At the start of 2020, Breland was the unknown artist behind "My Truck," a sunny ode to the South's pickup truck culture that had started going viral on TikTok. In February, he released a visual for the song that seemed at first to lift the veil of mystery: At the start of the video, we meet a bearded white man clad in denim and a cowboy hat. He rides in the back of a truck, staring dramatically into the distance; standing in a desert plain, he mouths the words of the opening verse as he struts toward the camera. Then he's shoved out of the frame.
Twenty seconds in, we meet the true author of "My Truck," wearing coveralls, Timberland boots, and delicate wire-rimmed glasses. Unlike the white man, who could double as a Nashville actor, Daniel Breland is young, hip, and has the popular TikTok dances down. Like Lil Nas X and other country rap stars before him, he's an anomaly by country music standards: He grew up in a New Jersey suburb, went to business school, and he's Black.
With just two EPs behind him, Breland is the latest young artist to stand happily and proudly at the intersection of rap and country. Rather than capitalize on a now-popular sound, though, Breland is in it for the long haul, an artist who seems to disrupt stereotypes just by existing.
"The defining thing about country music is the songwriting," Breland tells me. "It's about how effectively you can tell a story, which is also at hip-hop's core."
In some ways, exploring the common ground between rap and country seems like a no-brainer; both are narrative-based genres with a well-documented history of getting political. Still, the genres have long been associated with two very different audiences—even if they both derive from the work of Black musicians. While hip-hop emerged as a voice for disenfranchised Black communities, mainly in American cities, the country music industry has spent the past century cornering the market on white suburban and rural working-class listeners, largely excluding Black artists from the narrative and setting whiteness as the genre's default. As Amanda Petrusich wrote in a 2017 article for The New Yorker, "Country, as a genre, is obsessed with notions of patriotism, of purity, of some nondescript American-ness."
That started changing last year, when Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" and Blanco Brown's "The Git Up" sparked a conversation about a chapter of cowboy history that mainstream culture had largely ignored: After the Civil War, freed slaves comprised nearly a quarter of the country's cowboy population. The "yeehaw agenda," a term coined by pop culture archivist Bri Malandro to highlight the history of hip-hop's Western aesthetic, was more than the name of music's hottest new trend; it was a declaration that Black culture is Americana, opening the door for a discussion of Blackness in the South through a lens other than bondage. Last March, Solange's When I Get Home explored the long-standing zydeco tradition of Creole trail riders voyaging from Houston to Louisiana on horseback. Released a month before "Old Town Road" hit critical mass, Solange's fourth studio album was priming us for the year of yeehaw. Suddenly, the masses were recognizing the Black cowboy culture of Compton, Philly, and Baltimore.
Still, the marriage of country and hip-hop has not always been a happy one. Though Lil Nas X was nominated for six Grammys and broke the record for the longest-running No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot 100, it seemed like to be Black and matriculate in the genre meant being categorized as "country rap" rather than country. After all, it took a Billy Ray Cyrus feature to undo the song's rejection from Billboard's Hot Country chart.
With its incessant twang and faint banjo chords, "My Truck" makes a case against the idea that these songs, somehow, aren't country "enough." It's also an exploration of the elements the two genres have in common—storytelling, among other things. And while he may be relatively new to most of us, the 24-year-old Breland has been working on his storytelling for nearly a decade.
Growing up in New Jersey's West Orange neighborhood, Breland spent most of his days in church, where his father worked as a worship leader. Singing came naturally to him, and it wasn't uncommon for his immediate family to break out in choral arrangements around the house.
His religious upbringing meant that he heard a lot of gospel, but that changed when he enrolled at The Peddie School, a prestigious New Jersey boarding school, and was free to indulge in secular music as he pleased. Still, instead of gravitating toward the R&B and hip-hop scene of the early 2010s, he dove into 70s soul artists like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and started writing pop, R&B, and hip-hop songs. When it was time to decide on a college, the budding artist made an unconventional choice: He turned down New York University's Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music and decided to study business at Georgetown University instead.
"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what program you come out of," he says. "You're either going to make it in music, or you aren't. It's like that Jay Z quote: 'I'm not a businessman / I'm a business, man.'"
His decision to attend Georgetown wasn't a departure from music; it was part of the plan. "I've always resonated with the Elon Musks and Jay Z's of the world,” he says. “They are people who take their entry point and turn it into an enterprise. Those are the people I study."
The first step to acting like a business was figuring out how to make money. After a period of experimenting with adding original verses to YouTube covers, he started writing full-length songs, hoping that he'd be prepared when the opportunity to write for other artists presented itself—and that from there, if the situation felt right, he might begin to embark on a solo career. But living in D.C. didn't provide immediate access to industry insiders. During his first two years of college, he started regularly making the trek from Georgetown to New York to work with Far Rockaway rapper Chinx Drugz. But in 2015, those plans were thwarted when Chinx was fatally shot in Queens.
"Chinx was the first artist I worked with," Breland says. "When he ended up getting killed, it felt like a sign that I didn't need to be in New York. It didn't feel right to me to be up there in light of everything that happened."
He started meeting people in Atlanta, and with the city growing in stature as an epicenter of hip-hop, decided to head south after graduating in 2017. Still, it would be a while before music could pay his bills. For a year, he worked a job selling language technology from 8:30 to 6 pm and wrote music from 6:30 to 3 in the morning.
"I never took a day off from work, and I never skipped a day at the studio," he says, chalking his rigorous schedule up to his relative inexperience in the field. "If I want to get a song with Beyoncé or Rihanna, I have to write a better song than Ne-Yo while working a whole job. It can't be just as good, because he already has a relationship with them, so I went to the studio full time and put in at least eight hours a night."
Atlanta became a self-imposed training camp for Breland. Eventually, he got tired of paying for studio time and taught himself how to engineer on Pro-Tools, Logic Pro, and FL Studios. After shopping around demos to other artists, he started getting responses, eventually securing writing credits for nearly half of the tracks on The Golden Child, the debut from R&B newcomer and Def Jam signee YK Osiris. Although writing for artists gave him a better grasp of his voice, people didn't seem to see him as anything beyond a player behind the scenes.
"I was meeting people in the industry who would look at me and say, 'Oh, you're a songwriter," he says, referring to his glasses and otherwise understated look. "But more and more people started asking me, 'Why aren't you an artist?'"
Soon, people online started having the same reaction. Breland began using social media to preview new music snippets, including the teaser he released for "My Truck" last September, which revealed that he had begun to experiment with country music. He says he'd written a few songs that skewed closer to traditional country, but his breakthrough single was the first time he fused that interest with the music he was hearing on the charts.
"Wanted to challenge myself writing in a different genre," he wrote in an Instagram post. "I feel like we could stand to see a couple more of our faces on that country chart."
When he asked his followers which artist should sing it, they responded that he should. Following "My Truck," he continued refining a playful mix of R&B, hip-hop, and country, a pivot from the sound he'd spent years fine-tuning. "I don't fit super cleanly in the R&B box," he says. "I don't fit super cleanly in the hip-hop box. [Breland] was me giving people a sample of how many different directions this genre blend can go."
Last June, when Lil Nas X released 7, his debut EP, music fans wondered if he'd be more than a one-hit-wonder. His first full-length was scattered at times, as if he was trying to prove that he could master other genres other than his claim to fame. Breland does the opposite. His self-titled debut, released in May, feels like an inventory of all of the different forms that country rap might take. It can manifest as "Horseride," which sounds like the club, or "Hot Sauce," a family-friendly song that is practically begging to be a TikTok challenge. Breland doesn't just have the foresight to know where the genre can go. He's creating the blueprint.
Under normal circumstances, establishing yourself as a new artist is already hard. Add a global pandemic that has effectively ended touring, and an uprising for the Black Lives Matter movement, and it's even more difficult to cut through the news cycle. But the businessman in him found a way to remain connected with his fans through the crises. He started the #BrelandVerseChallenge to engage his fans during quarantine, and in return, gave two of his Instagram followers their first major-label writing credit on "In The Woulds," an easygoing blend of R&B and pop featuring Chase Rice and Lauren Alaina, two of country's prominent contemporary voices.
The Black Lives Matter movement forced the music industry to examine how it fails to protect Black lives while relying heavily on Black talent. Lil Nas X, Blanco Brown, and now Breland, are reminders that four years ago, Beyoncé's "Daddy's Lessons" wasn't considered country enough either. Meanwhile, white country artists, like Taylor Swift and Sam Hunt, who was featured on the "My Truck" remix, continue to be celebrated for incorporating sounds from hip-hop and R&B—and no one seems to bat an eye when stars like Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake repeatedly ditch their musical blaccent and ride off into the Wild West. The industry's persistence in imposing rigid parameters on Black artists but not white ones is just one of the ways racism creates a higher barrier to entry for Black musicians.
"What happens in the music industry is a reflection of what's going on in the world," Breland says.
On Juneteenth, Breland released Rage & Sorrow, departing from his otherwise laid-back and playful sound to grapple with the police sanctioned deaths of 2020. Though the project is labeled as "country" on iTunes, one of its two songs, "A Message," is not country by any measure. In fact, it samples a 1960s blues song, "Tobacco Road," about the contradictions of loving where you are from even when it is not designed for you to succeed. "Only Lord knows how I loved Tobacco Road / But it's hard, hard the only life I've ever known," John D. Loudermilk sings. In 2016, The Atlantic published an obituary for the singer considering him a limitless songwriter who wasn't bound to one genre, which makes Breland's decision to repurpose the song all the more poignant. "What it means to be Black in America?" he raps over a guttural guitar riff. "The fact that you could overlook the facts is embarrassing."
Rage & Sorrow explores the heartbreak and anger that comes with having to explain why Black lives, and ultimately your life, should matter. For years, we have watched the death of Black people go viral. The violence against Black lives, and reliving the trauma of watching these stories during the news cycle, has brought on PTSD-like symptoms—or worse, made us numb. But the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—and the national uprising they necessitated—made us feel again. Rage & Sorrow acknowledges that we can no longer walk through life as though it doesn't hurt us.
"When people come together, and when Black people come together especially, to stand up for human rights and civil liberties, that is the most American thing in the world," Breland says. "Anyone who feels like the people who are speaking up against this is a problem—that idea, to me, is unpatriotic."
Breland sees his music as a way of being patriotic too. And if country music is defined by its American-ness, then Breland—an artist who is deconstructing oppressive systems as he goes—is country.
"There's no reason why a Black person can't put out any type of music they want and have it be received just as easily as if it were a white person," he says. "There's no reason why the playing field should not be leveled, so I'm going to level it myself."
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.