You’ve probably seen an uptick in cowboy hats and knee-high leather boots on your feed. It might even seem like there’s been an increase in the use of the cowboy emoji in everyday text conversations, or at least on Twitter. You’ve probably also noticed that this iteration of the western trend has prominently featured more black artists, musicians, and actors than before. But why has the cowboy become so popular?
Of course, the visual cues associated with what could be classified as western—cowboy hats, cow prints, rhinestones, and fringed suede jackets, to name a few—are certainly not limited to the likes of Kacey Musgraves or John Wayne. In September 2018, the trend of black pop-culture figures wearing cowboy garb was dubbed the “Yeehaw Agenda” by Bri Malandro, a Texas-based pop-culture archivist. Her Instagram account, also called @theyeehawagenda, functions as both an archive and celebration of black cowboy aesthetics in popular culture. It’s a treasure trove: You can find anyone from Beyoncé in her Destiny’s Child days wearing a cowboy hat to Bernie Mac in a bolo tie.
The history of the black cowboy has largely been erased from American culture, and the “moment” black cowboys are having in pop culture right now has actually persisted for quite some time. That’s why an Instagram archive like Malandro’s is so important to the preservation of black influence on the Americana aesthetic. The imagery associated with Americana has been overwhelmingly white, so much so that the Studio Museum in Harlem even held a “Black Cowboy” exhibition two years ago, featuring photographic works from Kahlil Joseph, Deanna Lawson, and Chandra McCormick that aimed to bring the black cowboy to the forefront of western history.
Wrangling cattle and the riding, training, and keeping of horses are practices that have been mastered by black Americans since the 1800s, but the impact that African American men and women have had on cowboy culture is not well known. During the Civil War, Texas slaveowners left cattle wrangling up to the black slaves they purchased while the slaveowners fought in battle. After the war ended, many slaves had become expert cowhands, and roughly 25 percent of cowboys were black.
Today, an organization of black community leaders in California called Compton Cowboys has blazed a trail by preserving the history and legacy of the black cowboy, while also providing guidance to the youth of Compton and keeping their communities safe. Their Instagram account has garnered more than 25,000 followers, and yes, they sell merch.
Over the past few years, their popularity has surged to the point that Pyer Moss—a label that prominently presented western-inspired looks in its fall/winter 2018 runway show—featured the Compton Cowboys in the look book for their fall 2018 collaboration with Reebok.
Telfar, another label determined to shake up the homogenous couture landscape, has emphasized the importance of the black cowboy figure by employing this aesthetic on the runway. For Telfar, the “runway” at the fall 2019 New York Fashion Week happened to be a stage, where Ho99o9 and other musicians donned in their finest western accoutrements—including cowboy hats and chaps—and performed while models stage dove into the crowd turned moshpit. The show was appropriately titled “Country.”
Of course, the Yeehaw Agenda is sprawling, meaning it extends beyond the zones of Fashion Week. Solange, a Houston native, dropped her anticipated fourth studio album, When I Get Home, in early 2019, and the accompanying visuals were decidedly western.
Then there’s the curious case of Lil Nas X. When the 20-year-old rapper released his song “Old Town Road” along with a music video set to scenes from Red Dead Redemption 2, a Western action-adventure video game, it was initially memed on TikTok, but the track climbed toward the top of the Hot Country Billboard chart, and landed at number 19. When Billboard decided to remove the song, insisting that it “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” for it to be considered part of the genre, the Internet revolted, with many contending that the erasure of the song from the country charts reveals a problem with race in the country music community. But really, what about the musical composition of “Old Town Road” disqualifies it from being a country song? Its singer’s Southern twang is, after all, reminiscent of the twang in the voices of popular country musicians, the track incorporates a banjo, and the video backdrop appropriately matched the aesthetics associated with country music. Besides, Lil Nas X is not the first rapper to make a countrified hip-hop song. Nelly, UGK, and Outkast have all tossed their 10-gallon hats into the ring.
Just as black artists have had a hand in the invention and popularization of genres including, but not limited to, rock and roll, punk, riot grrrl, and electronic music, the ways in which black artists have shaped the sounds of contemporary country music have historically been overshadowed by the emphasis placed on white artists. For example, a musician like Ray Charles may be more commonly associated with the blues or soul, but he was one of the few black artists who achieved crossover success and made major contributions to American country music in the 1960s. (His 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and its second volume follow-up are good places to start if you want to familiarize yourself with Charles’s interpretations of country and folk standards.) After all of the initial “Old Town Road” hullabaloo, Billy Ray Cyrus got involved by hopping on a remix, and the song climbed back to the top of the country charts.
As the real-life black cowboys have gone unsung in history, contemporary pop culture icons seem determined to put an end to the excision. The act of dressing like a cowboy, highlighting the impact black artists have had on country music, and flooding the Internet with decidedly black western imagery is a form of paying homage to this nearly forgotten community and a mode of archiving it so that it won’t be forgotten in the future. As Maladro posited last fall, “the Yeehaw Agenda is in full effect,” and it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.