George Strait and Tupac Shakur
I think it only fair to preface this article by saying that I am a country music fan. I’m a rap fan too – I listen to pretty much everything from classic rock to R&B – but telling people I listen to country music seems to be what surprises them the most. As far as I can tell, you’re just not supposed to listen to country music when you’re from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It’s not normal. And that sentiment is exactly why saying you’re a fan of everything ‘except country and rap’ is a problem: it’s not really about the music. Of course there are aesthetic reasons to dislike certain songs or artists, but when you’re writing off entire genres without even exploring what they have to offer (especially country, since hip-hop is becoming exponentially mainstream), it’s no longer about what you think sounds good or what you enjoy.
The root of the ‘everything except country and rap’ issue is very neatly outlined by University of Michigan Women’s Studies and Music professor Nadine Hubbs in her novel Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music: it’s a class issue, and a race issue.
Recorded music first began to be marketed and distributed to a broader audience in the 1920s American South. A decision to segregate music was made early on, leading to the creation of distinct categories: "hillbilly" and "race" (if these terms seem exaggerated to you, just Google Billboard’s “Hillbilly” and “Race Records” charts). That decision created a divide that lasts even to this day: country music has a connotation as the whitest music in circulation, just as hip-hop is traditionally the sound of blackness. As a result of this racial tension intermingling with our already-prejudiced social and legal systems, two distinct subgroups of the American population have claimed the genres as their own: working class white America lives to a country soundtrack, while African-Americans have declared hip-hop as their domain (I recognize that both these statements are broad generalizations; stay with me here for a minute).
Both country and rap share certain values and criticisms, as well. One of these similarities concerns the need for authenticity. According to general cultural expectations, you can’t be a country musician if you didn’t grow up on a farm (or at least in the South). And you can’t be a rapper if you didn’t grow up on the streets of a big city. And it’s not exclusive to fans of the genres, either. Johnny Cash himself has criticized modern country as fraudulent since today’s singers didn’t grow up picking cotton in the fields like he did (Tom petty even went as far as to call modern country "bad rock with a fiddle"). Eminem, in his movie 8 Mile, calls out another rapper as a fraud because he went to a private school (you can watch the scene below).
While it may seem elemental to the genres to reaffirm these expectations, policing authenticity is a form of classism. It leads to artists from each genre spending an exorbitant amount of time ensuring they’re credible to their audience, whether that means singing about being country and playing into stereotypes like trucks and beer or rapping about their old life in the hood and where they are now. Stereotypes about what artists in a certain genre should look or behave like are compartmentalizing audiences and creating conflicts, as well as playing into a class struggle. Not all country artists are conservative, religious, and traditional. Not all rappers are vulgar and violent.
Admitting you like country music can be particularly difficult in certain situations or regions. Because it has become connotatively inextricable with the working class, associating yourself with it jeopardizes your own status as middle or upper class. As Hubbs writes in her novel, “Country music’s potency as a creator of classed taste and identity is evident in the derision and anxiety it arouses in the dominant culture.”
We are taught, consciously or subconsciously, to enjoy culture through these lenses of race and class. Genres you think you don’t like are thought of that way only because they’re the other. The songs all sound the same to you because they sound different than what you do listen to.
Anyone can like country. Anyone can like rap. Anyone can identify with country. Anyone can identify with rap. Feeling like an outsider in these genres because of differences between the experiences of the artists and your own experiences is the biggest hindrance to enjoying good music.
I’ll be the first person to admit that there are certain songs I just can't stand, that there are artists who rub me the wrong way. But failing to appreciate an entire genre, letting alone a single song, because it’s not the kind of culture your society has told you to consume is a monstrous error.