By Cowgirl Candace | Originally published for Black Beauty & Hair Magazine
The black cowboy and cowgirl have made a hardline comeback in pop culture.
And it’s about darn time.
Contrary to popular belief, the black cowhand has been the backbone to the American West — the inspiration for Western shows, films and characters that audiences around the globe have grown to love. Fortunately, Hollywood has started to recognize the black experience in the Wild West more with recent projects.
Movies and TV series like HBO’s sci-fi Western “Westworld” (2016-present) starring Emmy winner Thandie Newton and blockbuster hit “The Magnificent Seven” (2016) with Academy Awards winner Denzel Washington have placed blacks in the forefront of the cowboy storyline.
“While for most Americans the black cowboy does not exist, African-Americans glimpsed a historical past that we partially shaped,” said U.S. black cowboy historian and author Michael Searles, known nationally as Cowboy Mike. “Many whites and some blacks feel that country music belongs exclusively to white folks. This does not comport with the fact that many blacks grew up listening to, singing, writing and performing country music.”
Unlike what media oftentimes fails to show, the American frontier was actually stocked with many black cattlemen, drovers, fiddlers, broncobusters, cowpunchers and entertainers. In fact, an estimated 5,000 black cowboys worked during the 19th century, which meant there was representation on the range.
Blacks impact on cowhand culture has sustained. Influenced by their outlaw lifestyles, these musical celebs, scholars and community change agents have continued to commemorate black cowhands using modern forms of entertainment and education:
LIL NAS X: Since April, the Atlanta-based singer, rapper and songwriter’s country/rap single “Old Town Road” has topped the Billboard Hot 100 as the No. 1 hit. Featuring country singing veteran Billy Ray Cyrus, it now holds the longest reign on the Billboard since Drake’s “In My Feelings.” Despite the song receiving the side-eye from the white country Western community and becoming pulled from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, it continues to win new fans across the world. During March, “Old Town Road” climbed the global Apple Music and Spotify United States Top 50 charts. Lil Nas X also secured a partnership with denim label Wrangler to curate a collection of blue jeans, and, of course, the project came with Instagram controversy when Wrangler fans called the collaboration “nonsense.”
SOLANGE: The Southern songstress live streamed her “When I Get Home” album this year, which celebrates black cowboys from her hometown of Houston. Solange has been sharing her black cowhand experiences and high country Western fashion via Instagram @saintrecords. “Thank you to all of the black cowboys in the land who have put your bodies on the line time and time again to write history since the beginning of time,” she posted on her Insta page. “I learned so much from all of you and feel infinite gratitude for you trusting in meeeeee.” She admitted to not knowing who white cowboy actor John Wayne was. The first cowboys she saw were black.
CARDI B: The New York rapper’s Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo performance during March rocked the arena and made history. Cardi B broke the paid rodeo attendance count, beating out country singer Garth Brooks’ closing 2018 performance. Her 75,580 concert supporters catapulted her into the all-time paid attendance record. And her pink and baby blue fringed and chap outfit turned heads, too.
AVA DUVERNAY: This award-winning filmmaker took a shot at a TV series called “Queen Sugar,” and now the story about three African-American siblings dealing with personal problems while managing the family’s sugarcane farm has become a huge small screen hit. Partnering with Oprah, DuVernay created a rural world that places a black farming family at the center of the show. Now in its fourth season on OWN, “Queen Sugar” pulled in more than 2 million viewers its first season and continues to win audiences over with its gripping Southern storylines.
VERONICA WOMACK: Paralleling DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” from an academic perspective is international scholar Dr. Veronica Womack. Her extensive work with black farming families and communities of America’s underserved and underdeveloped Black Belt Region — counties spanning from Virginia to Texas that house a large population of African-Americans — has garnered a global audience. Womack’s deep-rooted examination of agricultural/farm bill policy, regional poverty and rural economic development is rare research. It has earned her an invite to speak with a working group of experts at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss opportunities to bring more resources in to help rebuild the Black Belt Region.
COWGIRLS OF COLOR: They became the first all-black, all-female rodeo team to compete in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo — the only black touring rodeo in the United States. It was a simple challenged that ended up shattering beauty, racial, gender and athletic norms in the multimillion-dollar sport dominated by white males. Team members Pennie, Pinky, KB and Britt Brat created such a buzz in the rodeo circuit that the cowgirls have since been featured in national campaigns for Walmart and Ford.
BEYONCÉ: The mega star performed her country Western-influenced song “Daddy Lessons” at the Country Music Association Awards. The awards show served as a first-time appearance for Queen Bey, who ended up performing with legendary trio the Dixie Chicks for the evening event. The song and set was deemed her first real push into country music.
KHIA THUG MISSES: Most of the veteran rapper’s fans don’t even know she grew up on the countryside and has been an avid horseback rider/cowgirl for more than a decade. Just like her classic 2002 single, “My Neck, My Back,” the artist is known to shock audiences with her commentary, lyrics and looks. Heading into 2020, Khia will show off her Down South vocals with twangy tunes from her debut black cowgirl blues album “Sheba BlackEntire Presents Hell Flower” as she’s readying to turn out Nashville. Her influence on country Western stars became apparent when “My Neck, My Back” became part of New York City’s 2015 Adult Swim Upfront Party. Country singer and pop star Miley Cyrus (Bill Ray Cyrus’ daughter) featured the track in her performance. Khia acknowledged Miley via Twitter saying: “Damn Shame It Took A Sweet Country White Chic To Pay Homage To The Queen!!”
COWGIRL CANDACE: That’s right: Yours truly founded the first and only black cowgirl blogazine, Southern Styles & Steeds, which shares my lifestyle as an award-winning journalist and fourth-generation cowgirl. By simply sharing my Deep South story online, I’ve connected and partnered with international boot brands Durango Boots and Justin Boots as the first African-American brand blogger to rep both international footwear companies via social media campaigns. I’ve also been able to interview legendary black cowhands in the rodeo world throughout the course of my editorial career.