A New Generation Pushes Nashville to Address Racism in Its Ranks

3 weeks ago
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A small contingent of country artists and industry players have been speaking up in a business that likes to shut down dissent.

Less than 30 minutes after TMZ posted a video of the country star Morgan Wallen using a racial slur on Feb. 2, Mickey Guyton, the only Black female country singer signed to a major label, tweeted her reaction: “The hate runs deep.”

She added, “How many passes will you continue to give?” and “So what exactly are y’all going to do about it. Crickets won’t work this time.”

A few other mainstream country artists commented about the incident on social media, but many figured Nashville would do as it has almost always done when one of its stars is under fire: circle the wagons and shut up. “It’s been the norm for country artists to stay silent and not use their platform for controversy,” said Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy.

By the following day though, radio conglomerates including iHeartMedia, Cumulus and Entercom pulled Wallen’s songs from rotation at hundreds of stations, and major streaming services removed him from playlists. CMT stopped running his videos. The Academy of Country Music declared him ineligible for its upcoming awards. All this while Wallen’s second album, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” topped the Billboard 200 chart for the third straight week.

While Guyton’s tweets alone weren’t responsible for the swift rebuke, she is one of a small contingent of mostly female artists — among them Cam, Maren Morris, Margo Price and Amanda Shires — and industry players whose advocacy has pushed the country music business to begin confronting issues of racism and diversity that go beyond one artist’s misdeeds.

“I was really encouraged by how fast every group in the industry showed up,” said Cam, a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter. “But I don’t think aha moments to call someone on something so ingrained in everyone is going to be the tide changer.”

“I’d assume a lot of males aren’t speaking out because they’re comfortable in their places of power and money,” said Amanda Shires.
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

The work these women do isn’t easy to quantify. Much of it is about deliberately nudging the public conversation in Nashville toward uncomfortable questions about racial equity. That can mean using social media to trumpet a book like Layla F. Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” or excoriate the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum for tangling with a Black artist over the name Lady A. Other times, it’s participating in diversity and inclusion task forces. In November, when Morris was named female vocalist of the year at the Country Music Association Awards, she used her acceptance speech to highlight the struggle of Black women in country music, including Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Yola and Brittney Spencer.

That it’s often been a group of women who speak the loudest is perhaps unsurprising. Female artists have faced huge barriers in the industry themselves, from sexual harassment and objectification to unwritten rules limiting airplay for women.

“In the female experience, you understand what it is to be the underdog, to come into a situation that’s mostly white-male-driven and try to assert yourself,” said Palmer, who hosts an Apple Music radio show called Color Me Country that spotlights the genre’s Black, Indigenous and Latino roots.

Shires, a singer-songwriter who also performs alongside Morris in the Highwomen, put it bluntly: “I’d assume a lot of males aren’t speaking out because they’re comfortable in their places of power and money. Why would they want it to change?”

The story of male artists’ dominance in country music is a long-running one. Between 2014 and 2018, 84 percent of artists on Billboard’s year-end country charts were men, according to a study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California.

The relative silence of many of country’s biggest stars, male and female, is partly habit but also partly economics. Whether stars and gatekeepers are indifferent to racism or not, they fear fans are.

“If they’re worried they’re going to financially take a fall, they keep their mouths shut,” said Price. “They’d rather keep that rebel dollar.”

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But crediting these mostly white women for being country’s social conscience is itself indicative of the larger problem. “White women speaking up is a result of we don’t let Black women speak up,” said Cam. With a few frequently noted exceptions, in Nashville, she said, “Black people aren’t even allowed in the door, cannot be in writing rooms, cannot get signed, don’t have a Twitter following, so you never hear them.”

Part of this work is amplifying those marginalized voices. Shires and Morris have worked with both Spencer and Yola. Morris, Cam and Guyton are part of a group text with Palmer and Andrea Williams, a Black journalist and author based in Nashville, where they share reading suggestions, relay personal experiences and strategize.

“How is it that two white women even partially understand what the experience is like for Black people in country?” asked Cam. “It’s because we’re learning from Black women. We watched what’s going on with Mickey and talked to her.” Cam said she and Morris use their platforms to share what they’re learning more widely.

Williams, a lively Twitter presence, hasn’t shied from needling the ideologically like-minded — including Morris, and Shires’ husband, Jason Isbell — when she feels they’ve fallen short in bids to be good allies. “I’d rather people not say anything than say the wrong thing,” she said. “Sometimes, you need to listen and learn.” She pointed out that two of the first artists to respond to the Wallen incident, Kelsea Ballerini and Cassadee Pope, posted that his behavior “does not represent” country music.

“That’s more hurtful than people who didn’t say anything because you’re diminishing the very real experiences of people who know for a fact this is actually indicative of the way this entire industry works,” she said.

Frank Hoensch/Redfern, via Getty Images

According to Williams, focusing on gender obscures country music’s “original sin”: “Country was created with the sole intent of marketing to a particular racial demographic. We divided Southern music into white hillbilly records and Black race records. This dividing line is as stark now as in the 1920s,” she said.

This current reckoning traces to last summer’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. Just days after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, Guyton released the startlingly personal “Black Like Me” and country’s only mainstream male artists of color — Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen — spoke forthrightly about their own experiences, while the rest of the country music industry largely struggled to meet the moment. Other artists and executives were quick to share supportive hashtags but in a genre where mainstream Black performers can be counted on one hand and Black faces are hardly any more common behind the scenes, their efforts felt insubstantial.

Lorie Liebig, a Nashville-based publicist and journalist, began compiling a Google Doc tracking what country artists had posted — or not posted — in support of Black Lives Matter. Shires was among the first to share the spreadsheet widely, but as it was disseminated, the harshest reactions often were aimed at Liebig herself.

“There was a day when it first hit, my Twitter was just cascading with negative responses,” she said. “A lot were saying I was racist toward white people. I ended up being doxxed. They posted my parents’ address.”

Many of these women have faced similar bile. “I’ve been called pretty much every name in the book,” said Price. “I’ve had people send me threatening DMs. I’m sure it’s cost me album and ticket sales.”

After the Black country pioneer Charley Pride’s death in December, Palmer criticized eulogies that whitewashed his legacy. “For three days, I was threatened, called a racist, a bigot, a nobody,” she said. “I’ve been called a Nazi propagandist, which was my favorite.”

But the steady pressure these women have been exerting seems to be starting to shift the conversation. While it remains to be seen whether the consequences Wallen has faced signal any enduring appetite for change — he returned for a fourth week at No. 1 after the incident, and was not roundly condemned by Nashville, where defenders and sympathetic voices spoke up on his behalf — there are signs the ground is moving. Four of the 10 acts chosen for CMT’s “Next Women of Country” this year are Black. The National Museum of African American Music recently opened in downtown Nashville — across the street from country music’s symbolic home, the Ryman Auditorium.

“We’re a long way from seeing sweeping changes but every time the light bulb goes on for somebody else, we’re closer,” said Williams. “Because as we all come together, and we’re all firing texts back and forth at midnight in these group chats, we’re more powerful than any of us as individuals. All we need is more people to join the fight.”

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