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  • An interactive journey by Captain LaPonda J.

Whose “Country” Is It Anyway…and Why Diversity Matters

I think music reflects the state that the society is in - John Lennon

Full disclosure…I love country music. I consider country music “blues with a twang” and blues music “country with soul!” From Patsy Cline’s Crazy, Charley Pride’s Kiss an Angel Good Morning, to Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind, through everything Sugarland ever recorded, the Band Perry’s If I Die Young , which makes us think about what our dash in between our two dates really means, Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker, Chris Young, Lauren Alaina, Scotty McCready, and Jimmie Allen whose debut single, Best Shot premiered in the No. 1 spot on the country music charts making him the first black artist to launch his country career with a No. 1 single. Hot damn, country music is my go-to on long hikes and road trips. Chris Stapleton’s Tennessee Whiskey and Kane Brown’s Baby Come Back to Me simply give me life!

My husband also calls me a music schizophrenic, in that I like all kinds of music, from Rap to Classical! Aretha Franklin as represented by her upcoming Amazing Grace Documentary, Aloe Blacc’s Love is the Answer, Dan + Shay Tequila (I am now a huge tequila fan, the song and the liquid), Dr. Dre’s Animals, ft. Anderson.Paak (explicit but so relevant) or good old Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, it is all good music to me! So, why isn’t everyone so enlightened these days? Why are we still judging who we listen to by the color of their skin and not necessarily by the content of their music? For that matter, why are we judging everyone this way, whether in our workplaces or a college student getting free food in a library?

Simple…Because of our inherent biases! In her new book “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do,” Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a professor of psychology at Stanford University notes, “We all have ideas about race, even the most open-minded among us. Those ideas have the power to bias our perception, our attention, our memory, and our actions‒all despite our conscious awareness or deliberate intentions.”

So, I wasn’t surprised by the recent controversy over a song that was widely played on Country Music Stations after, none other than Justin Bieber who is not known for country music, stated on Instagram the new music Old Town Road ‒ a song that was a cover for a video game ‒ was “…banging…” The original video and song was uploaded to a YouTube channel on December 2nd. The backdrop for the song was a recently released western themed video game, Red Dead Redemption 2. Old Town Road climbed to No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart in late March after Beiber’s tweet. The song is very catchy, has the requisite “country twang”; the video game has horses and cowboys, and a shootout in front of the saloon in honor of the Wild Wild West’s way of settling disputes. The song makes me want to “Giddy Up!” like I did when I was a child watching westerns with my dad on Saturday mornings! But it also contains a decidedly hip-hop, modern vibe to it and is sung by Lil Nas X, who is best known as a hip-hop artist. It was quickly removed from Country Radio Stations and Country Music Charts because it was deemed not “country enough” by some; stereotypically country by others saying it was offensive. Billboard says the removal from the Country Charts had nothing to do with race. I’m not sure that I believe their reasoning. Neither did Billy Ray Cyrus who re-recorded the hit with Lil Nas X.

In a now updated editorial, the website Saving Country Music, (I’d like to know who are they saving country music from), called the song a “…a bigoted stereotype bred from the fact that horses and cowboy hats are referenced in the lyrics…Sometimes these memes are just fun, but some appear to be demeaning or lampoon cowboy and rural culture…While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” In giving consideration to Saving Country Music, I tried to find support for their stance outside of what appears to be simply race-based bias because of who Lil Nas X is, but I could not. As previously noted, his song was a cover for a western video game that already existed and that was not deemed bigoted or stereotypical in and of itself. How are horses and cowboys now viewed as “lampoon[ing]” cowboy and rural culture? It seems to me they are trying too hard to find something wrong with this song to cover their apparent prejudices.

When we try to “cover” a discriminatory act, it produces the distress our society is in today. Think about the statements above. Aren’t they what is often stated about diverse people that enter into workplace cultures or neighborhoods that have been and continue to be based on predominantly homogeneous, European standards? They are quickly deemed “Not American enough” or “Not upholding American values enough,” or “You don’t fit Into the current workplace culture enough,” or “The reason we are doing this or that has nothing to do with your race,” etc., even though the reality is our workplaces and our world are changing faster than they think or like!

I’m not sure what the folks at Saving Country Music listen to, but when I hear songs like, This Is How We Roll ft. Luke Bryan by Florida Georgia Line, (the Florida/Georgia line will come up again in this article with a little irony attached), I cannot for the life of me find a difference between their song and Lil Nas X’s “country ditty!” Their song is very pop, horses have been replaced by big trucks, plenty of pretty girls, a lot of mud whopping, and they still have cowboy hats. In 2013, Florida Georgia Line collaborated with black rapper and hip-hop artist Nelly on their mega hit Cruise (Remix) ft. Nelly. Not only did the remix become a hit in its own right, it helped “Cruise” set the record for being the longest at No. 1 on the country music charts. Billboard’s Chart Beat noted, “Having spent three weeks at No. 1 last December on the BDS-driven Country Airplay chart, ‘Cruise was remixed featuring Nelly, renewing its sales and leading to pop and adult crossover airplay, which has fostered the song's record Hot Country Songs reign. ‘Cruise’ reached No. 7 on Pop Songs; bullets at No. 8 on Adult Pop Songs; and navigates 18-17 on Adult Contemporary.” Who can argue with that? Adding diversity and inclusion to the song only made it stronger! Isn’t that what all the statistics say about a diverse workplace culture and what diversity and inclusion does to the bottom line?

There are real world implications when we have closed minds and employ covers. Case in point: the young black woman who was denied a job because her hair was too “ethnic” and the company’s “…’race-neutral grooming policy’ specifically excluded Black women’s natural hairstyles based on stereotypes that natural hairstyles are unprofessional, messy, not neat, political, radical, too eye-catching, or excessive.” The Supreme Court failed to hear her case and the EEOC dropped their opposition. Or, the black award winning news anchor that was fired from her job because she purportedly wore an “unprofessional” hair style. This discrimination based on black women’s natural hair motivated the City of New York and the State of California to pass laws specifically forbidding discrimination based on a person’s hair. The artist, India Arie, talked about this in her 2009 song I Am Not My Hair ft. Akon, and we are still dealing with this issue today. She asks, “Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person? Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend?” If a black woman can’t wear her natural hair to work in 2019 without risking the loss of her job, what chance does a black “hip-hop” artist have in staying on the country music charts? Is it because they don’t like his hair? So, in this world of diversity where musical genres are frequently “crossed over” and sampled, whose “country” is it anyway?

Now, back to music…Change has been knocking on Country’s door for decades. In 2011, Jason Aldean brought the iconic rapper and movie star Ludacris (of the Fast and Furious franchise, with all love for the late Paul Walker) on stage to help him sing, Jason Aldean ft. Ludacris Dirt Road Anthem . Jason returned the favor on Ludacris’ EP in 2015 on the song Burning Bridges. Or, who can forget (if you were alive or an Elvis aficionado) Elvis Presley’s rendition of If I Can Dream, to end his 1968 comeback special? Elvis was a master at crossing genres from country to rock and roll to soul.

Which brings us to a 2014 report about the impact of changing demographics on the implicit and explicit bias. In Maureen A. Craig’s and Jennifer Richeson’s seminal research on implicit and explicit bias, “More Diverse Yet Less Tolerant? How the Increasingly Diverse Racial Landscape Affects White Americans’ Racial Attitudes”, they note that through their conduct of experiments where the changing demographics were presented to white Americans, they found that there was more implicit and explicit racial bias expressed. “…[whites] preferred interactions/settings with their own ethnic group over minority ethnic groups; expressed more negative attitudes toward Latinos, Blacks, and Asian Americans; and expressed more automatic pro-White/ anti-minority bias.” Could this be a possible explanation as to why Saving Country Music would not accept Lil Nas X’s “Country” song because it represents too must change that traditional country is not ready for?

Like Ray Charles before him that crossed genres to release his phenomenal country album “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music Volumes 1 & 2” released in 1962 (available here) which was based on music he had listened to growing up in the rural town of Greenville, FL, close to the Georgia/Florida line, (see, I told you this line would come up again) this record was deemed “not country enough” in its time too. It is now being given its just due and credited with moving music forward.

So, if the criticism of Lil Nas X is truly steeped in a “saving a genre mentality,” then why is Florida Georgia Line topping the Country Music Charts and is the opening act for the American Country Music Awards (ACM) this year? I think they said it best in their interview before their ACM performance. They were asked about Lil Nas X’s song and whether it was country. They responded with the perfect answer, “Respectfully, I think that song is way bigger than Country Music. I think if we sit here and try to figure it out whether it’s country or not, we miss the point of it being a great song.” Why does country have to fit in a little box; can't it be extended beyond those traditional walls like other musical genres?

Doesn’t their answer perfectly align with what the goals of an equitable, diverse, inclusive culture-driven, and thoughtful (EDICT©) workplace and greater society are trying to achieve? Like human beings, music genres are not pure; they never have been. Great music blurs the boundaries to ensure that those that are listening find a little bit of themselves in it in order to connect to it. Black Americans have embraced blue-eyed soul; now is the time for white Americans to embrace brown-eyed country. Oh, the beautiful music to be made!

The American author Sarah Dessen stated, “Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.”

So, this brings me to the point of this interactive journey. When we fail to implement EDICT©, we miss out on the best talent and the best interactions that can solve our unsolvable problems or come up with the best ideas; those that a homogenous workplace may not think about. By bringing their whole selves and talents to the table, people can present the freshest perspectives and hit just the right notes. If we are too busy focusing on what the person looks like instead of what they have to offer, we will remain mired in our individual problems and we will fail to grow as a society, withering away like a dead vine. Think of all the beautiful music and Happy Ending[s] with “Cowboys riding into the sunset…” we’ll miss out on!

UPDATE: According to The Onion, "After spending 17 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, Lil Nas X’s country-rap hit 'Old Town Road' has officially broken the chart’s record for longest-running single, an honor previously held by Mariah Carey’s and Boyz II Men’s 'One Sweet Day' and Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee’s 'Despacito.'” They ask the question, "What do you think?"

If you liked this article, you will love our EDICT© training. For more information, click on the EDICT© link or visit our website at Looking forward to hearing your comments.

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