Yes, country music still has a race problem. Morgan Wallen’s success proves it.

Written by on December 7, 2021

Less than a year after a video went viral of country singer Morgan Wallen repeatedly shouting a racial slur, he’s announced an eight-month, sure-to-sell-out cross-country tour. As a country music fan, I’m disappointed. But I wish I could say I’m also surprised.

As a country music fan, I’m disappointed. But I wish I could say I was also surprised.

After the leaked video of Wallen hit TMZ, the country music machine acted uncharacteristically swiftly. For a genre steeped in a history of racism, confederate flags and good ol’ boy sensibilities, country music collectively decided that the N-word was a step too far. Within days, Wallen was scrubbed from radio stations, erased from streaming playlists, dropped by his booking agent, suspended from his label, and declared ineligible for the Academy of Country Music Awards.

For a moment, it seemed like the industry might be interested in doing the hard but important work of addressing the structures and attitudes that have long enabled racism, both overt and subtle. For a moment there was hope that country music might try to be an inclusive musical community. But what could have been an opportunity for soul-searching for one of Americans’ favorite genres has mostly dissipated, overshadowed, arguably, by the personal redemption story of Morgan Wallen.

From its origins, country music has long defined itself as white. In the 1920s, the commercial recording industry segregated Southern music, a genre that at the time was liked and played by white and Black folk alike. The industry instead decided to define “Black music” as race music, and “white music” as old-time or hillbilly music. As the decades went by, country music continued to double down on white identity, eventually interweaving it with “God Bless the USA” patriotism that led to the canceling of The Chicks (then The Dixie Chicks) in 2003.

When it comes to opportunities for artists who are anything other than male and white, the game is still mostly rigged. One study showed that from 2000 to 2020, only 3.2 percent of artists signed to major country labels were artists of color, and only 2.3 percent of radio airtime was devoted to music by artists of color. Look no further than the day’s Top 10 country songs on Apple Music to see how that plays out. On the day this article was written, nine of the songs on the list are sung by white men (with one song by Taylor Swift, and Carrie Underwood pitching in on a duet). Three of the Top 10 songs are sung by one man: Morgan Wallen.

In February, before the TMZ video, Wallen was also top of the charts. His newly released second album, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” had been sitting pretty at No. 1 since landing the month prior. After the video became public, the popularity of “Dangerous” soared, and within a couple of days sales skyrocketed more than 500 percent.

“Dangerous” went on to be one of the biggest albums of 2021 — in any genre. Meanwhile, those within country music criticized Wallen’s use of racist language but split into factions about what it said about their business: Some, like artist Kelsea Ballerini, tweeted that Wallen’s words did “not represent country music” (she has since backtracked on that tweet, calling it a “misstep” and the situation with Wallen an opportunity to educate herself about racism in the industry). Others, like Mickey Guyton, one of the genre’s few mainstream Black artists, had a different take. “When I read comments saying ‘this is not who we are’ I laugh because this is exactly who country music is,” Guyton tweeted.

Initially, Wallen did apologize, go to rehab, and swear that redemption was possible — or at least, remorse. He says he also gave $500,000 to Black-led groups (but that figure is now under scrutiny). But quietly, and rather quickly, country music welcomed Wallen back into the club. By May, the Country Music Association, one of the genre’s most powerful forces, decided that while Wallen would not be allowed to attend its awards’ ceremony in November, he would still be eligible for nomination (and nominated he was). By June, most radio stations were playing his music again. In July, Wallen was interviewed by Michael Strahan on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” sounding very much like a guy sorry he was caught, not sorry for what he did.

“I was around some of my friends, and we say dumb stuff together,” Wallen told Strahan. Adding, “In our minds it’s playful.” When Strahan asked Wallen if he thought country music had a race problem Wallen replied, “I haven’t really sat and thought about that.”

Clearly.

Wallen’s lack of introspection is far from the only issue here. As Guyton said, “this is exactly who country music is.” Guyton, whose music firmly expresses her identity with songs like “Black Like Me,” has not been supported by country radio. The relative success of other Black country artists — like Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown — is an exception, not a marker of significant industry change. Darius Rucker, one of the highest-profile Black country artists out there right now, has spoken openly about his own struggles to fit in with the country faithful. “Hate mail is part of my life,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “People don’t want me to be singing country music.”

Making inroads along the backroads of mainstream country is challenging, but the good news is that many organizations and people (particularly Black women) are committed to blazing new, more inclusive trails. Artist Rissi Palmer runs the podcast “Color Me Country,” where she highlights underrepresented voices in the genre. Journalist Andrea Williams has tirelessly reported about racism in the industry for years.

Organizations like Black Opry, Country Any|Way, and Color of Change are fighting to make country more inclusive for artists who are not just white and straight and male. “The CMA is making itself complicit in an industry that habitually devalues and dehumanizes Black people and our extensive contributions to country music,” Color of Change wrote recently, also taking to task the CMA’s all-white board, and criteria that upholds systems exclusionary to both women and people of color. That Jimmie Allen won New Artist of the Year at this year’s CMAs, only the second Black artist to do so, is great — but as Williams tweeted, “Very not surprised that the CMA sees the Blackening of its Awards stage as a marker of real progress, when they coulda drawn a hard line on the N-word and didn’t do that.”

As Wallen prepares to head back on tour, his redemptive arc appears to be, at least in the eyes of the country music establishment, complete. He’s done his time, said he’s sorry, and now his show can go on. The conversation is focused on Wallen’s achievements — what he learned, where he’ll be playing, if he’s changed. Country music was given a real, obvious chance to grow, to welcome new voices, to draw a hard line on racism and discrimination. Instead, it allowed the status quo to triumph, driven by the desires of a hard-line, conservative base that relishes what Wallen seemingly represents.

So, does country music have a race problem? It’s looking like the powers that be “haven’t really sat and thought about that.” And they don’t want to any time soon.

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