It’s a yearly Houston ritual as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano. Every year around this time, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo unveils its concert line-up, and people get in a swivet. There’s the “that crap ain’t real country” crowd, excoriating the presence of the likes of bro-country acts like Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, or Luke Bryan on the bill, when traditionalists like Gene Watson, Kacey Musgraves, and Willie Nelson are not. And ever since the Rodeo started edging away from Tejano music on “Go Tejano Day” about fifteen years ago, native-born Texans of Hispanic heritage have been protesting the fact that that day’s musical performer has been an act from Mexico, one who plays styles like banda or norteño, rather than Texas-bred Hispanic music.
Beginning last year and increasing in vehemence this January, complaints have also come from the African-American community, to whom one night’s concert each Rodeo season—the culmination of Black Heritage Day—is devoted. The act in 2016 was Jason Derulo, who some R&B fans found too pop. And this year’s act, Fort Worth-bred throwback soul artist Leon Bridges, prompted the vast majority of would-be concertgoers to collectively wonder, “Who?”
Leon Bridges? Blacks only get one night out of 20 performances for the entire rodeo. A popular entertainer should have been selected. I will not be in attendance at black heritage night this year. This will be the first time I have missed in 10 years. @RODEOHOUSTON #disappointed
— Brandy Fontenot, MBA (@msbrandy765) January 5, 2018
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo got Leon Bridges for Black Heritage Night. I say this with the most respect I can, but WHO?!?!
— Morgan Rigsby (@MorganRigsbyHTX) January 5, 2018
That was not how many white and Hispanic fans saw it.
Houston rodeo lineup is out . totally going to Leon bridges and one republic
— Sophia Martinez (@sophia20___) January 5, 2018
Bridges’s fans sprang to his defense, and things turned nasty. The headline of an article posted on Savingcountrymusic.com called all those who opposed Bridges’s booking “cretins” for not knowing who he was, especially if they were Texans. Penned by “Trigger,” the nom de plume of site owner Kyle Coroneos, the article points out the many feathers in Bridges’s cap: he hosted Saturday Night Live, he was nominated for best R&B album in the 2016 Grammy Awards, his song “Smooth Sailin’” was a number one hit in the Adult Alternative Album radio format (which historically has a very limited black presence: aside from Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard, Bridges is the lone African-American in the list’s top hits of this decade).
“If in fact Leon Bridges is not a household name, that’s not on Leon Bridges or the Houston Rodeo. That’s on those respective households,” Coroneos nevertheless contends. “The outcry over the 2018 Houston Rodeo lineup can’t be that only 2 out of the 20 performers are from Texas, or that only two of the 20 performers are women. It has to center around the one thing the Houston Rodeo got right, which was booking Leon Bridges.”
The article goes on to posit, with no evidence whatsoever backing his point, that the outrage stems from an audience obsessed with hip-hop. “The people complaining on Facebook don’t care if it’s a Texas native playing Black Heritage Day, or have any desire to potentially discover something new,” Coroneos, who is white, wrote. “They want Nicki Minaj to take the Houston Rodeo stage in a bodysuit, and rub up against a pole for 90 minutes while she lip syncs, because that’s what they’re familiar with.”
Many African-American fans saw Coroneos’s comments as uninformed, if not downright racist.
“’They’ want Nicki Minaj sliding on a pole… REALLY?,” says Tasha Earvin, an African-American Houstonian who actively participates in the very trail-riding culture that Black Heritage Night ostensibly honors. “First of all, who is ‘they’? He might as well said ‘you people.’”
As Earvin sees it, Bridges’s race doesn’t mean he automatically appeals to multiple demographics. “How does Leon cut across the cultural and racial divide?” Earvin asks. “Because he is black and sings in a throwback style? Cutting across cultural and racial divides is what MJ and Prince did. It is what Beyonce does. Leon’s music appeals to only one type and most people still have to Google him to even hear what he sounds like.”
Renee Brown, daughter of Texas-Louisiana music icon Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, agrees. “I think the issue with Leon, and I’m not attacking his talent per se, but his sound, to put it simply, is played out among African-Americans. It is more a vintage trendy sound for other demographics,” she says. After watching Bridges’s videos, Brown, who describes his stage presence as “dry,” believes his music won’t land in front of a largely black audience. “I’m not saying anything about his talent, but it’s my professional opinion that he’s just not bringing enough mojo,” she says.
Some R&B enthusiasts found Coroneos’s comments to be offensive as well as incorrect. Houston radio DJ Bobby Phats, host of KPFT’s “The Groove,” which showcases underground hip-hop and progressive soul and R&B, said that Coroneos’s assumption about hip-hop, Minaj and African-American music preferences was “incredibly insensitive” and “inflammatory.”
“The assumption that Black Heritage Night attendees would only want to see a female rapper ‘rub’ against a ‘pole’ while lip-synching is outright ignorant,” Phats wrote in an email interview. “The author not only assumes that black audiences are not open to new music and artists, but also that only a half-naked female rapper with access to a stripper pole would be sufficient enough to satisfy them.”
As Phats sees it, Coroneos unfairly contends that black audiences should be open to an unfamiliar artist, while the bulk of the rest of the Rodeo line-up are tried-and-true country acts popular on white radio, even if they are not to the exacting tastes of country traditionalists.
Coroneos, one of those traditionalists, would prefer to see more country purists on the bill, like honky-tonker Chris Stapleton—as would many black country fans, a shared taste that illustrates how artists can appeal to different fanbases. In fact, Stapleton’s soulful remake of the 1970s honky-tonk hit “Tennessee Whiskey” has become a staple of modern-day Houston blues-soul culture, as one Houstonian noted on Twitter.
I bet there will be more black folks to see Chris Stapleton sing Tennessee Whiskey then Leon Bridges. I had to YouTube this Kat his sound is mid 60s blues R&B not worth the time Rodeo Committee Failed. I guess we know who voted for Trump.
— ok Terry d (@Okterryd) January 5, 2018
For many fans, it’s not only an unfamiliarity with Bridges, but the fact that he was chosen over so many promising options, prompting questions about the process of selecting him as the artist for Black Heritage Night.
Brown, for one, has a different suggestion for an under-the-radar act already getting airplay on NPR: the heavily poetic grooves of New Orleans’s Tank and the Bangas. “She is just as unknown [to mass black audiences] as Leon, but she has traction, and once people saw her and her band, they would love it,” she says. “She is going to soar.”
Even with a budget ruling out legends like Beyoncé and Stevie Wonder, Phats thinks the Rodeo could have chosen an African-American performer from Texas without forcing the intended audience to Google the featured star of Black Heritage Day.
“Erykah Badu would have been a great choice,” Phats writes. “She’s a Dallas native that is still popular among adult R&B audiences. I would think she would have jumped at the chance to perform in a venue that size in her home state if she was available to do so.”
Contrary to what Bridges’s fans have contended, it is not the fault of Houston’s black audiences that they have not heard of him. From the outset of his career, Bridges has never been marketed to a black audience, whether live or through radio and the Internet. In a November Texas Monthly profile, Bridges admitted that his first performance in front of a black audience was a flop. “I had my shot when I played at the Roots Picnic. It’s a predominantly black, predominantly hip-hop festival,” he said. “My people. And I was excited to play for my people, but I didn’t get the same reaction that I did when I played to a white crowd. I felt like it didn’t work.”
Maybe his Rodeo show will be different, or maybe not. Meanwhile, the fact remains that Bridges is almost “completely unknown to black audiences,” according to Phats—himself a Bridges fan. Perhaps a black audience will show up to take a chance on an artist they haven’t heard of. Regardless, his performance will likely be another draw for white fans to a concert lineup already dominated by white artists.