Country music has a diversity problem — and it’s not for lack of artists | CBC News

This first person piece is by LJ Tyson, a country-pop artist from Prince Albert, Sask., of Cree/Métis heritage. He identifies as bisexual.

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Country music has a rich history of storytelling. These stories connect audiences far and wide, making country music fans feel like they have a home in the genre. Unfortunately, not all country music fans see themselves in these stories. Country music has a major diversity problem.

For proof, look no further than country music awards. Unless there is a specific category for Indigenous artists, you likely won’t see many nominated in any of the categories. Some might argue there simply aren’t enough Indigenous country artists out there. I know this isn’t true; I am one of them, and I’ve played hundreds of gigs with others.

The first time I was nominated for a Saskatchewan Country Music Association (SCMA) award, in 2018, I remember sitting in the audience feeling so out of place because my family and I were some of the only visible minorities in the room. I lost, but we were still proud to be there, and I ended up receiving the first SIGA Indigenous Development Artist bursary.

Backstage, my eyes were opened to how overlooked Indigenous artists can be in a room full of talent. A stage manager instructed me to head to a separate room to do a quick interview about the bursary. I remember waiting there, awkwardly. Everyone walked past me like I was a ghost. 

When the interviewer finally took notice of me, they asked if I needed anything. I told them I just won the bursary. They congratulated me and we stood there awkwardly again. I then got the nerve to say I was instructed to be backstage to be interviewed. The interviewer and camera crew exchanged looks. I then realized they didn’t feel like they had to interview me.

I hadn’t won an actual award; I won a bursary given out as a replacement for the Indigenous Artist of the Year prize. In recent years, the SCMA did away with the category in lieu of a bursary because there consistently haven’t been enough nominees. 

The looks and the way I was shuffled off made me feel like I wasn’t as important as everyone else there. The situation felt tokenistic and devoid of understanding, and was a blow to my self-worth.

At a recent SCMA meeting, someone made a joke about Indigenous recipients pawning off trophies. The association’s president has since acknowledged systemic racism and discrimination “within Saskatchewan, within the country music industry, and within the SCMA.”

Every artist has to grind to get their music heard, but from personal experience, those in minority groups have to work that much harder. 

Growing up in Saskatchewan, I was fortunate to be surrounded by artists; it never occurred to me we were all Indigenous. My family puts on a showcase called Voices of the North in Prince Albert, Sask., with a cast of over 1,300 playing to packed shows nightly, but the artists featured are still unknown to many in the mainstream. Imagine my surprise when I began networking on my own to find very few like me. 

I have been extremely fortunate in my career. I have performed on many stages, I have had the chance to hear my music on radio stations across the country, and I have been nominated for awards. Many other talented Indigenous artists have never been given these opportunities.

WATCH | LJ Tyson performs his song ‘Home On The Rainbow,’ which he is fundraising to get recorded professionally:

I also identify as bisexual — another demographic that is woefully underrepresented (and discriminated against) in the genre. I came forward publicly as a member of the LGBTQ2+ community and started to talk about it in my shows or online to spread visibility for LGBTQ2+ people and hopefully show that we had a place in country music. But many chose to ignore me, treat me differently, or accused me of spreading a ‘gay agenda.’

We need to acknowledge something’s broken.  Anytime a group of people from different walks of life sits down to talk about our obstacles it’s a good thing. This is where we have to start. I feel like it’s important to get up and work hard everyday so that those behind me don’t have to feel the loneliness and rejection that I struggle with.

It’s time the country music genre opened the metaphorical gates to those that have been overlooked and locked out. Let us join the party. We are tired of not being heard, then only being recognized in a tokenistic way. Let us become a part of the beautiful history of storytelling in country music. We have so much to add to the narrative.

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