The Racial Dynamics of 'Hick Hop'

Jason Aldean and Ludacris, Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, and on and on: a conversation with sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom on the recent wave of cross-genre party music.
Jason Aldean and Ludacris, here performing at the 2012 Grammys, teamed up for "Dirt Road Anthem." (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Country music is generally seen as music for rural white people sung in traditional styles. Hip hop is (also generally seen as) urban black music continually updating itself. For both cultural and aesthetic reasons, the twain, you'd think, should never meet.

And yet they have. In an article from late last year, writer and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote about the latest wave of so-called “hick hop,” in which country radio hitmakers like Florida Georgia Line collaborate with mainstream rap artists like Nelly to create a hybrid cyborg cross-genre marketing juggernaut. From "Cruise" to the Brad Paisley/L.L. Cool J. duet "Accidental Racist" to Jason Aldean and Ludacris' "Dirt Road Anthem", to the maybe-up-and-coming hitmaker Big Smo, rap has become a somewhat-controversial new fixture of popular country. To figure out why, I interviewed Cottom about hick hop, race, class, and what it means when country goes hip hop.

In your essay about hick hop and country/rap crossovers, you write that country's influences are interracial, but that it's "been leveraged as a tool of whiteness, particularly as a tool in the delineation of the cultural boundaries of rural, southern, working class whiteness." So, how is country music leveraged as a tool of whiteness, and who is doing that leveraging?

Well, we can talk about whiteness as two different things. There are white people, and then we can talk about whiteness as this structural idea—a space is white or a country is white. Of course, “American” isn't white; people who came here had various ethnic identities and origins. Whiteness is just a thing we came up with that defines other people primarily from black people. Those are usually the polar opposites that we have in the U.S. 

So what I mean by it is that if you turn on the radio or television and hear a few chords of a country-music song, it's not uncommon for people who aren't white, and sometimes even white people, to go, "oh, that's white people stuff." But of course that obscures the history of how culture happens. There's nothing that has been created singularly and uniquely by one group of people in that way, and especially not in the U.S.

Given that country is used to signal whiteness, or as an expression of white community, why are you a fan? What does country offer you as a black person?

That's such an interesting question, because I don't know too many black people who don't have a country song that they'll go, well, that one's all right. Which again speaks to the fact that there is no such thing as music being owned in that way by a group of people.

But on a personal level: Typical black migration story, I was born in New York, and then we moved back to North Carolina, but I still had family members in New York. And I had an uncle who had been a musician as a young adult, and I remember walking down the street with him in Queens, New York, I couldn't have been more than six or seven—this is one of my earliest memories. And there was this huge billboard of Johnny Cash, and he stopped and he turned to me—and I should tell you I had a little hero worship of my uncle. And he goes, "you see that? You see that, little girl? That's the baddest man in the land." All I remember is this really huge white dude dressed all in black on a billboard.

Same thing with my grandmother, who was a Patsy Cline fan. It tended to be the country-music artists who were closest to the gospel tradition is where a lot of that crossover happened in my personal life. The ones who could sing a good spiritual. And I think it was the same for a lot of black people from the southern tradition. We still tend to share a lot of religiosity with southern whites, that is absolutely about class, that tends to get lost as you move up that class ladder.

And I still listen to country music. I think it's about the narratives, it's about the stories. I think it still can be a fun music. A lot of other popular music, there's a certain self-consciousness about it. Everything now is snark, everything is very self-aware. But country music is still selling the fun and the lack of self-consciousness, and that appeals to me.

One of the early famous interracial collaborations in country music is a 1930 duet between Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong. The song is basically about being harassed by police, so it's finding a common link between poor whites and black people in that both are targeted by law enforcement. That kind of interracial bond around class experience doesn't show up in the country rap collaborations you're discussing though, it doesn't seem like. Why not?

I think for the same reason that we don't have any class stuff happening in popular culture, period. Hip hop, country, and hick hop—the merging of the two—are all part of the larger cultural domain, which has become a place where we just don't have class. When we talk about class in mainstream hip-hop now it's in that aspirational way: We're all going to be Jay Z and run the board. But we don't talk about class in an oppressive way.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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