I am a Black woman who lives in the deep South. I am a huge fan of country music, but I am still disappointed by the industry’s inaction in terms of racial justice. There is a lot of talk about diversity in country music. The lack of women and Black voices in country music is a problem. And it’s one that the country music industry has been working to address — with mixed results. The Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association, and even the Grand Ole Opry have all created “diversity task forces” (yes, those quotes are intentional) to address this issue. But we need more than just talk — we need action.
An article dated May 31, 2022 reads: “Morgan Wallen plays sold-out show on Norfolk’s Waterside Drive”. When it comes to the harm to Black and brown people, white people have short memories. Although Morgan Wallen falls on my “my fave is problematic list”, I haven’t moved on. Right now, I am enraged and disappointed.
On Jan. 23, 2021, Dangerous: The Double Album debuted at number one on the Top Country Albums chart with 265,000 equivalent album units. Wikipedia stated that the album has been Billboard’s top country album for the longest time on the chart (61 weeks as of March 2022) — the most country sales since Taylor Swift’s Fearless in 2008, which remained in the Billboard 200 chart Top 10 for 59 weeks, had previously set the record.
Morgan Wallen is currently in the midst of his massive The Dangerous Tour in support of his latest album. The tour, which is the biggest country tour of 2022 and runs through October, recently sold-out with over 800,000 tickets sold, according to Up2DateCountry. He just released his second single from the Dangerous album, “Thought You Should Know,” which is already climbing up the charts and making waves among fans and critics alike.
This Wednesday, it was also announced that Morgan Wallen is set to receive the Academy of Country Music Milestone Award, and it’s yet another reminder that the country music industry is not interested in including Black artists in their ranks — or even acknowledging their existence. The award is given to an artist or industry leader for “specific, unprecedented, or outstanding achievement in the field of Country Music during the preceding calendar year,” according to a release. This means that Wallen will be recognized for his work on Dangerous: The Double Album, which spent 10 weeks at Number One in all genres and has spent 60 weeks in the Top 10 since its release. Past Milestone Award recipients include Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, Luke Combs, and Miranda Lambert — all white artists. Ya’ll. Ya’ll. I’m exhausted. It’s worth noting that no Black artist has ever been eligible for any such award from the ACM. At this point, ACM isn’t even trying to be inclusive — they’re just sticking to their legacy of exclusionary practices and snubbing Black artists who achieved milestones equal to or greater than their white counterparts. Wallen has been able to achieve success without having to apologize for his mistakes. Here’s the thing: Wallen used a racial slur on camera against Black people as well as defended himself by saying it was “playful.” I’m not sure what Wallen did that was so “unprecedented” or “outstanding” except being a racist on camera.
TMZ released a video in February 2021 showing Morgan Wallen using the N-word outside his Nashville home. Wallen appeared in several videos that surfaced online, where he was seen singing on stage with fans and friends at a bar in downtown Nashville. Later that evening, neighbors captured Wallen saying the N-word and other profanities on their doorbell camera outside of his home following a night out with friends. As he stumbled into his house, Wallen is seen yelling, “take care of this “p****-ass mother******”” then adding, “take care of this p****-ass n*****.” Non-Black people should not use the word.
The country music industry has always been a hotbed of racism, but it was especially bad in 2021. Morgan Wallen’s album Dangerous: The Double Album sold more records in the United States than anyone else in 2021, making his use of the N-word even more problematic. Country singers like Wallen must be held accountable. After only a three-month ban, Wallen was back on streaming services like Apple Music, SiriusXM, Spotify, YouTube Music, and Pandora promoting his music again despite widespread criticism from fans and fellow artists alike. Meanwhile, Black artists are held to a higher standard — Will Smith is currently banned from the Oscars for ten years. To make matters worse, Wallen received his first country music awards nomination of the year — Album of the Year at the Country Music Awards for Dangerous, despite the CMAs claiming earlier he was ineligible for 2021. This is not okay. Only those affected can decide if country music has progressed in terms of racism, not white mainstream media.
To add insult to injury, days after the incident, Morgan Wallen’s music sales had dramatically increased — by over 300%, as reported by Billboard.
One day after the video surfaced, the “7 Summers” crooner sold a combined 22,500 copies of his album and songs compared to just 5,000 in the U.S. on Feb. 2 — a 339% jump. His U.S. airplay continued to evaporate, while streams stayed mostly steady and sales exploded in the wake of the TMZ video. Looking at airplay Jan. 30-Feb. 5, his song catalog was averaging 1,500 to 1,600 plays daily on reporters to Billboard’s Country Airplay chart through Feb. 2, according to MRC Data. On Feb. 3, as multiple radio groups dropped his music, his catalog fell by 74% in plays that day. His totals then cratered to a relatively minuscule 55 and 25 plays on Feb. 4 and 5, respectively. Wallen’s streams experienced light daily gains, despite removing his songs from over 30 influential playlists across Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Pandora. On Feb. 4, Wallen’s songs tallied 28.66 million on-demand streams (audio and video combined), according to reports to MRC Data — his best daily streaming total since Jan. 29. And his sales increased dramatically after Feb. 3. According to MRC Data, Wallen’s total sales — across all of his albums and songs — vaulted from 5,100 on Feb. 2 to 35,200 on Feb. 4.
On March 16, 2021, Wallen’s historic chart reign continued as Dangerous spent its ninth straight week at Number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — the first time in country music history such a feat has been accomplished. Forbes also reported that Dangerous also topped the Billboard 200 chart for 10 consecutive weeks in 2021. Until Drake’s Views spent 13 non-consecutive weeks at Number 1 in 2016, it held the record for the most weeks at the peak position. With 4.1 million units sold, Dangerous also topped the 2021 Billboard 200 Albums Year-End chart. According to Luminate, Dangerous earned 46,000 equivalent album units the week ending March 24, 2022, an increase of 2%.
Perhaps even just as shameful, Charley Pride is one of four Black members of the Grand Ole Opry (the others being DeFord Bailey, Ray Charles, and Darius Rucker). Charley Pride became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1993, 27 years after his debut on the Opry stage. It was the second time that Opry officials had asked the artist to join the organization’s ranks. In January of 1967, Pride became the second Black performer and first Black singer to appear at the Opry. “I had a standing invitation to join the Opry since 1967, but they had a requirement that you had to play 26 Saturdays per year, and those were the best days where you could draw and make your money out on the road,” Pride recalled to Country Stars Central. “You weren’t making that much when I was starting out. I made about a nickel a single from RCA and $100 to $200 for a gig on the road. At that time, it was an economical thing for me, and I didn’t argue with it.” Ray Charles was inducted posthumously this year, making Darius Rucker the only living Black member of the Grand Ole Opry. <> Where are Lionel Richie or Gladys Knight or Tina Turner’s flowers? (Gladys Knight says her music has country roots and in fact, she just performed at the iconic Ryman last month.)
This is precisely why the Country Music Association, Academy of Country Music, American Country Music Awards, and Grand Ole Opry should report on their improvement on diversity goals. Once a year, these organizations should publish a diversity report that outlines the steps they’ve taken, measurable progress made, and the members of the task force. A minimum of 51 percent of the organization’s membership must also be women and/or BIPOC. At present, accountability is not in place; it’s a mockery.
In addition to being offensive, Morgan Wallen’s use of the N-word is dangerous. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. But some blunders are bigger than others. Wallen is a talented singer and songwriter, who’s been nominated for multiple awards. He’s also made some errors in judgment recently, and he needs to own up to them — starting with his use of the N-word.
On Good Morning America, Wallen offered his explanation for the incident, when he described using the N-word about a drunk friend (who is also white). He claimed that he’s never used the word in a derogatory way, but only around for his drunk best friend “playfully”. Sigh. Wallen tends to use his friends as excuses for his poor behavior. Those outside his fan base see this as a sign of white male privilege and a way to shirk responsibility. But this is not a one-time incident of bad behavior with Wallen. In 2020, Wallen was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. If the headline had read: “Country artist Kane Brown arrested on charges of public intoxication and disorderly conduct,” we know he would not have received the same grace. Wallen was also pulled from an episode of SNL for defying their coronavirus protocols and then, appearing later making a big joke out of the situation — “to no consequences”. Morgan, I am so tired. However, maybe the lyrics to “Thought You Should Know” is giving us a message: “What’s goin’ on, mama? / Something just dawned on me / I ain’t been home in some months / Been chasin’ songs and women / Makin’ some bad decisions / God knows I’m drinkin’ too much / Yeah, I know you’ve been worrying ‘bout me / You’ve been losin’ sleep since ‘93”.
Country music has its roots in Black musicianship; however, country music has shunned Black artists, while white country artists have benefited from Black artists’ songs and influence (I am especially looking at you, Chace Rice). All while Black artists like Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown, Rissi Palmer, Jimmie Allen, and Darius Rucker frequently receive racist comments on social media — on the daily. Kane Brown tweeted: “Damn, some people in Nashville who have pub(lishing) deals won’t write with me because I’m black,” he wrote. “Aight ….. I’m still gonna do my thing 100 (percent).” And, even as of late, some country music stations were refusing to play Black artists like Breland, Willie Brown, Blanco Brown, and Lil Nas X for “not being country enough”. All while songs like “Fancy Like”, “Make Me Wanna” (well, honestly, 90% of Thomas Rhett’s songs but I digress — but at least he has self-awareness), “Up Down”, “Billions”, and “You Make It Easy” get plenty of airplay — and no shade to those artists — I am a huge fan of most of them, but there’s just something I can’t put my finger on.>>
Likewise, if you’re not a country music fan, it’s easy to miss the fact that Kacey Musgraves’ fourth studio album, Golden Hour (2018), was actually a pop record. Released to widespread critical acclaim and winning all four of its nominated Grammy Award categories, including Album of the Year and Best Country Album, Golden Hour seemed like the perfect culmination of what Kacey Musgraves had been building toward since her first album, Same Trailer Different Park (2013). But if you listened closely to its songs — or even just looked at the track list — you’d see that there were few elements here that were familiar from Kacey’s previous work or from classic country or folk music. Instead, she had created an album full of beautiful, lushly produced pop ballads with lyrical themes that were closer to those of Taylor Swift than Waylon Jennings. Her appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in May 2018 was the first time most people realized this wasn’t a country album at all, but a pop album by someone who happens to make country music. This same differential treatment doesn’t apply to Black country artists.
The Country Music Association and American Country Music Awards are two of the most important organizations in country music. They determine who gets nominated, who wins awards, and what is considered “country” and “not country.” But here’s the thing: they’re run by white men, and have ignored women, people of color, and other marginalized communities for decades. So why do they get away with it? Why aren’t we demanding better? Don’t we deserve better? How can we tell if the people involved in these organizations care about diversity in their industry? Is there a standard for what is and isn’t country music or who wins awards? Is it all about whether or not you’re white? I think we need to start asking these questions, because if we don’t, then who will? With so much attention being given to the #MeToo movement and the call for diversity in the entertainment industry, it’s not a stretch to say that these organizations should be reporting their progress on diversity goals. When you look at the optics, it’s obvious that they’re not doing a great job representing the diversity of country music. But here’s the thing: I don’t think that country music is just for white people. The way we see it, if you love country music, then you’re a part of country music, no matter where you come from or what color your skin is. And there are so many of us out there who feel like this is their music too — folks who have been waiting for years for someone to give them a voice.
After the birth of her child last year, Mickey Guyton, a rising Black country singer, received a hateful, racist message on social media, in which someone referred to her child as the “ugliest she had ever seen’’ and advised her to go back to the projects. “The truth is these are the types of messages we see and get all the time,” Jimmie Allen, a fellow Black country star, commented on her post.
There isn’t just an issue with country music; there’s an issue with racism in America. This shows that there’s still work to be done when it comes to racial equality in America today. The fact that Wallen has been given so many second chances perpetuates a culture of the white male “good ol’ boy” system in country music. The abundant success he has been given puts him above Black country artists and other artists of color who deserve more recognition. Without a doubt, Wallen is shaping country music’s future, but Wallen and all country music artists need to understand the importance of not using racial slurs. If country music really wants to be considered a genre for all people, it needs to be equitable and accountable.
Though Wallen said that he has learned from the past and explained his behavior, many people in the country music community have their doubts. The Nashville community has been quick to call out Wallen for his offensive N-word use and other missteps. Wallen has still not issued any apologies to the Nashville Black community thus far; should he decide to apologize, it will be extremely important that this apology is sincere — not just to boost his career but also to help stop the violence against Black and brown folk.
Despite what Wallen’s defenders would have you believe, the country music community has had a long, sordid history of racism. Some small steps are happening, but it isn’t enough. Artists like Ryan Hurd, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Tyler Rich, Old Dominion, Thomas Rhett, Russell Dickerson, Jennifer Nettles, Tyler Hubbard, Kelsea Ballerini, Kacey Musgraves, and Vince Gill have expressed disgust with the use of the N-word and have been involved in racial justice — most of them outspoken even before it was “trendy”. Jason Isbell has been routinely vocal on social media and tweeted, “Wallen’s behavior is disgusting and horrifying,” Isbell tweeted. “I think this is an opportunity for the country music industry to give that spot to somebody who deserves it, and there are lots of black artists who deserve it.”. Keith Urban has consistently used his platform to promote Black country artists. Tyler Rich and Maren Morris have written country songs about Black Lives Matter. Elaina Smith, the host of Cumulus’ Nights With Elaina, tweeted that she’s “done” with Morgan Wallen. “After a long night of work in an industry I continue to fight for…trying to contribute towards making it a better, more inclusive space, I wake up to a man setting everyone’s work back 20 years. I’m disgusted.” Country music may be trying to change, but artists like Morgan Wallen prevent that change from happening as quickly as it should. Overall, there is an ongoing debate regarding country music’s relationship with racism. However, one thing is certain: Morgan Wallen should’ve known better than to use the N-word. The word does nothing but promote hatred toward Black people. We can’t forget that country music was built upon and thrived thanks to black musicianship. Even more so, Black musicians are continually exposed to and receive racist comments from their “country music fans”. Change is needed in order for country music to break free from any associations with racism. It’s not just about making an adjustment, it’s about truly changing how Black artists are treated in country music.
I genuinely hope that Wallen finds better judgment in the future. I hope Wallen will grow up and be a part of the solution, but in the meantime, he is an impenetrable problem to the Black and brown community. Maybe when Morgan Wallen said “It’s the only way I know / Man it ain’t my fault / I just live the way I talk”, we should just believe him?
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