APART from the Missy Elliot and Ludacris songs that blare through the speakers in lieu of country tunes, the Bill Pickett Invitational sounds and looks like a typical rodeo. In the dirt arena cowboys and cowgirls cling to bucking broncos. They rope calves and weave in and out of barrels. The stands are packed with fans decked out in cowboy hats and boots who nibble at barbecued chicken and gasp when riders are thrown to the ground. At half-time there is “mutton busting”, an event in which small children are plonked onto the backs of sheep and ordered to hang on as their fuzzy mounts dart around the ring. The biggest difference is that all the contestants—and most of the audience—are black.

The Bill Pickett Invitational, which performed in Denver on Martin Luther King Day and will visit five other places this year, is America’s only touring black rodeo. It was founded in 1984 by Lu Vason, a music-industry promoter, after he attended a rodeo in Cheyenne,…Continue reading