Less than 30 minutes after TMZ posted a video of country star Morgan Wallen using a racial slur on February 2, Mickey Guyton, the only black country singer signed to a major label, tweeted his reaction: “The hatred runs deep.”
She added: “How many passes are you going to keep giving?” and “So what exactly will you do about it?” The crickets will not work this time. “
A few other mainstream country performers commented on the incident on social media, but many believed Nashville would do what it almost always does when one of its stars comes under fire: circle the cars and shut her up. “It’s the norm for country artists to stay silent and not use their platform for controversy,” said Leslie Fram, senior vice president of music strategy at CMT.
The next day, however, radio conglomerates including iHeartMedia, Cumulus, and Entercom removed Wallen’s songs from the rotation of hundreds of stations, and major streaming services removed him from playlists. CMT has stopped broadcasting its videos. The Academy of Country Music declared him ineligible for his upcoming awards. All of this as Wallen’s second album, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” topped the Billboard 200 for the third week in a row.
While Guyton’s tweets alone aren’t responsible for the swift rebuke, she is one of a small contingent of mostly female artists – including Cam, Maren Morris, Margo Price, and Amanda Shires – and actors from the industry whose advocacy has caused the country music industry to begin to grapple with issues of racism and diversity that go beyond the misdeeds of an artist.
“I was really encouraged by how quickly each group in the industry showed up,” said Cam, a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter. “But I don’t think times when calling someone up on something so ingrained in everyone else is going to be a game-changer.”
The work of these women is not easy to quantify. Much of this is about deliberately pushing the public conversation in Nashville toward uncomfortable questions of racial equity. This could mean using social media to proclaim a book like “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad or excouring the group formerly known as Lady Antebellum for mingling with a black artist by the name of Lady A. Other times, he participates in diversity and inclusion working groups. In November, when Morris was named singer 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.
The fact that this is often a group of women who speak the loudest is perhaps not surprising. Female artists have faced huge barriers in the industry themselves, from sexual harassment and objectification to unwritten rules restricting release for women.
“In the female experience, you understand what it’s like to be the underdog, to step into a predominantly white male situation and try to assert yourself,” said Palmer, who hosts a radio show. Apple Music titled Color Me Country. highlights the black, indigenous and Latin roots of the genre.
Shires, a singer-songwriter who also performs alongside Morris in the Highwomen, puts it bluntly: “I guess a lot of men don’t speak because they’re comfortable in their places. of power and money. Why would they want this to change? “
The history of the dominance of male artists in country music goes back a long way. Between 2014 and 2018, 84% of artists on Billboard’s end-of-year country charts were male, according to a study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California.
The relative silence of many of the country’s biggest stars, men and women, is partly a habit but also partly an economic issue. Whether the stars and goalkeepers are indifferent to racism or not, they fear the fans are.
“If they’re worried about falling financially, they just keep their mouths shut,” Price said. “They’d rather keep that rebellious dollar.”
But attributing to these women, mostly white, the social conscience of the country is in itself an indication of the larger problem. “White women speak out because we don’t let black women speak out,” Cam said. With a few frequently noted exceptions, in Nashville she said, “Black people aren’t even allowed in, can’t be in writing rooms, can’t be signed, aren’t followed on Twitter, so you never hear them.
Part of this work amplifies these marginalized voices. Shires and Morris worked with Spencer and Yola. Morris, Cam and Guyton are part of a group text with Palmer and Andrea Williams, a Nashville-based black journalist and author, where they share reading suggestions, relay their personal experiences, and strategize.
“How is it that two white women even partially understand what the experience of blacks in the country looks like?” Cam asked. “It’s because we learn from black women. We watched what’s up with Mickey and talked to him. Cam said she and Morris use their platforms to share what they learn more widely.
Williams, an animated Twitter presence, has not shied away from harassing like-minded ideologists – including Morris and Shires’ husband Jason Isbell – when she feels they have failed to be good allies. “I’d rather people say nothing than say the wrong thing,” she says. “Sometimes you have to listen and learn.” She pointed out that two of the first artists to respond to the Wallen incident, Kelsea Ballerini and Cassadee Pope, said her behavior “didn’t represent” country music.
“It’s more hurtful than people who haven’t said anything because you diminish the very real experiences of people who know for a fact that this is actually indicative of how this whole industry works,” she says.
According to Williams, focusing on the genre obscures the “original sin” of country music: “Country was created for the sole purpose of commercializing a particular racial demographic. We have divided southern music into white hill records and black records. This line of demarcation is as sharp today as it was in the 1920s, ”she said.
This checking account dates back to the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Just days after George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the Minneapolis Police, Guyton released the very personal “Black Like Me” and the country’s only traditional colored male artists – Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen – have spoke candidly of their own experiences, while the rest of the country music industry struggled to catch the moment. Other artists and executives were quick to share supporting hashtags, but in a genre where mainstream black performers can be counted on the one hand and black faces are hardly common behind the scenes, their efforts are are felt insignificant.
Lorie Liebig, a Nashville-based publicist and journalist, began compiling a Google document outlining what country artists had published – or not published – in support of Black Lives Matter. Shires was among the first to share the spreadsheet widely, but as it became known the harshest reactions were often directed at Liebig herself.
“There was a day when it first hit, my Twitter was cascading with negative responses,” she said. “Many said that I was racist towards white people. I ended up being doxxed. They posted my parents’ address.
Many of these women experienced similar bile. “I’ve been called just about every name in the book,” Price said. “People have sent me threatening DMs. I’m sure it cost me selling albums and tickets. “
After the death of black country pioneer Charley Pride in December, Palmer criticized the praise that has whitewashed his legacy. “For three days, I was threatened, called a racist, a fanatic, no one,” she said. “I was called a Nazi propagandist, which was my favorite.”
But the constant pressure from these women seems to be starting to change the conversation. While it remains to be seen whether the consequences Wallen faced signal a lasting appetite for change – he returned for a fourth week to No.1 after the incident, and was not strongly condemned by Nashville, where advocates and sympathetic voices have spoken on his name – there are signs that the ground is moving. Four of the 10 acts chosen this year for CMT’s “Next Women of Country” are Black. The National Museum of African American Music recently opened in downtown Nashville – across from the symbolic home of country music, the Ryman Auditorium.
“We’re a long way from seeing drastic changes, but every time the light bulb comes on for someone else, we’re closer,” said Williams. “Because, as we all get together and text at midnight in these group chats, we are more powerful than any of us as individuals. All we need is more people to join the fight.