Racial Equality

An American requiem for the end of white Christian Nationalism: A discourse on Beyoncé’s new album, ‘Cowboy Carter’

  Amy Couch

By Amy Couch and Whitney Oppenhuizen

To paraphrase Willie Nelson, “Sometimes you don’t know the importance of something until someone you trust turns you on to some real powerful shit. And that, readers, is why we’re here.

Beyoncé, the R&B and pop megastar, dropped her first country music album in March and it shook the music industry and pop culture. But Cowboy Carter is more than just music – it’s a provocative piece of cultural criticism calling out white privilege and nationalism and deconstructing the silos of societal genres.  The New York Times review explained, “Beyoncé has deliberately made each of her recent albums not only a musical performance but also an argument: about power, style, history, family, ambition… They’re albums meant to be discussed and footnoted, not just listened to.”

From the cover art to the final song (“Amen”), Cowboy Carter spotlights the appropriation of Black culture, the unmet aspiration of American equality, and politicians’ broken promises. Beyoncé uses historical references to Black institutions like the “Chitlin Circuit” to verify the album’s socio-racial viewpoint. She challenges mainstream country music in the same way that the existence of Black people and LGBTQ+ folks threaten white Christian Nationalism.

Beyoncé throws gasoline on the white Christian Nationalist fire

Beyoncé’s entry into this genre – the very existence of this record – throws gasoline on the white Christian Nationalist fire raging at the changing power dynamics in America. White Christian Nationalism wrongly believes that America is a Christian nation founded for its white Christian inhabitants and that our laws and policies must reflect this. This anti-democratic movement has fueled cultural racism and segregation throughout our history. 

The cover of Cowboy Carter hits hard, bucking us right off the high-horse belief that America is a dream for every person, regardless of economic status, race, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. Rolling Stone commentaries point to “the ambiguity of Beyoncé’s positioning (forward or backward?)” and how this “reflects America’s tension between progressive and regressive ideologies.” The absence of the blue field and white stars is not simple cropping, but a choice “because blue represents justice, and America is ‘not there yet.’” Lyrics like these from the song “Ya-Ya” reiterate this: “Good ole USA/ whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh/ History can’t be erased.”

The cover art is quintessential Western Americana but also tips its hat to the rich history of both Black cowboys and Black country music, a history most Americans know little about. “Historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black,” but good luck finding that representation in the American psyche. Similarly, Black musicians have always been an important part of American country music, but their contributions have been appropriated, ignored or erased – from foundational artists like Linda Martell and Charlie Pride to contemporary artists like Aaron Vance, Rissi Palmer, and Rhiannon Giddens.

Cowboy Carter is taking up space in this “white” genre just as Black Americans are overcoming the power of white Christian Nationalists. And Beyoncé is unapologetically holding space in both ways. Beyoncé faced this same erasure during the 2016 CMA Awards performance with The Chicks. White nationalist outbursts like, “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!!! When have they ever invited ANY country singer to their BET awards…NEVER!!!! STOP IT” were hurled on social media and even from the audience.

The 27 songs on the album explore and expose this history and the modern fight, not just against racism, but against white Christian Nationalism. 

“American Requiem”

The song “American Requiem” sets the stage by calling out the systemic racism that continues to oppress 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement.“Nothing really ends/ for things to stay the same, they have to change again/ Hello, my old friend/ You changed your name but not the way you play pretend/ American Requiem/ Them big ideas are buried here/ Amen.” 

Ta-Nehisi Coates has described American whiteness as “an existential danger to the country and the world” and explains how white Christian Nationalism conflates a whiteness that “is neither national nor symbolic but is the very core of [its] power… But whereas [its] forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman… [they have now] cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.” Similarly in “American Requiem,” Beyoncé calls on the listener to bury the “big ideas” of the past – born from colonization and systemic racism – and get ready for the truth she brings. 

She relies on her personal heritage – her birthright as “the grand-baby of a moonshine man” from Gadsden, Alabama – to aid her call for justice. She also traces her heritage to Galveston, Texas, the last place to learn that slavery had been abolished in 1865 and the birthplace of the celebration Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery. “Can you hear me?” she asks “There’s a lotta talking going on/ While I sing my song… Can we stand for something/ Now is the time to face the wind/ Now ain’t the time to pretend/ Now is the time to let love in/ Together can we stand?”

Can we hear her?

“Ya-Ya”

Ya-Ya” begins “Act II” of the album and lays bare the systemic oppression of every group other than cis, white, straight, evangelical men. With lyrics like “You lookin’ for a new America?/ Are you tired, working’ time and a half for half the pay?/ I just pray that we don’t crash, keep my Bible on the dash/ We gotta keep the faith,” “Ya-Ya” raises up the angst of people in poverty, people of color, women and other oppressed groups. Beyoncé also reclaims faith and Christianity for Black and marginalized groups with cultural references like Bibles on dashboards and faith as a fuel to fight for freedom.

But she also acknowledges the desire folks fighting oppression have to just live their lives, detach from the news cycle, disappear into the things that bring relief and pleasure. “I just wanna shake my ass” starts a mid-song bridge about being free to live a normal life. But “Ya-Ya” ends with a clear, imperative call to action: “We gotta keep the faith . . . vote!”

Amen”

Beyoncé concludes this album, a requiem, with “Amen.” With big vocal harmonies over church piano chords, Beyoncé delivers a rousing speech, like a general to her freedom fighters.I can see you hurtin’/ see you hurtin’ badly/ We’ll say a prayer for what has been/ we’ll be the ones that purify our father’s sins/ American Requiem/ Them old ideas are buried here.”

“Amen” is a battle cry, a warning to the white Christian Nationalists trying to rewrite our history, take away voting rights, and convince us that oppression is good and divinely sanctioned. “Amen” says we know the truth; we won’t let them warp faith into a weapon. We are singing a death song, a requiem, to those old ideas and white supremacy. America is our country. Our ancestors built it. We are the patriots. The future is ours. 

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now