The following calls us to abandon algorithms and think pieces about the battle between Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and the country music establishment. It is a foray from musical genre towards cultural geography. Using this theoretical framework — which, in simple terms, focuses on people and place as a guide — together we will traverse the mythology of a singular cultural authenticity, asymmetrical cultural landscapes and the reclamation of cultural ground. We will explore debates arising from Ms. Knowles-Carter’s latest album, Cowboy Carter, and how they reveal the place-based policies that have historically divided communities, continue to govern all cultural expression and reinforce the red-lining of our collective imagination. Departing from conventional music criticisms and broad accusations of racial discrimination, this essay situates expansive cultural concepts on a physical yet contested landscape for more nuanced exploration. It is an open invitation to consider the unconsidered in service of collectively forging and stewarding new spacious cultural terrains. Like the album that inspires it, this text is to be embodied and travelled as much as it is read.  

For me, “Sixteen Carriages” served as a cultural onramp onto Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s most recent album. Listening to her contemplative recount of dreams escaping toward “a summer sunset on a holy night” while fighting back tears on “a long black road,” I felt my feet navigating the same jagged terrain. Mourning the fragility of childhood and “innocence gone astray,” while sensing powerful cultural stewardship, I prepared to travel across the struggle and faith of the dust-hewn South with Ms. Knowles-Carter. 

It’s been suggested that these lyrics are referencing Ms. Knowles-Carter’s early uprooting and first tenuous steps toward superstardom, which is entirely plausible. However, the narrative imagery of this song exceeds the bounds of a personal account. Drawing on the sunset iconology of the American west and the moonlit struggle of Black liberation, it situates all of us within a complex cultural and geographical landscape, transgressing genre. More importantly, it also transgresses notions of a singular identity, politics and location. The potency of Cowboy Carter and the heated debates arising from the country music establishment can best understood, and perhaps even resolved, through the centring of place. 

Specifically, place-based theory is referred to as cultural geography. Unlike many academic concepts, cultural geography is deeply embodied, because it is predicated on people and place. This theory clears a pathway for a deeper exploration of the ground Ms. Knowles-Carter is breaking through her album and the discriminatory backlash she — and by extension, all Black people who dare to claim space outside of what is conventionally understood as “urban” — have experienced. It is a framework complex yet relatable enough to understand both Cowboy Carter’s significance and the debates that have arisen since its release. 

Despite growing up in Texas and having deep maternal roots in Louisiana — indisputably a Southern state — Ms. Knowles-Carter is perceived as “urban.” In fact, all Black people, despite origin of birth and current residency are perceived as “urban;” a term weighted by racial stereotypes. This perception is an extreme cultural displacement and dissonance. 

The South, an undisputed site of the slave trade, is still marked with plantation properties, public monuments and Confederate flags flying from pickup trucks, all of which substantiate the presence, albeit exploited and oppressed, of Black people. In fact, the plantation created a distinct and uneasy proximity between the enslaver and the enslaved, resulting in an intertwined culture, which is unspeakably fraught, and at times, unexpectedly beautiful. Like most American institutions, unwilling or unable to reconcile this cultural conundrum, the country music establishment — which has historically aggrandized Southern states and symbolisms — has challenged Ms. Knowles-Carter’s ancestral connection to place.

The Cultural Geography of Cowboy Carter

The rejection experienced by Ms. Knowles-Carter is chronicled in the album’s opening track, “Ameriican Reqiuem.” And while the song is anchored by her personal experience, it is again indicative of the broader perception of Black people as “urban.”

During the First Great Migration, which took place between 1910 and 1940, Black Southerners fled to urban centres such as New York, Detroit and Chicago, in search of the promise of safety, freedom and economic prosperity. Toward the latter part of that period, and extending into the late 1960s, major Canadian cities experienced an influx of Black people from the Caribbean. These overlapping patterns of migration and immigration, created a convergence of Black people, establishing culturally-rich communities on both sides of the border. However, Northern place-based policies, such as racist housing ordinances and highway construction schemes, severed the soul of prosperous Black communities, betraying the city’s promise. 

These policies, along with white people fleeing the cities to the suburbs in search cultural homogeny and comfort in sameness, contributed to the deterioration of many Black communities within cities. In countless instances, the Southern plantations, which diminished a Black sense of dignity and place, were replaced with urban prisons and public housing complexes. Self-professed urban progressives — and the Southerners they delighted in stereotyping as backward bigots — came to view Black communities as inherently urban. So much so, that by the early 1990s the word “urban” itself became colloquial, and was commonly used in ways that were both pejorative and subversive. Hip Hop, now regarded as one of the world’s most powerful and universal genres, was referred to as “urban music,” accompanied with street fashion and a particular poetic way of speaking. All of these cultural expressions, birthed by Black people in the city’s margins, have now been systemically coopted and commodified. 

The double displacement of Black people, at once singularly situated as “urban” while largely being excluded from the cultural and economic capital of Hip Hop, and their Southern ancestry, reinforces a profound sense of placelessness while perpetuating historical erasure. 

The Cultural Geography of Cowboy Carter

Penned by Paul McCartney, “Blackbird” is a civil rights anthem about the nine Black students who faced daily abuse after enrolling in a formerly segregated high school in Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1960s. From a purely musical perspective, Ms. Knowles-Carter — together with notable Black country music singers — “covered” the song of a valourized British musician. From a cultural geography perspective, however, Ms. Knowles-Carter respectfully reclaimed a historically profound narrative, re-rooting it in its place of origin. Her version of the song honours McCartney’s songwriting and performance while contesting the historical and cultural erasure of Black peoples’ significant presence in the South. And in so doing, it demonstrates the art of collective memory making as a tool for re-rooting history in its place of origin and resisting exclusion.

Moreover, the erasure emanating from the arguments challenging the validity of Cowboy Carter, and by extension, Black Americans’ ancestral ties to the South, also displaces and threatens the rich history of country music itself. Such arguments negate the tangible, historically documented sites where Black people shaped the genre — such as the Chitlin Circuit, Black rodeo and cowboy ranges. 

Expanding from identity-based arguments, an exploration of ethnomusicology — the study of music within geographic and cultural contexts — presents yet another important pathway to explore Cowboy Carter’s cultural reach and the debates surrounding it. This field of practice views instruments as having a function beyond the production of sounds, but rather as cultural artifacts that represent regions and place-based rituals.

The banjo, one of country music’s earliest and most beloved instruments, was originally designed in West and Central Africa, and later reimagined by enslaved African Americans within the oppressive margins of plantations. By contrast, the fiddle, another early and beloved country music instrument, was originally designed in Europe as a predecessor to the modern violin. Throughout Cowboy Carter, these two instruments, from two very different places, converge on a common cultural landscape, contributing to a beautiful, co-created cultural expression defying the bounds of racial identity. It recognizes — and even honours — these boundaries while breaking them. 

However, these places and their cultural contributions have seldom been equally honoured. The asymmetrical power between Africa and Europe, between Black cultural expression and white cultural expression, is immeasurable. Enslaved Black people and their descendants were deemed “placeless,” without the agency to collectively own their cultural artifacts and expressions. White people of European ancestry have far greater agency over the ownership of territory, artifacts and rituals that hold cultural significance.  

The irony is that in this specific situation, that’s not necessarily true. Many of the individuals supporting the country music establishment’s attempt to displace Ms. Knowles-Carter — and Black people with Southern roots more broadly — also exist within the cultural margins. From trailer parks to forgotten backroads, country music is in large part the lamentation of poor white Southerners excluded from their own American dream. 

Sadly, they, like most disenfranchised people, are so preoccupied protecting invisible borders, constructed by politics and capital interests, to realize that they too are “fighting back tears” on the same “long black road” looking to “a summer sunset on a holy night” for respite, much like their Black Southern counterparts. While obvious racial histories and power imbalances exists, place reveals common struggles, both symbolic and tangible, situated atop the same jagged earth.  

Just as place-based policies physically divided communities, our collective imaginations have been red-lined. The same policies that have physically divided us also prevent us from dreaming new realities and relationships into being. We don’t dare envision ourselves crossing territories, experimenting with new cultural expressions or exploring the expanse of cultural terrains. Ms. Knowles-Carter demonstrates an implicit understanding of this by enlisting artists like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Linda Martel — beloved within the country music establishment — to serve as cultural guides.

Willie Nelson acts as an authoritative and slightly acerbic disc jockey who welcomes listeners to the “the smoke hour on KNTRY radio Texas.” After declaring that he requires no introduction, he introduces the “Texas Hold ‘Em” track, encouraging everyone to “sit back, inhale and go to that good place your mind likes to wander off to” or, if they prefer to stick with what they know, to “go find a jukebox.” The video features a small radio station outpost topped by a rusty jumble of satellites, struggling to send their signals across an unknown terrain. 

Dolly Parton plays a cultural guide of a different type. Like a sistah who understands the cultural universality of heartbreak, Ms. Parton commiserates with Ms. Knowles-Carter. Recalling how a certain “Jolene,” with “flamin’ locks of auburn hair,” caused her pain in the past, Ms. Parton affirms the hurt Ms. Knowles-Carter experienced in the situation with “that hussy with the good hair.” Ms. Parton — who seems to understand Black colloquialisms like “queen” — warning, not begging Jolene to “go shoot her shot” with someone else may not resonate with the country music establishment and many its listeners. As a result, she uses her own story as a bridge to Ms. Knowles-Carter’s re-imagination of her longstanding country music anthem.  

The presence of Mr. Nelson and Ms. Parton on Cowboy Carter are more than mere musical collaborations. It reflects an intentional demonstration of power sharing and their support of Ms. Knowles-Carter as she is accused of trespassing on protected territories. Equally important, Ms. Knowles uses her own significant cultural influence to create space for Black country artists such as Linda Martel, Reyna Roberts, Shaboozey and many others. Rhiannon Giddens, recipient of a Grammy, Pulitzer and a MacArthur Fellowship, is notable as both a Black country music artist contributor and as an advocate and public intellectual. On Cowboy Carter, she serves as another kind of authority. Together, both Black and white country artists on the album threaten the narrow boundaries not only of the genre but of who gets to explore and be recognized within its cultural space — which encompasses both the musical charts and the community. 

This is the true basis of Cowboy Carter’s brilliance and backlash.  

Far beyond Ms. Knowles-Carter’s domination on the charts, or her fashion influence and social media buzz — all domains that have characterized her career — Cowboy Carter contends with place in a manner that is unprecedented for a popular album. It concurrently honours and defies racial identity. Racial, gender, sexual and other identities are indisputably powerful. They provide us with a compass for navigating our lives while holding our histories. It is also true that these same socially constructed identities can be polarizing and restrictive. However, culture — although grounded in place — is boundless, extending beyond racial and other socially constructed identities, and opening up physical and imaginative spaces for new freedoms and solidarities. With numerous references to Southern spiritualism, perhaps creating more spacious cultural landscapes where we can be wholly human is the soft salvation Cowboy Carter summons. Or, as Willie Nelson put it, maybe it’s time for all of us to turn on to “some real good shit.”

Jay Pitter, MES, is an award-winning placemaker, adjunct urban planning professor and author whose practice mitigates growing divides in cities across North America. Her forthcoming books, Black Public Joy and Where We Live, will be published by McClelland & Stewart, Penguin Random House Canada.

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