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Long excluded from country music, Black women are breaking through


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: This weekend, Mickey Guyton will become the first Black woman to co-host the Academy of Country Music Awards. She was the only Black woman to be nominated for an award this year.

But, as Amna Nawaz reports, a number of Black women are starting to gain traction in the genre.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Amna Nawaz: When Brittney Spencer released the first single from her debut E.P. Last summer, she didn't know what to expect.

Brittney Spencer: Honestly, I didn't know that anyone would listen to this project. I just thought that I was putting out something on all the streaming services to be able to send whenever I pitch myself for like a -- I don't know, like a 2:00 a.m. slot at a festival or something.

And so much more has happened.

Amna Nawaz: In October, Spencer tweeted out her cover of a song by country super group The Highwomen. A month later, she said she was floored when group member Maren Morris sent her a shout-out from the Country Music Awards stage.

Maren Morris: Brittney Spencer, Rhiannon Giddens, there are so many amazing Black women that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre.

Amna Nawaz: Since then, Spencer's song "Compassion," which tackles issues of racial justice, has been streamed more than 3.5 million times on Spotify.

Brittney Spencer: It's been such a wild ride. I'm just -- I'm honestly just living in the constant state of gratitude, because so many people have embraced me.

Amna Nawaz: Singers like Brittney Spencer, Tiera, Chapel Hart, Reyna Roberts, Miko Marks, long excluded from country music, are now breaking through and finding audiences flocking to their music.

Shannon Sanders: Things are changing. People want to see a different Nashville.

Amna Nawaz: Shannon Sanders is executive director of creative at BMI and has been in the industry for more than 25 years. He says the death of George Floyd last May, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, created a defining moment for the nation and for Nashville.

Shannon Sanders: People were forced to be still. People were forced to pay attention. America especially had time to just stop, look at itself and realize what was going on.

Amna Nawaz: What was going on in country music was that people of color, especially women, were being kept out. A recent study from the University of Ottawa found that women of color represent less than 1 percent of artists signed to a major label, and, over the last 20 years, Black women accounted for 0.03 percent of all music played on country radio.

Rissi Palmer: There's already the issue of women not necessarily getting the same airplay as male artists. Add to that being a person of color.

Amna Nawaz: In 2007, Rissi Palmer's song "Country Girl" made it on the Billboard charts. But staying on top was a different story.

How hard has it been since then to get a song back on the charts?

Rissi Palmer: Oh, I don't even try. The thing that people don't understand is how much it costs to even do this.

I think that's part of the reason why there hasn't been a huge presence of people of color, because you have to have backing to do this.

Amna Nawaz: That's why Palmer is trying to help other artists get recognition outside of the typical avenues. She hosts a show on Apple Music called "Color Me Country," a name that pays tribute to Black country singer Linda Martell's 1970 album.

And Palmer created a fund that gives small grants to independent artists of color.

Rissi Palmer: The industry has had how many years to make all these things happen? And they haven't. And so, I think, if I can do this, little Rissi Palmer, then what are you all doing? What are you all with all the millions of dollars, like, what are you doing? Like, what can you do?

And I hope it inspires them and it makes them make changes.

Amna Nawaz: In the meantime, Black female country artists are bootstrapping their own careers, collaborating with each other and reaching fans directly through social media and streaming platforms, proving there is a market for their music.

Steven Lewis: Country music is not a white music. Country music was constructed as a white music.

Amna Nawaz: Steven Lewis is the curator of the newly opened National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. He says Black artists were integral to the creation of country music. Even the banjo was based off an African string instrument.

Steven Lewis: The reason why most people don't know about it has to do with decisions that were made in the recording industry in the 1920s, in particular, the decision to market country music, or what was then known as hillbilly music, to white consumers.

Shannon Sanders: There's a lot of money being left on the floor just because people don't feel like they're invited to the party.

Black people were at the concrete pouring, if you will, of country music, and built this house, and then somehow got locked out. So, to have country open the door with open arms, I think we're set up for a real homecoming.

Amna Nawaz: It's been a kind of homecoming for Julie Williams. She grew up in Tampa, and even though she listened to country music as a child, she didn't imagine herself becoming a country singer.

Julie Williams: It's hard to want to go into a genre of country music, when country music for me was the boys in high school blasting it out of the back of their trucks with Confederate Flags on it, right?

That just -- It told me that this isn't a genre for me. Even when I moved to Nashville, I was hesitant to say that I was a country artist, because that was not the country that I want to be a part of.

But the country of Rissi Palmer, Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris, right, that's the country I want to be a part of.

Amna Nawaz: Last month, Williams took a leap of faith and released a music video for her new single, "Southern Curls."

Julie Williams: I would hope that younger Julie would see this and hear my song about my hair and my journey and know that there are other people out there that feel the same way, and so she would love herself. That's what I'm hoping.

Amna Nawaz: For Brittney Spencer, it's been a journey to find her own voice, too, moving to Nashville from her hometown of Baltimore several years ago.

Brittney Spencer: I'm aware that there's not a lot of people in the space that look like me, and that there's a lot of people in the space who might not know how to handle someone like me.

Amna Nawaz: Does that ever make you feel like -- to put it bluntly, like I should be programming and singing for white people?

Brittney Spencer: I think, when I first moved here, I think my mind probably might have been more in that direction. But, today, it's not.

I stopped asking the question of whether or not something I do is good enough. And I started asking, is it me enough? And that has made a world of difference in my music.

Amna Nawaz: Adding her stories and her voice to the growing chorus in country music.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

Judy Woodruff: And you can see more of our arts coverage later tonight on "Beyond the Canvas," presented by our own Amna Nawaz.

You can check your local PBS listings.

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