Everybody Wants a Piece of Black-Cowboy Culture
Justin Cory Richard sits at a watering hole somewhere outside of East Los Angeles. It’s empty, save for a few patrons and a regular who has just pulled up a bar stool next to us. Richard, a 36-year-old African American professional bull rider from Houston, is dressed like he came straight out of a Western. He has accessorized his bootcut jeans with a trophy belt buckle and has a confident stride that is marked by well-worn, dust-covered cowboy boots that are uncharacteristically bare without their spur attachments. We’ve met up in July for a few beers. After he leaves to use the restroom and is out of earshot, a white middle-aged fly-fishing instructor from Reno leans over to say, “He’s not a real cowboy, you know.”
And yet, in spirit, physical endurance, and familial values, Richard embodies the very essence of a real cowboy.
“I’d be a lost soul if I wasn’t riding bulls,” he says, explaining how he began participating in the sport professionally when he was 18. He’s due to compete the following day in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, which is to be held at the Grand Arena in the Industry Hills Expo Center in Los Angeles. The rodeo, named after the son of a former slave and who went on to invent steer wrestling in the 1890s, was started in 1984 by Oakland-raised Lu Vason in response to the lack of African American cowboys competing at national events. It is now run by Valerie Vason-Cunningham, the only African American woman to own a touring rodeo circuit. After L.A., it moves on to Conyers, Georgia, Memphis, Tennessee and continues to travel until next year, with the finals in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, outside D.C.
“Justin Cory Richard is the best cowboy I’ve ever seen at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo,” says Sam Howry, the Oklahoma-born Comanche who has served as the announcer at Bill Pickett for the past 20 years.
The adornment of traditional cowboy gear that goes with Richard’s profession has never just been a phase or costume, like it has become for what’s been termed the “black yeehaw agenda.” And while the traditional imagery of a professional cowboy in the past has, for the most part, been represented by white men, that’s starting to change. With the worldwide record-breaking success of Lil Nas X’s summer hit, “Old Town Road,” the international spotlight on Richard and his community of black cowboys is beginning to broaden outside the parameters of the rodeo community, encouraging the inclusion of African American Western heritage, which is an important historical element often omitted from cultural discourse.
Lil Nas X — only having ridden a horse for the first time a month prior to the rodeo — “isn’t a real cowboy,” Richard explains. “But I like that he’s bringing positive attention to the black rodeo community.” Last year, in his hometown of Houston, Texas, Richard inadvertently debuted his acting career as a cowboy stuntman in Solange Knowles’ visual album, When I Get Home. Richard hasn’t yet seen the 33-minute short film, nor could he remember the title of the project. “All I know is the day was long, and the outfit was uncomfortable, but at least we got paid to ride bulls,” he says.
Stunt work, according to Randy Savvy, is increasingly becoming a viable revenue stream for black cowboys. Savvy is the managing member of the Compton Cowboys, a nonprofit that aims to keep troubled youth off the streets and to defy negative stereotypes of both African Americans and the city of Compton. He says that since Lil Nas X’s hit single, there’s been a rising interest from corporations, brands, and film executives seeking out authentic black cowboys. “For the past year, people have been yelling out the lyrics to ‘Old Town Road’ while we’re riding our horses through Compton,” he says. “The love from our community hasn’t changed because they’ve known about us since the beginning — it’s more random people off the street.”
Of course, black cowboys are by no means new. According to the Smithsonian Institution, slaves developed ranching skills when white ranchers left to fight in the Civil War — and per that article, roughly one in four cowboys were black. After emancipation, ranchers began moving their businesses north, and the newly skilled cattle herders found work moving livestock. Being black or brown in a trade dominated by white men meant that cowboys of color stuck together, a ride-or-die attitude that has evolved into a modern-day brotherhood, even when they’re in competition against each other. “Any time one of us gets thrown off or injured in the arena, we immediately run down to help each other up,” says Richard. Additionally, at the Bill Pickett rodeo, each bull-riding competitor rushes back to the bucking chute to help load up the next guy after completing their individual rides.
Richard started his professional career 18 years ago when he was awarded a rodeo scholarship at Wharton County Junior College, outside Houston. But his love for the sport was instilled from birth. Richard’s mother, Lisa, is his biggest inspiration. At age 54, she still competes at rodeos, usually participating in barrel-racing events, an intensely athletic horseback maneuver in which the rider has to tightly loop around three strategically placed barrels in the fastest time possible. It’s a dangerous gig, and most would say it’s a young athlete’s game — yet last summer, at the Bar-N-Bar Rodeo in Dayton, Texas, Lisa won first place. Additionally, Richard’s uncle Harold Miller, at 62, is a regular competitor at the Senior Pro Rodeo in Wickburg, Arizona.
Going back another generation, Richard’s grandfather, Caston Richard Sr., bred cattle for the timed rodeo events — a career move that Richard himself plans to emulate after he retires. After all, life on the road is tough. Travel between rodeos requires a three-horse trailer and small living quarters, which are shared with up to four other competitors. Richard’s rodeo winnings aren’t supplemented by sponsorships, a second job, or government assistance. But the majority of rodeo competitors work “regular” jobs to support themselves.
Registered nurses, lawyers, truck drivers, construction workers, firemen, college students — people from all walks of life learn to love the sport, and eagerly come out to support it and participate. Wife, mother, and second-generation cowgirl Krishaun Adair, 38, is an inspector with the Texas Department of Agriculture, and says, “It’s necessary to have a full-time job to be able to support my passion.” Second-generation cowgirl, Raemia Clemons, 21, who works as a customer-service representative at Sam’s Club, explains: “A lot of people are juggling the two because they want to continue to rodeo. I work to rodeo.”
Richard is 36 years old, making him “way past” the average retirement age for professional bull riders. According to Dr. Tandy Freeman, the medical director at the Professional Bull Riders organization, most cowboys retire around 24 or 25. “Firstly, every paycheck is a gamble,” Freeman says. At rodeos, the prizes are mostly pooled from the entrance fees that the competitors pay out of pocket. When taking into consideration the travel, food, and other miscellaneous expenses, there isn’t a lot left over in terms of profit. The longevity and success of a professional rodeo cowboy is unpredictable, too.
With more than $7 million in earnings, J.B. Mauney, 32 years old and white, is the highest paid bull rider in the history of the Professional Bull Riders, but even he makes sure to say that nothing’s guaranteed. “You don’t have a contract stating that if you get injured, you’re still getting paid,” he told Forbes in January. “If you don’t ride, you don’t get paid.” The sport is also physically grueling. “Riders succumb to soft-tissue, chest, abdomen, and limb injuries when hitting the ground after dismounting or being thrown from the bull,” Freeman explains, adding: “Every ride is a risk of life or death.”
At the quarterfinals in Los Angeles in July, Rick Reddick, a 23-year-old African American cowboy, was atop a bull when the animal bucked, and his body was thrown to the ground. The bull’s hind legs, airborne for a moment, came crashing down on his chest. The crowd gasped in horror. “It felt like somebody dropped a bag of bricks from two stories high,” Reddick says. Later, he was diagnosed with a grade-three liver laceration — an injury with “life-threatening implications,” according to Freeman.
Reddick, whose speech is tinged with a slight Southern accent, traces his family back three generations to Pheba, Mississippi. He recalls a time when he was riding horseback near his home in rural Madera, California, when a local white man repeatedly yelled, “Don’t shoot me, Django!” But Reddick believes that once people become more aware of the accurate historical role black cowboys played in the Wild West, the cultural crisscross will become easier to digest. “People only talk about white cowboys, but we’ve been doing this for generations,” he says. “Education is important.”
The day after beers in L.A., we attend the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Rows of cars kick up dust in the dirt parking lot behind the horse stables, with the predominantly black crowd starting to arrive an hour before the 6:30 p.m. start time. The sun isn’t due to set against the backdrop of the engulfing San Gabriel Mountains for another two and a half hours, but that doesn’t deter the long line that quickly accumulates outside the authentic cookouts; pitched tents feature stacks of industrial-size barbecues simultaneously grilling, smoking, and frying meats and other delectable goods. Five thousand rodeo fans begin to shuffle into the Grand Arena as the sun puts out a golden light over the dirt stage, where close to 30 contestants are due to compete.
“People enjoy the Western lifestyle and go to the rodeo to meet their heroes,” says Howry, the longtime announcer.
The bleachers start to fill up with swarms of traditional cowboy and cowgirl hats, suede fringe vests, long-sleeve shirts with Aztec prints (some decorated with bolo ties), and lots of Western-style boots tucked into jeans. Later, during the bull-riding event, Richard was atop the beast waiting for the chute to open. “This is what they came to see!” he yells to no one in particular. The welcoming, celebratory atmosphere the rodeo invokes with its contestants and the larger community has always ensured it remained an event on people’s calendar, but the shift in the pop-culture landscape to include representation of black cowboys in mainstream media has allowed cowboys and cowgirls of color to be proud of their heritage and start a conversation about the important historical truth of black cowboys.
Howry explains that, since the rodeo tour began 35 years ago, the number of attendees each year has steadily increased. While it’s impossible to attribute one single factor for that climb, the event is undoubtedly experiencing a new spotlight after Lil Nas X’s smash hit. “We save ‘Old Town Road’ until the end,” he says. “Because it’s a good, upbeat song that everyone loves and enjoys.” And it seems there’s no stopping the yeehaw agenda from gaining ground.
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