Country music is holding Morgan Wallen accountable. Let’s not stop with him.
Anger and wearied frustration echoed in Nashville as a troubling video of country star Morgan Wallen surfaced on Tuesday night. Patrons of country music expressed disdain as they heard Wallen – one of the genre’s most highly-streamed artists – use the N-slur in a drunken altercation in a video released by TMZ.
Trigger Warning: The following video contains racial slurs.
Country star Kelsea Ballerini was quick to tweet that the news coming out of Music City was not at all representative of country music. The sentiment was clearly well-mannered, and perhaps true as it pertains to Ballerini’s own personal approach to her music.
But here’s the problem: Morgan Wallen’s racist remarks and general disregard for any sense of responsibility are extremely representative of country music today. Ignoring that fact will not make it go away.
Racism is built into the very roots of the genre. “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” which has long been hailed as the first ever country song, was written for the minstrel trade in the early 20th century. Despite being sung from the point of view of a lonely slave in the dialect of the time, the original lyrics were written by Will S. Hays, a white poet.
Even today, the term “Dixie” – a favorite nickname for the Confederate States before the Civil War – still makes regular appearances in country music. Despite the genre having Black roots, top country charts are predominantly white.
Wallen himself holds 19 of the top 50 spots on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for the week of February 6. Only four of those top 50 spots belong to people of color: Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Blanco Brown and Nelly. Blanco Brown is featured on a song with Parmalee, where Nelly is featured on a song with Florida Georgia Line.
The issue is not a lack of POC country artists either. Charley Pride, Yola, Tiera, Kane Brown, Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton, Mercy Bell, Breland, D’orjay the Singing Shaman and Rhiannon Giddens make up a far-from-exhaustible list. The truth remains that country radio chooses not to play artists of color.
Understanding that country has left a disturbing legacy when it comes to race, we need to ask ourselves: Are we really that surprised that one of country music’s top-selling artists used a racial slur with full knowledge of the weight it carries? How can we allow this person to succeed?
Just in October, Wallen’s performance on Saturday Night Live was canceled after a video surfaced of the country singer breaking COVID-19 guidelines in Alabama. Wearing no mask, Wallen is seen kissing multiple women at a crowded college party. Wallen apologized and said he’d be taking some time to work on himself. He was welcomed back to SNL just two months later to perform, and even made a cameo in a sketch making light of the incident.
Regardless of race, gender, sex, orientation or ability, country music is a thread that ties an inexhaustible amount of people to home. The comfort that comes with the pluck of an acoustic guitar or the wails of a fiddle are not exclusive to the straight, cisgender white men who have rarely faced consequences.
Voices of color are sorely lacking from popular country, and it’s a direct result of letting artists like Wallen get away with these kinds of actions with little more than a slap on the wrist. When we fail to hold these artists accountable – especially those who have proven themselves to be racist or otherwise prejudiced – we are only strengthening the disproportionate whiteness of country music.
Wallen is finally facing swift repercussions for his troubling actions, and I have to say that I’m proud.
Artists, songwriters, executives and others in country music have taken to Twitter this week to express just how unacceptable Warren’s behavior was.
It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first “scuffle” and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.
— MAREN MORRIS (@MarenMorris) February 3, 2021
Whether it’s Mel Gibson or Morgan Wallen, spare us the bullshit “I was drunk” excuse. Booze doesn’t make you a racist piece of shit. It just occasionally reveals that you always were one.
— Richard Marx (@richardmarx) February 3, 2021
It’s refreshing to see that country music is beginning to demand accountability of its patrons, and I sincerely hope that the response to Wallen’s abhorrent behavior sets a substantial precedent for people in this industry.
But as for Ballerini’s claim that racist behavior wasn’t representative of country music, we needn’t look any further than Wallen’s spike in record sales since the incident. Billboard reported on Thursday that where his radio airplay fell by 71%, Wallen’s unit sales inflated by 339%.
Some industry professionals and those close to Wallen – namely his sister Ashlyne – have spoken out on Tuesday’s incident claiming that he ought to be forgiven.
“Cancel culture is the worst thing that has come out of our digital world. It leaves no room for forgiveness and growth,” Ashlyne Wallen said. “… although what he said was completely unacceptable, I know in my heart that it did not come from a place of hate or malicious intent.”
In a similar post from the girlfriend of Big Loud Records’ CEO, a number of country artists pushed for the same forgiveness in the comments.
Here are the issues with that: The use of racial slurs, by definition, come from a place of hate and malicious intent. It’s troubling that this fact should be contested at all. No one uses the n-word on accident, and drunkenness is not an excuse.
Forgiveness is great, but there comes a point when forgiving becomes enabling. The patrons of country music pushing for Wallen’s forgiveness, in tandem with his spike in sales, sends a troubling message. A message that says Wallen’s racist behavior is acceptable, even as it breeds a hostile environment for country artists of color.
Prior to the backlash against Wallen this week, country music stars preached an ambiguous, almost centrist message of love to combat prejudice and political divisiveness during the Trump era. Jonathan Bernstein highlighted why this was not enough in his Rolling Stone article “Why Country Music Wanted Everyone to Get Along in the 2010s” in 2019.
“In some regards, these songs are simply the culmination of a false story that country music has been telling itself about its role in the political conversation: ‘get along’ really means ‘don’t pick a side.’,” Bernstein wrote.
The fault here comes down to privilege. Not everyone has the luxury of “not picking a side” simply because they’d risk alienating part of their audience. Sure, we should all work toward getting along. But “disagreement” is not an excuse for harmful rhetoric like Wallen’s use of the N-word, a harmful slur that carries with it generations of trauma. This is why the industry – most of it, anyway – holding Wallen accountable comes as such a welcome surprise.
For too long, popular country music has been synonymous with whiteness and blissfully ignorant patriotism at the cost of marginalized voices in the industry. Wallen’s downfall is a necessary and long-overdue first step in undoing the generations of that warped image, and I look forward to a more accurate image of the music that reminds so many Americans of home.