Why Morgan Wallen is an 'inflection point' for country music's reckoning with racism

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"This is not who we are." It's a common refrain, often repeated in the wake of ugly incidents like the U.S. Capitol riots in January. It was a sentiment expressed by several country music artists, including Kelsea Ballerini and Cassadee Pope, after their fellow Nashville musician Morgan Wallen was caught on video using the N-word this past weekend. And it's a statement country singer-songwriter Rissi Palmer is sick of hearing.

"I hate when people say, 'This isn't us,' when something happens over and over and over and over," Palmer, who is Black, tells EW. "It may not be everybody, but… it's indicative of a larger issue.

"Country music has become a microcosm of what's going on in the country," she adds.

In the wake of the video's release on Tuesday, many other artists and observers have characterized Wallen's behavior as simply the latest symptom of an industry infected by racism long ago. The country music community has struggled for years to address issues of discrimination, inclusivity, and racial justice, topics thrown into sharp relief in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd. For artists of color in the industry, however, this was another instance of the world at large finally recognizing something they'd been dealing with for decades.

"When I read comments saying 'this is not who we are,' I laugh because this is exactly who country music is," singer Mickey Guyton, the only female Black country artist signed to a major label, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. "You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis."

Adds Palmer, "I think everybody's coming down on [Wallen] because this is the issue du jour, but this speaks to the fact that there are several white women on record labels, but there's only one Mickey. And there are countless white men, but there are only Kane [Brown], Darius [Rucker], and Jimmie [Allen]."

"It absolutely is what country music is," says Miko Marks, a Black singer-songwriter who's been active in the industry since the early 2000s. "It's really just a record that's being played on repeat. Day in and day out, women and people of color with great amounts of talent are being marginalized."

Still, she continues, "It's refreshing, in a way, to finally have the conversations that are taking place right now. It gives me hope that my perseverance in this genre of music is not lost."

Indeed, Wallen's actions sparked a remarkably swift and vocal response from some of country's most powerful institutions. By the morning after the video broke, several of the nation's biggest radio chains had yanked Wallen's music from the airwaves, Apple Music and Spotify removed his songs from their playlists, CMT pulled his appearances from their platforms, and Wallen's record label Big Loud said it would "suspend" his contract indefinitely. Later on Wednesday, the Academy of Country Music declared it would "halt Morgan Wallen's potential involvement and eligibility" in its upcoming 56th ACM Awards and "expedite the offering of long-planned diversity training resources."

This reaction was especially significant considering Wallen's status as possibly the hottest up-and-comer on the country scene. His album Dangerous: The Double Album has topped the Billboard 200 for three weeks and counting, and scored the largest streaming week ever for a country album, with more than 240 million streams.

But his success can be viewed as yet another sign of something rotten in the state of Music Row. This controversy was far from Wallen's first rodeo, so to speak; in October, he was booted from Saturday Night Live's musical guest spot after a video emerged of the singer partying unmasked and making out with girls amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Wallen apologized and was invited back two months later, even appearing in a sketch mocking his behavior. Earlier, in May, Wallen was arrested and charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct after being kicked out of a Nashville bar. He apologized, saying he "didn't mean any harm."

"If [women] did a quarter of the things that have happened — not only with Morgan, with men in general — we would be completely ostracized, and seen as difficult or as a liability," says country artist Leah Turner. "My hope is that everyone starts to open their eyes, and the same mercy, the same forgiveness, and the same chances are given equally across the board."

It's also entirely possible that Wallen will bounce back from the controversy more or less unscathed, as so many white male entertainers have done before. It's noteworthy, for instance, that Big Loud used the ambiguous term of "indefinite suspension" rather than dropping Wallen from the label outright. One possible explanation for this, explains music lawyer Brent Canter, is that the label could simply be buying time for the controversy to subside.

"They won't have an obligation to release [Wallen's] next record under the contract if the days of the contract are not currently running," Canter says. "So if they're obligated to put out another record within a specified period of time, they might be able to suspend the running of that time, which would allow them to put out another album when this controversy may have blown over."

Canter also doubts the measures being taken will make much of a dent in Wallen's success: "For better or for worse, these controversies come up and go away at a pretty rapid pace," he says. "And I think the record label probably knows that if it's music that people want to hear, they don't necessarily need it on their New Music Friday playlist." Case in point: Wallen's sales and streams have skyrocketed amid the controversy, with a 339 percent increase in song and album sales between Tuesday and Wednesday, and 16 of his songs among Spotify's top 200 tracks for Thursday.

And the question remains as to whether the industry's condemnation of Wallen represents a genuine shift, or an outcry that will quickly die out, with nothing having truly changed when the dust settles. It wouldn't be the first time: One high-profile debacle occurred last year when the all-white country trio Lady Antebellum announced they would change their name to Lady A (dropping the word invoking the pre-Civil War South), and ended up suing Black singer Anita White, who had been using the moniker "Lady A" since the 1980s. Lady A, the trio, were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in January.

Says Amanda Marie Martinez, a historian who has written extensively about race in country music, "The era of racial reckoning that we're in as a country has really put pressure on the industry in an entirely new way. We're seeing that the American public is fed up and is not letting go of putting that pressure on. That's really what's going to be required to force the industry to change, because I don't think it will do so willingly. At the end of the day, this is a business, and it's a business that has done very well for itself. So they really have no incentive to change. I think it's up to us."

"[The reaction] can't be just punishing [Wallen] and patting each other on the back like, 'What a great job we've done,'" Palmer says. "It has to be, 'Let's sit down and look in the mirror, and really think about, what is it about this industry that makes people feel safe to say these things or to do these things? Why is it that artists of color seem to all have the same story, that they don't feel welcomed when they come here?'"

She continues, "I think this is an inflection point. This is a point of growth. And unfortunately, whenever you're growing, it usually feels very uncomfortable. That's when you know that you're actually changing, because it kind of hurts. The industry and we as a country are going to have to go through growing pains."

Or, as Marks puts it, "There needs to be an uprooting of the way things are being done."

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