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The symbolism of the American flag on the cover of Beyonce's 'Cowboy Carter'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

By now, you probably have heard that Beyonce released a new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS HOLD 'EM")

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BEYONCE: (Singing) This ain't Texas, ain't no hold 'em. So lay your cards down, down, down, down.

MARTÍNEZ: This is "Texas Hold 'Em," one of the lead singles off of "Cowboy Carter" - an album that for some has been controversially labeled as country music. The album's cover has also had its share of discussion. It's Beyonce dressed head to toe in red, white and blue, riding sidesaddle on a white galloping horse, holding its reins in her right hand and the American flag in her left with only the stripes visible.

Janell Hobson is a professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany and a contributor to Ms. Magazine. She's written about what the flag symbolizes in Beyonce's cover art and what it means to Americans.

JANELL HOBSON: There are so many ways we could read that image. There is - on the one hand, I think she's being a bit tongue-in-cheek, creating a kind of campy, pastiche image of what we think country music represents. And oftentimes, country music and their artists are wrapped up in the American flag. They're wrapped up in this idea of patriotism and love of country. I think she is playing with those ideas. And at the same time, because it's a partially obscured flag, I think she's also calling attention to how we reclaim ideas about love of country. How do we see our own identities as Americans - and especially for those Americans, specifically African Americans, who have often been excluded from American - participation in American citizenship?

MARTÍNEZ: Why has this image sparked so much discussion and, in some corners, been so divisive?

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HOBSON: I think so much of that has to do with the way that the flag has been claimed and reclaimed by different groups. When we think of the flag, it's not just a simple patriotism, especially for African Americans. In her statement, she talks about that moment of feeling unwelcome in the space of country music. She is reminding country music listeners - and everyone else more broadly - that we don't need to put up walls. We don't need to create racial segregation. This is something we've been fighting against - to enjoy music, to enjoy our communities, and especially to enjoy our flag as American citizens.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it possible for the flag to represent all Americans when the experiences of all Americans are not the same? They vary quite dramatically. So, I mean, in some ways is this album cover and the way Beyonce pulled it off a statement on that?

HOBSON: Absolutely. Both with the image, as well as with the album itself, she is calling attention to the ways in which some Americans have not been included. And it is an invitation, especially against those who would use the flag to exclude others, because there's also that as well - certain people who actually wave the flag as a way to say, I'm American, and you over there, you're not. And I think that she's definitely crossing boundaries and saying, I'm flying the flag as well. What are you going to do about it (laughter)?

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE AND MILEY CYRUS SONG, "II MOST WANTED")

MARTÍNEZ: Janell Hobson is a professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. Professor, thanks for joining us.

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HOBSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "II MOST WANTED")

BEYONCE AND MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) I'll be your shotgun rider till the day... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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