who make country music to be fully committed to the genre (or else why not recognise Lady Gaga's "Yoü and I") But there'd be no way you could argue that Beyoncé is not fully committed to the genre once she brings out an entire album of country songs.

There'll be no excuse if the country music elites shut the gates on Beyoncé. They'd be condemning themselves to irrelevance. Country music would live on, but free from the constraints of people way too eager to to make arbitrary determinations about what is and is not country. Seems like something that would benefit all of us. Country music would certainly be better off for it.

Lemonade also included a rock song, "Don't Hurt Yourself," produced by Jack White, which caused a more minor but similar controversy. Could rock be the next genre reclaimed? Rock began as black music, but it's breathtaking to think how quickly it came to be thought of as white music. Could Renaissance Act III be a rock album?

I feel like rock would be a harder nut to crack than country. Like with country music, there are plenty of black rock stars, but they're thought of as participants in a white genre. But unlike with country, these sorts of gatekeeping controversies haven't happened as much in rock. But I think that's because the world of rock simply ignores anything it deems not sufficiently rock.

As rock has lost its position as the preeminent genre in popular music, there's been a trend of pop stars incorporating rock elements into their music. But there's been no backlash to this, bigoted or otherwise. There's no debate as to whether Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus belong in the rock canon because no one ever considered that they might.

But if a pop star were to make a claim on rock, and pose the question of whether they belong in a way that could not be ignored, rock would face a reckoning. Either open the gates or watch itself die.

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