LOS ANGELES – Sitting on top of an enormous bucking bull, Ky-Manee Hardy says he has “all of the power in the world.” The only thing preventing him from soaring through the air is his right-handed grip on a bull rope and his knees straddling the animal’s torso.
A gate swings open and the bull thrashes into the dirt-covered arena, kicking his legs wildly. Thousands of spectators roar, admiring the duel – the first of eight in the bull riding competition at the 35th annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
In many ways, this rodeo is no different than any other. It’s a weekend of bull riding, steer wrestling, bareback horse riding and other rodeo sports. Cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans and western boots are the standard attire. Vendors serve up heaps of fried comfort food from smoke-filled concession stands. The only difference is that every competitor and most of the fans are black.
Atlanta-based musical artist Lil Nas X’s country-trap single “Old Town Road” has helped cast a light in recent months on black Western culture, with its lyrics celebrating boots, cowboy hats and horses.
But the history of African American cowboys and cowgirls in the United States isn’t new. They make up a diverse community thriving in cities and towns from coast to coast. And these days, they, like so many other Americans, have cheered the 20-year-old musician’s ascent and sung along to his anthem.
Ky Hardy, a Northern California junior & senior bull riding champion has been competing in rodeo’s since he was four and got started after joining the Brotherhood Youth Riders. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY)
The song – which, on Monday, became the longest-running number-one hit in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart – has been a spark plug for cultural conversations about race, genre and the state of the music industry ever since Billboard removed the track from its country charts in March for not embracing “enough elements of today’s country music.” Supporters defended Lil Nas X, protesting that he was being shut out of the genre because of his race. The musician responded by enlisting the talents of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix, the first of four that have featured artists as diverse as electronic music producer Diplo, rapper Young Thug and Korean pop star RM of the group BTS. Since the original remix was released April 5, the track has owned the top spot on the all-genre chart for a record 17 weeks – and counting.
Singer-songwriter Dom Flemons of Flagstaff, Arizona, said he has been excited to see the success of “Old Town Road.” Flemons, who recorded a Grammy-nominated folk album entitled “Black Cowboys” in 2018, is half-African American and half-Mexican American. Flemons describes his record as a “juxtaposition of African American music with Western music.”
Lil Nas X performs during the 2019 CMA Fest June 8, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: Larry McCormack, USA TODAY NETWORK)
“The West of the imagination is anyone who puts a cowboy hat on, essentially. It’s a broad spectrum,” Flemons said. “And this is the first time that I’ve seen African American people, outside of the cowboy communities that I know are there, going out of their way to represent cowboys. I think it’s great.”
Flemons said he hopes more African American artists continue to embrace black culture’s Western and Southern roots. He pointed to singer Solange Knowles, whose most recent album, “When I Get Home,” is an ode to her home state of Texas. The LP was released alongside a 33-minute film that features vignettes of black cowboys.
“Growing up here, off Almeda, you’re just going to see black cowboys on the street,” Knowles said at a March 3 screening of the film in her and her sister Beyoncé’s hometown of Houston. “I don’t know who John Wayne is.”
Lil Nas X begins the second verse of “Old Town Road” with an ode to archetypal cowboys. “I got the horses in the back, horse tack is attached, hat is matte black, got the boots that’s black to match,” he raps.
But while pop culture representation for black cowboys has been a recent trend, historians say black cowboys date back to at least the 19th century.
According to Roger Hardaway, a professor of history at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, many black men found work in the cattle industry after the Civil War.
“Freed slaves had no money to buy farms,” Hardaway said. “Many stayed in the South and became sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Many young, ex-slave men opted to go to Texas and work on ranches. Soon, the cattle business spread throughout the West.”
In fact, even the word “cowboy” has roots within the black community.
During the late 19th century, “cowboy” was a widely used, sometimes pejorative term, according to the 2006 book “The Cowboy Way: An Exploration of History and Culture,” edited by American historian Paul H. Carlson, former assistant chairman of the history department at Texas Tech University. President Chester A. Arthur equated the word with “outlaws” and “cattle thieves.”
It was also used to refer to wayfaring trail hands, who transported cattle between burgeoning Western cities. Many historians, including Hardaway, estimate that 1 in 3 of those workers were black or Hispanic.
“Down in the South, they often referred to African American men as boys instead of men,” Hardaway said. “I think the fact that African Americans had pretty low status during slave days certainly led to them being referred to as cowboys. They were good at handling cattle, and often got saddled with doing the work no one else wanted to do.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, the American perception of cowboys was shaped largely by the surging popularity of movies. Western films quickly became one of the industry’s most popular and profitable genres, and white male directors had nearly exclusive control of the camera and casting process.
John Wayne in a scene from Warner Brothers’ “The Searchers.” (Photo: NONE, XXX WARNER HOME VIDEO)
These films cultivated a popular archetype of the American cowboy as a rugged, white-male character, according to Artel Great, a professor of black cinema and film studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. The storytelling often minimized the nation’s history of violence against blacks and Native Americans, he said.
In some cases, film studios cast white actors in the roles of historic black figures. For example, the television series “The Lone Ranger” is based on the life of Bass Reeves, a former slave and the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi.
“The erasure of black cowboys in popular culture speaks to the legitimization of racial divisions and the repression of marginalized voices in dominant media,” Great said. “That’s why it comes as a shock when people witness the country-rap cowboy fusion of a Lil Nas X, because the history of black cowboys has been suppressed for so long.”
Black rodeo athletes can encounter racism from white cowboys
Outside Hollywood, many black cowboys experienced racism in their everyday lives.
In 1977, Lu Vason, a black man from Berkeley, California, realized black cowboys weren’t getting enough attention after he visited the Cheyenne Frontier Days, a massive rodeo and western culture festival held annually in the capital of Wyoming. Seeing hardly any black cowboys or cowgirls, he became motivated to do something about the lack of opportunities for people that looked like him within the rodeo world.
Kid competitors relax backstage before the 35th annual Bill Pickett Rodeo, July 20, 2019. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY)
Despite hearing from many doubters, Vason organized the first Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in 1984, naming the event after a legendary black steer wrestler from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He designed the event as an invitational to ensure he could reserve spaces for black rodeo athletes. When he passed away in May 2015, his widow, Valeria Cunningham, assumed the position of promoter and CEO.
“We see ourselves as a feeder ground,” Cunningham said. “We create a venue for the black cowboys and cowgirls to sharpen their skills, and then they have an opportunity to go and perform in the other, larger rodeo associations across the world.”
When Vason founded the organization, the rodeo world was an unwelcoming, racist environment for black athletes.
Cleo Hearn, 80, said he climbed the ranks of rodeo sports at a time when those in charge conspired against black athletes, even shaving seconds off of the time it took for him to tie runaway cattle. In 1970, he became he first black cowboy to ever have won a national calf-roping event, taking the top prize at the Denver National Western.
“Nobody wants to talk about it, but when I first started rodeoing, it was very segregated,” Hearn said. “You could be the best rider, but you had to depend on a judge.”
Cleo Hearn became the first African American man to win a national calf-roping event with his 1970 victory at the Denver National Western. (Photo: Cleo Hearn)
Wefus Tyus, 52, a black cowboy from Damascus, Arkansas, has competed professionally in rodeos on the weekend for 22 years. He said that, where he’s from, “there’s very few black cowboys” and sometimes, he was attacked for his passion.
Tyus recalled an incident near the beginning of his rodeo career while he was competing in a steer-wrestling competition. He said his competitors tied the rope onto his horse backwards in a dirty trick that could have ended in him badly injured if he hadn’t caught it in time.
Many years later, racism is still prevalent in the cowboy community.
“There are good people … who really do talk to you and help you out,” said Hardy, who has been competing in rodeos since he steer-wrestled in his first Bill Pickett rodeo when he was 9. “And then you have some that do the same thing, but when they go back behind somewhere else, they’re calling you all kinds of names.”
Hardy, who’s from Manteca, California, once dated a white girl on his high school rodeo team. They were at a rodeo when Hardy left the table at one point as his teammates’ families ate dinner. He said the girl later told him that some people began taunting her for dating a black boy.
“There were quite a few parents that didn’t like the idea of her dating an African American kid,” Hardy said. “And they let her know about it. They were calling her names, like the typical, racist names like ‘(N-word) lover,’ or just ‘she loves black kids.’”
The sometimes isolating nature of the mostly white rodeo scene is part of what makes the Bill Pickett Invitational such a special place for many black cowboys and cowgirls. During the recent competitions in Los Angeles, promoters concluded the grand entry – a rodeo’s opening ceremony, of sorts – by blasting “Old Town Road” on the arena’s loudspeakers.
The traveling rodeo makes stops in Denver, Memphis, Oakland, Los Angeles, Atlanta and the greater Washington, D.C., area. Many of the people in attendance at the Los Angeles rodeo described the two-day event as a welcome opportunity for black people from places that are less frequently exposed to Western culture to experience the rodeo scene.
Patricia Kelly, a black woman, offers recreational equestrian activities to young, predominantly black and Latino men and women as the founder of Ebony Horsewomen Inc. The organization based in Hartford, Connecticut, specializes in equine-assisted therapy, a form of therapy in which horses aid the healing process.
When she was a girl, Kelly’s family was the second black family to own a home on Clark Street in Hartford, north of the city’s Main Street, which had previously segregated black and white residents. She recalled a white neighbor who looked like Santa Claus letting her brush his horse, at a time when people in her neighborhood were protesting her family’s arrival to the area, as what began her love of horses.
In 1985, Kelly brought members of her organization to ride in a Bill Pickett rodeo in Washington, D.C. Having always been the only local group of black equestrians in Hartford, the weekend was a reaffirming experience, she said.
“It’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven,” Kelly said. “You see all of these beautiful, accomplished equestrians. Children, women – an abundance of women – men, who are doing extraordinary things. And you’re like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’”
“And then you go back to Connecticut because it’s just you again,” Kelly said with a laugh.
Urban cowboys seek to make a difference for local children
Black cowboys aren’t confined to the rodeo circuit, of course.
In the official mini movie for “Old Town Road,” released May 17, Lil Nas X defeats rapper Vince Staples in a wagered drag race. In one shot, the competitors zoom past Garcia Brothers Market, a closed business in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights – Staples in his car, Lil Nas X on horseback.
As Staples pays up, he says he feels like he’s seen the mysterious cowboy before. “You’re from Compton, right?” Staples asks.
Southern California, in fact, has long been home to black Western culture.
On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, four black cowboys worked to repair the white trim on a gray barn and then install new gates to enclose their horses. Days later, they celebrated the grand opening of their equestrian organization, Urban Saddles, in South Gate, California, roughly 7 miles southeast from downtown Los Angeles.
Ghuan Featherstone, Michael Thomas, Calvin Gray and William Bias hope their hard work will soon pay off. Their goal is to offer equestrian programs for local children, teaching the next generation of black cowboys and cowgirls how to care for and ride horses.
A young cowboy hangs out back stage at the Industry Hills Expo Center outdoor arena during the 35th annual Bill Pickett Rodeo on July 20, 2019 in City of Industry, California. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY)
“Kids are going to be able to use it, families are going to be there and bonding in the neighborhood is going to happen again,” said Featherstone, 49, the organization’s executive director.
He and his co-entrepreneurs all grew up in South Los Angeles, an area known for hip-hop icons such as N.W.A and Kendrick Lamar, rappers celebrated for telling stories about institutional racism and poverty.
But the area also has a rich agricultural history. Thomas’s grandparents moved to the city of Compton near South Los Angeles in the 1940s, raising crops and livestock. Thomas, 43, grew up fascinated with horses and fixated on cowboy culture. But he couldn’t see himself in cowboy movies. When he played outside, he reenacted John Wayne scenes with his younger brother.
Gray, meanwhile, grew up spending time at The Hill, a public stable in South Los Angeles that once attracted local equestrians, regardless of race, creed or gang affiliation, he says. The facility mysteriously burned down in 2012. A documentary entitled “Fire on the Hill”tells the story of the stable and is making the rounds at film festivals.
The Hill was a special place for all four of the men, who say it, as well as the equestrian lifestyle, helped them find direction and community at different times in their lives. Until those stables are rebuilt, the men want Urban Saddles to become a similar meeting ground for the next generation of urban cowboys and cowgirls.
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