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.

Hip-hop does talk about people being policed, though.

Yeah—but I'd say that that's less about class and more about race. Even when they're talking about being policed in something like "Ridin' Dirty," it's about how they're on their hustle to get over the class part of their oppression, but the race-based stuff is still there. I just don't think class is a popular thing to talk about.

Country music seems like it's about white class identity, at least in part. I'm thinking of that Kacey Musgraves song "Merry Go Round"…

I think Kacey is a bit of an outlier; I'm quite happy she's around. But when, in mainstream country they're talking about class, it is about, “yeah, but we're making it.” It's a nostalgic feeling about being working class. I'm going to flip my boss off today and ride off to the coast. But there's always a sense of, “tomorrow we'll be back in the grind.” Country music is how we deal with and make peace with the fact of class.

I think we're all part of this high-glamor pop-culture moment, which I find really odd considering most of the circumstances most of us are living with. I don't know if that's escapism, but it just seems to get shinier and shinier, and there's less discourse around class. And even when it is about class, class is about a bad boss, not about how jobs are changing or how there aren't enough of them.

So if it's not about class, why is country interested in reaching out to hip-hop?

I think it's because youth culture right now happens to be a hip-hop culture. You have a generation of young people for whom some hip-hop was part of their sonic landscape growing up. So I think it's about being young and being hip and being modern without being entirely hip-hop. It's just enough hip-hop; there's some sort of intuitive threshold of much hip-hop there can be in hick hop. Just enough so it's young and cool, without having to go all out hip-hop.

I just watched the Florida Georgia Line remix of "Cruise" featuring Nelly, and it occurred to me that the way the two acts find common ground is basically through lust; the video is about them bonding as guys in objectifying women of both races. 

Yeah, it's really interesting visually. They have one black woman in the video, so she's there for Nelly's gaze, because he better not be gazing at the white women that way.

But also vice versa, right? There can be only one, because the white guys can't be looking at her either…

Exactly. In reverse. They have the exact right number of white women for the band, and the exact right number of black women for Nelly. I find that fascinating.

There's an interesting contrast in the video for the Danity Kane song "Ride for You," where they're very careful to have integrated couples.

Which is fascinating. Because the gender dynamics—the band is comprised of women. It's like women need to be more open, whereas it's more rigid for men. And then you also have the genre difference.

Country seems like it wants to be integrated to some degree, but only to some degree.

Yes; because for Florida Georgia Line, it's party music. And what tends to come with parties and young people is usually some kind of sexual tension. And they want to be very careful about shaping where they think that sexual tension is going to go. I think crossing over in that way is still something country could not do, visually or lyrically.

I think it goes back to country being fundamentally about a better, simpler time. And that's always a nostalgic feeling, about a better past. So even when the music is about fun, and isn't on the surface about the past, the genre is about that. And for white people a lot of talking about the good old times is talking about a pre-integration time a pre-Civil Rights time, a time before interracial dating was common. So they've got to walk a fine line there between holding up the nostalgia of the genre and tapping into the youth culture. And I think that's the dance they're trying to do. And to tell you the truth, while the music itself may be questionable, visually Florida Georgia Line is nailing it. They have just enough of each of those elements to stay legitimate.

Since that particular crossover is so built on the male gaze, I wondered if there could be a female hick-hop performer. And then I wondered if Miley Cyrus's recent performances could be seen as a kind of hick hop?

That's a great question. Because she's country royalty in a way, so it certainly could be read as hick hop. Even if she's not doing it musically, there is something in the way she's playing with images which is exactly what Florida Georgia Line does, except she takes it a step further—which may be gender or may be because she's pop. But she herself is trying to perform being the black artist in a way that Florida Georgia Line, the boys in that band, aren't. They still have that rock country look—the tats and the jewelry and the hair. So they're not trying to perform hip-hop the look, whereas Miley Cyrus is absolutely trying to perform as what she sees as a black artist.

It seems like it's similar in the sense that blackness connotes the mainstream culture, being popular, being dangerous.

That's right. I think she is playing with an idea of a dangerous sexuality and in our culture that means having some sort of racial identity that is non-white. And at least while Florida Georgia Line may be performing a certain kind of masculinity and misogyny, they aren't trying to imitate blackness themselves.

In fact, they're very carefully trying not to imitate blackness, right?

Exactly. So we may have some sort of weird hierarchy, where there are different levels to how you play out the blackness. But the overarching reason tends to be the same. That something about being black is youth culture, is cool, and has a safe kind of danger attached to it.