A generation of young Black people are continuing the cowboy tradition of rebellion, reclaiming its roots and identity in a new era for fighting racism
32 years after it was first released, N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” became the rallying cry across the United States, as 10 per cent of American adults – 25 million people – have joined Black Lives Matter protests around the nation after a video surfaced showing Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin brutally kill George Floyd on May 25.
But the City of Compton, where N.W.A. hails from, was noticeable calm, cool, and collected. “That was very profound to me. Compton has always been notorious for being really hostile when it comes to police brutality,” says Randy Hook, leader of The Compton Cowboys and Executive Director of nonprofit youth equestrian organisation Compton Junior Equestrians.
Inspired to take action, Hook contacted Mayor Aja Brown, and with her support, they organised the Compton Peace Ride on June 7 through his hometown. “We wanted to work with our mayor because she’s a Black woman and she’s all about what we’re all about,” Hook says. With her support, the Compton Cowboys, a tight-knit group of riders who have known each other since childhood, mounted up and led the people to the steps of City Hall, where Mayor Brown and NBA star Russell Westbrook, a Long Beach native, gave speeches.
“We had a whole brigade of horses. It looked like the cavalry out there. We were leading the charge, taking up the rear, with all the horses behind all the people. There’s something very powerful about being Black, being cowboys on horses, and fighting for American values even though we are the oppressed party,” Hook says. “We wanted to be sure we left that message on a global scale that Compton is not what people think it is – it’s a community, love, and peace. We care about our kids and we want them to have a better future.”
It’s a lesson Hook learned in his childhood. Born in 1990, during the height of gang wars, his family shielded him from the violence of the neighbourhood by introducing him to equestrian life. Hook’s uncle, Mayisha Akbar, founded the Compton Jr. Posse in 1988 in Richland Farms, a semi-rural area in Compton that Black horse riders have called home since the mid twentieth-century.
“My life was rodeo, camping, riding practice. I didn’t get a sense of what was happening back then ‘til I got older,” Hook says. After graduating California State University, Northridge with a MA in Entertainment Business and Music Industry Administration, Hook saw opportunity in his backyard, as he and his fellow riders were commissioned to appear in make music videos and commercials. In 2017, he remade his uncle’s club as the Compton Cowboys. In new book Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland (William Morrow), author Walter Thompson-Hernandez explores how this new generation of Black riders is fighting stereotypes while preserving their traditional heritage.
“There’s something very powerful about being Black, being cowboys on horses, and fighting for American values even though we are the oppressed party” – Randy Hook, Compton Cowboys
The Compton Cowboys motto, “Streets raised us, horses saved us,” speaks to the power of equine therapy, a practice Brianna Noble, founder and owner of Mulatto Meadows, knows well. Hailing from the San Francisco East Bay area, Noble is a lifelong rider dedicated to expanding horsemanship to communities historically excluded from the equestrian world. On June 4, she launched The Humble Project to give inner-city youth the opportunity to learn about all aspects of ranch life – the same week she appeared solo on her horse, Dapper Dan, at a BLM protest in Oakland.
Noble was the first documented rider to appear at the protests on May 29, her appearance becoming a touchstone for the movement and offering a heroic figure of America’s past and present. Throughout June, riding clubs in Seattle and Raleigh have mounted up at protests, while Houston’s Non-Stop Riderz paid tribute to native son George Floyd, a member of the local hip hop group Screwed Up Click, on June 2. Organised by Cassandra Johnson, the “first lady of Non-Stop”, whose family grew up with Floyd in the Third Ward, some 30 riders donned t-shirts bearing Floyd’s face and rode out to a local BLM protest.
While ‘cowboy’ conjures an image of a rough-and-tumble white man embodying the All-American spirit of independence and virility, it was first coined as a slur by white ranchers to describe Black cowhands, who accounted for 25 per cent of the workforce, performing the duties of as drovers, foremen, fiddlers, cowpunchers, cattle rustlers, wranglers, riders, ropers, bulldoggers, or bronc busters, who brought new life to the rodeo circuit.
Born into slavery near Nashville, Tennessee, Nat Love (1854-1921) was one of the most famous Black heroes of the Wild West. In 1976, Love entered a rodeo on the Fourth of July, winning six contests and earning the name “Deadwood Dick”, in reference to a popular dime novel character. In his 1907 autobiography, Love recounts his exploits hanging out in saloons and dance halls, drinking with Billy the Kid, and being captured then embraced by a band of Pima in Arizona.
Love retired in 1890, just as Bill Pickett (1870-1932) was getting his start. The legendary Texan cowboy performed alongside Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, and Tom Mix in Wild West shows and acted in early Hollywood films. Pickett made his name in the rodeo circuit, where he invented steer wrestling. Forty years after his death, he became the first Black person honored by the National Rodeo Hall of Fame. Today, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is the only touring African American rodeo in the world – and is considered the ideal place for an aspiring Black cowboy or cowgirl to make their names today.
Growing up in Kansas, Ivan McClellan had been surrounded by Black ranchers but never identified it as cowboy culture until 2015, when Charles Perry, director and producer of The Black Cowboy, invited him to a Black rodeo. “It was like going to Oz – there was all this color and energy,” he says. “There was a backyard barbecue atmosphere. People were doing the Cupid Shuffle in their boots, guys riding around on their horses, the old men were in their perfectly starched white shirts with their pinky rings, posted up on their horses. It felt like home.”
Since then, McClellan travels the country eight to ten times a year to photograph rodeos, cowboys, and even Buffalo Soldier legacy regimes in the Northwest. “This was the first expression of Black people that I felt was heroic and independent. It was about folks owning their own identity,” he says.
“It’s not stoic. You’ve taken this cowboy image that’s trite: the Marlboro Man with some stiff lip and a gun on his hip. You take it and you flip it. Under his hat he’s got braids and they’re blaring Beyonce while he’s doing his thing. A guy might have on a tank top, shorts, and Jordans, and he’s still a cowboy. He’s still repping that culture but presenting it in a way that blows up this archetype that is drilled into you. Cowboys are white, gunslingers – and it says no: Cowboys are whatever they want to be.”
“This was the first expression of Black people that I felt was heroic and independent. It was about folks owning their own identity” – Ivan McClellan
It was a lesson Lil Nas X taught the world in 2019, when his hit “Old Town Road” became longest charting number one song in Billboard history. After 19 weeks on the charts, the song helped paved the way for what Dallas native Bri Malandro coined as the “Yeehaw Agenda” the year before – a celebration of music and style rooted in Black culture in every corner of the United States.
From Philadelphia’s historic Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club and the Dirty Southern Ryderz of New Orleans, documented in Akasha Rabut’s new book Death Magick Abundance (Anthology) to the Delta Hill Riders of Mississippi, as photographed by Rory Doyle and the Cowgirls of Color in the Washington DC/Maryland/Virginia area, this vital chapter of American culture is finally gaining the mainstream recognition it deserves.
“Black cowboys are a huge part of the street culture in New Orleans,” Rabut says. “They are out at all the second lines every Sunday. Their horses have learned to side step and dance to the music, either brass music or bounce. They also participate in all the Mardi Gras parades. My friend talks about how his horse responds to Mardi Gras Indian chants, which I thought was really beautiful.”
With the visibility of Black cowboys at BLM protests, a sense of hope and pride fills the air despite the horrors that have brought us here. “I feel like it’s tragic and beautiful at the same time,’ Rabut says. “It feels really powerful to be a part of this because this is the biggest Civil Rights Movement in world history and we’re all a part of it.”
You can take a look at Akasha Rabut’s Black Voters Matter fundraiser here, with 100 per cent of profits going to the Black Voters Matter Resistance Fund