‘Cowboy Carter’ is complex. So is Beyoncé. So am I.

Psychologist and theologian Chanequa Walker-Barnes encounters her tenth grade self in Beyoncé’s latest album, "Cowboy Carter."

The coverart of Beyonce's cowboy carter album, featuring beyonce riding on a horse holding an american flag

Cowboy Carter main cover art. Photograph by Blair Caldwell.

The summer before tenth grade, I created my own Shakespeare camp. I was the sole camper and sole counselor in the two-week program, where I immersed myself in “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Othello.” The camp started on the day that the high school English department chair singlehandedly blocked my enrollment in the advanced placement program. Mrs. B explained to my mother that I wouldn’t possibly be able to keep up with the [almost all White] students who had been tracked for AP classes since elementary school. They, after all, had read “Romeo and Juliet” in ninth grade.

“I think Chanequa read some Shakespeare in eighth grade,” my mother replied. “What was it that you read again?”

“’Hamlet,’” I deadpanned.

“What grade do your students read ‘Hamlet’ in?”

“Eleventh,” Mrs. B sputtered.

“Oh good, she will have already done that one then,” the honey in my mother’s voice laced with knives. Mrs. B acquiesced. But I was just getting started with making her regret her resistance.

At the time, we lived in the home of civil rights icon Hosea Williams. Hosea’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Afemo were both graduates of Hampton University’s theater program and stalwart actors in Atlanta’s theater scene — and they were my godparents. When I returned home that afternoon, I went straight to their bookshelf and grabbed every work by Shakespeare. I spent the next two weeks reading, determined that no teacher would ever question whether I belonged in that program again.

The same spirit of defiant determination is the throughline in Beyoncé’s latest release, “Cowboy Carter.” This album is the second act in her trilogy project, which seeks to reclaim music genres with historically overlooked Black roots. Initially designed to be the first act, Beyoncé postponed the release of “Cowboy Carter” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, choosing to launch the dance-friendly “Renaissance” first, an album dedicated to disco and house music. I like to think she began conceptualizing the album the night she came home from her 2016 Country Music Awards performance of her song “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), which was met with a barrage of misogynoir.

Racism in the music industry is nothing new. Days before Beyoncé surprised fans by dropping the first two singles from the album, her husband Jay-Z criticized the Grammys for repeatedly snubbing her for the Album of the Year award, “[Beyoncé] has more Grammys than everyone and never won album of the year,” he said. “So even by your own metrics, that doesn’t work. Think about that. The most Grammys, never won album of the year. That doesn’t work.” Jay-Z’s public critique came days after singer-songwriter T-Pain revealed in a TikTok that he has started to remove his name from songwriting credits for country tracks because he doesn’t want to deal with the racist backlash. “I’ll just take the check,” he said.

With “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé takes the opposite approach. She doesn’t flee; she fights, combining country melodies with R&B beats and hip-hop swagger. This is that “Who gon’ check me, boo” energy. That “I wish you would” energy. That “If you feel froggy, then jump” energy. That “When people slap you, turn the other cheek because it will shame them and throw them off their game” energy. It’s prophet petty, as in “Oh, so you think your god is impressive. Let me show you what my God can do.”

After years of being criticized for sounding too country and years of trying to tone down her thick southern accent, Beyoncé stops running from herself in “Cowboy Carter.”

Beyoncé stands flat-footed in front of her critics and reclaims the Black roots of country and Americana music with the endorsement of heavy hitters like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, as well as the support of Black country and folk artists like Linda Martell, Rhiannon Giddens, Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, and Willie Jones. She proclaims her own roots as a Texas-born woman who grew up going to rodeos, riding horses and admiring Black cowboys. After years of being criticized for sounding too country and years of trying to tone down her thick southern accent, Beyoncé stops running from herself in “Cowboy Carter.” She claims the fullness of who she is, not just R&B and pop, but also country, house, rock, folk and hip-hop. “Cowboy Carter” is all those things because Beyoncé is all those things. And she reminds me that I am also all those things.

I spent my middle school years (when I read “Hamlet” for the first time) in Nashville. It was the ‘80s, when the Judds were transforming popular ideas about what country artists looked and sounded like, disco had not completely died out, and rap and metal were coming into their own. Before video killed the radio star, I turned the dial with wild abandon, stopping wherever I heard a song I liked: The Bangles, Madonna, Donna Summer, The Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Reba McEntire, ZZ Top, Randy Travis, and Loretta Lynn. I watched all of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s movies multiple times. I laughed at Minnie Pearl and “Hee Haw.” I was no respecter of genres.

By the end of the ’80s, music had become heavily resegregated. Like churches, radio stations seemed to follow the homogenous unit principle, the concept that church growth is enhanced when pastors target culturally similar groups of people. As radio became more divided, so did my musical tastes. Outside of Nashville, it was not acceptable to be a Black girl, even a Southern one, who liked country music. Adolescent peer groups strictly enforced the boundaries of popular culture. I let country music go and I hid my non-Black musical appetites. Only two of my cousins knew that I loved Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” more than En Vogue’s song of the same name. And absolutely no one knew that I was just as likely to release stress by dancing feverishly to the B-52s’ “Love Shack” as I was to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Even today, my husband is often surprised when I start singing along to an ’80s rock song. “Why do you know that?” he asks. “How do you not?” I reply.

I’ve been working to reclaim those parts that I buried and to name myself for who I actually am, not who others think I should be.

I forgot that girl for a long time, the one whose artistic tastes were as diverse as her friends. Or perhaps it’s not that I forgot her, but rather that I hid her complexity as I tried to fit into high school and college peer groups, in churches and denominations, and in academic disciplines. I’ve been working to reclaim those parts that I buried and to name myself for who I actually am, not who others think I should be. The day after Beyoncé released the first two singles from “Cowboy Carter,” “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages,” I went searching for playlists of Black country artists. I’m grateful to Beyoncé for leading me back to that part of myself and for reminding me that I’m in good company. And I hope that she and her mother, Ms. Tina, get to experience the sweet “I told you so” laughter that my mother and I did when, two years after hindering my enrollment in advanced English classes, Mrs. B sang my praises at the spring honors program as she gave me the high school English department’s highest award.

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