Being Black in Country Music

 

Being Black in Country Music

I’ll never forget the day I finally got the nerve to pack up my car and move me, my dreams, and the little bit that I owned to Nashville, TN. Just the mere fact that day actually came was a miracle in itself. I was never afraid to move away from home. In fact, I always wanted to. I had been wanting to move far away from home since the day I stumbled upon Google as a kid and began discovering all of the many places around the world that photographed a million times better than my own neighborhood. Moving halfway across town, the country, or even the world was no big deal to me. The thing that terrified me for many years was the idea of one day moving to Nashville to pursue my dream of becoming a songwriter and an artist in country music.

At the age of fifteen, a woman at my church played a Dixie Chicks album in her car during our drive to get some food after service. I fell in love with those three women, their music, their style, and anything else I could gather about them from their album cover. That moment unlocked something in me. I began listening to country radio every day, watching CMT to catch up on the latest music videos, and researching my favorite artists online. It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I decided I wanted to be a country artist, and even then I don’t think I really took myself seriously. I knew I loved the music and I knew that I could sing and write it, but I knew society would make it hard for someone like me to see my dream realized. A black girl from Baltimore? No way. That’s what I told myself for years until the day I finally got the nerve to pack up my car and head to Nashville.

Now it’s been three years since moving to Tenneessee. Two years ago, I decided to go back to school and major in something that would give me a better understanding of the industry. I’m now a senior at Middle Tennessee State University majoring in Public Relations in Music Business. In the last three years, I’ve learned that breaking into this industry is no easy task. I perform and write often, traveling back between Murfreesboro and Nashville several days out of the week for shows, co-writing sessions, etc. Since beginning this journey, I’ve had many ups and downs. The ups keep me going and the downs challenge me to work, write, and perform better. However, I’ve experienced certain things that I know are specifically because of my race, but it would be difficult to explain the true impact of these events to someone who’s not a minority or someone who doesn’t understand the way racism and racial bias works.

I could run down my whole list of things I’ve encountered, but I’m not sure if that would really paint the big picture of what it’s like being a minority in a genre that’s known to so many people who look like me, to be one of the ‘whitest’ and most segregating industries in music. The best way for me to explain my experience as a black woman pursuing country music is that I’m constantly forced to think about my race. It makes me stand out, which isn’t really a bad thing. It doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is when my race causes me to feel alienated. Whether it’s the times I’ve been given a certain look by an audience member(s), or that time someone tried to trip me into a puddle of water on the floor at a show, or the time someone touched my afro and told me it “felt like cotton”, or the time someone called me “Shenae-nae” (a character from a popular Black sitcom) because she couldn't remember my name. Whether it’s someone coming up to me at the end of my show and asking me to sing Aretha Franklin or some Motown instead, or when someone talks to me as if something about me makes me a little less than them - it’s disheartening.

Preparing for and attending events and shows isn’t always an easy task either. I’m constantly trying to ensure that my presence doesn’t appear threatening since I know I’ll be the only black woman (maybe even the only black person) in the room. I’m typically very specific in the way in which I style my hair, and I try to ensure that my makeup isn’t too dramatic as well. If I’m being honest, I typically don’t wear my natural hair because it becomes another thing that makes me feel “different”. I love my hair! I just don’t want another thing added to the list of things that make me ‘stand out’. I know many black women would disagree with this, but I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles, and hair just isn’t one I’m willing to take on right now.

There’s been times when I’ve been asked by people, both black and white, what made me want to do country music. And I get that. I expect those types of questions. It’s human. But sometimes people take it far, wanting to know if I’d feel better doing another genre, or asking if I’d ever consider moving to another state to feel more “comfortable” in what I’m trying to do. Being black in country music, for me at least, has been a constant reminder of how black I am. And that’s something no white person will ever have to contemplate in this town. Even in times when maybe race doesn’t play a factor, when I face rejection or find difficulty in connecting with certain individuals or crowds, I still have to wonder within myself if race did in fact play a role.  I’ve come to learn that when most white people say things like, “I don’t see color”, it’s because they’ve never had to examine their own. Blackness isn’t something that’s always socially acceptable. Black culture, however, is. The music, the arts, the sports, the fashion, the hairstyles, the ‘sass’. But my wanting to embrace the other parts that come along with ‘blackness’ isn’t always befitting for the environments I find myself in on this path I’ve chosen. People lose their jobs, miss out on opportunities, and in some cases, lose their lives for living out the one thing we’ve always known best - Blackness.

I’m incredibly nervous even writing this piece.  It’s rare that I ever take a step back and actually examine the discomfort I sometimes feel while attempting to make my mark in this industry. I don’t want sympathy, a hand out, or anyone telling me how sorry they are for the path I CHOSE to take. I just want my dream. Every day I work hard to develop my craft and do what it takes to succeed, but I understand that it may never truly be enough. I’ve talked with several other black country artists who’ve all once traveled the road I’m on now. So, I understand I may only get but far. But I sing, write, and work as if I know I’ll ‘arrive’. I live as if my next song is the only thing standing between me and where I want to be…not my race, my size, my gender, or anything else that makes me different from anyone else on Music Row.

I’m so much more than the limitations society puts on my race, where I come from, my past, and anything else attached to me. I’m so proud to be the woman I am today because I fought hard to become her. I’m as equally proud to be a woman as I am to be black. And while the struggle to overcome the obstacles associated with both is great, my faith in God is even greater. I believe he’s given each of us the ability to love beyond the barriers set by hatred, fear, and indifference. My dream to exist in country music is no more radical than the many ways God has managed to express himself throughout creation since the beginning of time. He created us all to be so uniquely different in color, personality, nationality, and anything else we could possibly think of. But we all share the same common core in that we're ALL a reflection of HIM. Genesis 1:27 shows us that with just a few words, we became the living, breathing image of his likeness and the personified beauty of his spoken word. So, I have no doubt in my mind that the story of country music has every hope of one day progressing and reflecting talent from men and women whom all represent different races and walks of life. I’m sure one day there will be much more to add to this story of mine, but until then, this girl from Baltimore is working her way to Music Row.

Brittney Spencer

 

 

Songs By Brittney Spencer

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