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Can Country Music Adapt Following Its Racial Reckoning?
Despite more Black Country music artists thriving, the genre still has a race problem. Can country music adapt to keep from tearing itself asunder?
Country music is at an impasse.
The genre's two biggest stars — who also happen to be two of the nation's best-selling artists —couldn't be more different: one, an ebullient gay Black man; the other, a loutish-behaving, drunk white bigot. Lil Nas X has upward of 20 million singles sold of his genre-blending song “Old Town Road,” while Morgan Wallen’s double album, Dangerous, is preparing to reach two consecutive months atop Billboard’s Hot 200 chart. This comes after Wallen uttered the word "ni**er" out loud while being filmed on the first day of 2021’s Black History Month. Despite the 27-year old Sneedville, Tennessee native being “indefinitely suspended” by his label Big Loud Records, having his videos removed from CMT, and songs unlisted from radio playlists as a result of saying the racial slur, Wallen's album sales have skyrocketed.
The proposition of consistent Black stardom in this once mostly lily-white musical space is more apparent than ever, with Lil Nas X opening the floodgates to artists like Blanco Brown, Breland, and RMR. But there are also Black country artists who are making music more traditional to the genre: Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown, who both made history in 2018 debuting at No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart and Billboard's 200 chart, respectively; groundbreaking 2021 Black Best Female Solo Country Artist and Grammy-nominated vocalist Mickey Guyton; and Billboard-charting vocalist and Color Me Country podcast host Rissi Palmer. Thus, it would appear that country music — to reflect its rising stars and preventatively save itself — must adapt to keep from potentially tearing itself asunder. But can it?
The Black country artists over the years
For nearly a century, country music has predominantly been the domain of slow-drawling, God-fearing white men, with Wallen being presented within a stereotypical cultural landscape that venerates the genre’s roots in hillbilly Appalachia and the Antebellum South. Enter Lil Nas X. The success of "Old Town Road" disrupted country: as Billboard removed the track from its country charts, some critics felt it was indicative of systemic problems still prevalent in the genre, segregating Black artists from another genre that they invented and policing what it does — and doesn't — sound like. Others used the moment to educate people on country's rich Black history and, by extension, Black people's contributions to the cowboy culture associated with the genre.
Until very recently, country music has been able to count its star Black mainstream stars on less than one hand. The '70s featured Charley Pride, the iconic hitmaker behind the classic “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin,’” who passed from COVID-19 in 2020, and The Pointer Sisters, whose 1974 hit single "Fairytale" led to them winning the award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group at that year's Grammys, as well as a nomination for Best Country Song. In the early '90s, R&B crossover artist Aaron Neville forayed into country music with 1993's The Grand Tour, which included a cover of George Jones' classic of the same name, and resulted in Neville being nominated for Best Country Male Singer that same year. In the modern era, one-time Hootie and the Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker has recently achieved ten number-one hits on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
Despite this lineage, as well as the contemporary Black country 0artists a part of its evolution, the general public still views Black participation in country dismissively, a misinformed mindset based on the music genre primarily being catered to white people.
"My 82-year-old mother who participated in the civil rights movement saw Charley Pride on the 2020 CMAs and referred to him as 'an old coon.' I was stunned," William Bruce West, a part-time music and culture blogger and lifelong country music fan, said. "Charley Pride opened doors and is the 'Jackie Robinson of country music.' But, according to my mother, not everyone has the same perspective on his career."
Many Black Americans feel exhaustion about how race in America impacts how they have historically thought about country music. The intersection of race, country’s roots in a South imperiled by anti-Black prejudice, and many Black people's desire to live lives within, but without the direct impact of what has been deemed white culture-defined spaces, dooms this relationship. And how Wallen's discriminatory behavior is being handled reflects how fraught this relationship still is. On one end, the immediacy in which he was suspended by his label and his music unlisted is reassuring. On the other, there are fans that could care less about his transgression, and fail to see — or simply don't care — how it's indicative of deeply-rooted problems in country.
"Systemic issues are complex and require transformational work," Gina Waters Miller, a music industry veteran and the Vice President and General Manager of Entertainment One Nashville, said in an email. "This is not about what will be quick and easy, but what is likely uncomfortable yet sustainable."
Miller, who's also a member of the NAACP and the Vice President of Nashville Music Equality — a community of music industry professionals in the Music City "committed to minimizing the equality gap that exists within the music industry in Nashville" — hopes that the disdain and swiftness that came about for Wallen is maintained by those who claim "they support diversity, inclusion, equity, equality, and justice," while adding the importance of advocating for Black country artists.
"Leaders need to examine themselves, their workplaces, and their relationships," she said. "Intentionality around being advocates, allies, sponsors, and mentors for artists, creatives, musicians, executives who identify as BIPOC is key."
Lady A Vs. Lady A
Where Wallen is indicative of the more overt racial issues that still persist in country, country music group Lady A (formerly known as Lady Antebellum) is speaks something more covert but just as harmful — whether they realize it or not.
On June 12, 2020, amid the George Floyd protests, Lady Antebellum shortened its name to "Lady A."
"When we set out together almost 14 years ago, we named our band after the Southern 'antebellum'-style home where we took our first photos," the group said in a statement. "As musicians, it reminded us of all the music born in the South that influenced us … Southern rock, blues, R&B, gospel, and of course country. But we are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War, which includes slavery."
With the name change also came a donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, and a commitment "to examining our individual and collective impact and making the necessary changes to practice antiracism." However, in changing their name, Lady A had taken up a name already being used by someone.
Anita White has traveled the world as "Lady A" for 25 years, the 62-year-old Seattle-based blues and jazz vocalist who has released multiple albums under the name. Shortly after the band changed its name, Rolling Stone spoke with White, who expressed frustration that they hadn't reached out to her before making a decision. The band ended up connecting with White and, based on posts they were sharing on their respective social media accounts, were making progress. But it didn't last long — shortly after the private conversations they had, White told Newsday that she didn't trust the group. The band then shared a statement saying progress between them and White had faltered because representatives for the singer "demanded a $10 million payment." By early July, the group had announced it had filed a lawsuit against White seeking no monetary damages, but wanting the court to affirm "a trademark we have held for many years."
In an interview with Vulture, White explained in detail how the name change had affected her own livelihood as a musician — from making her harder to find on search results to even affecting her ability to upload her music for distribution. She also shared that the band's initial contract to her "had no substance," stating that her and the band "would coexist and that they would use their best efforts to assist me on social media platforms, Amazon, iTunes, all that."
Not assured by the contract, White ended up asking them for $10 million, half of which would go to helping her rebrand — something she couldn't do as easily as her major label band counterpart — and the other half to charities of her choice.
"Five million dollars is nothing, and I’m actually worth more than that, regardless of what they think. But here we go again with another white person trying to take something from a Black person, even though they say they’re trying to help," she said. "If you want to be an advocate or an ally, you help those who you’re oppressing. And that might require you to give up something because I am not going to be erased."
White is still trying to resolve this case of brand confusion, which has left her filled with unexplainable sadness.
"I work hard, try to stay humble and pray, but it’s been horrible," she told me in a Zoom call alongside her longtime creative partner John Oliver III. "As a Black person, at this time, going through continually having to defend myself after having my name taken from me, I’m exhausted."
The singer is aware of the controversy surrounding Wallen and, not unlike Lady [Antebellum]'s gaffe, believes a teachable moment exists that can create sustainable avenues for Black artists looking for success in country music. However, the country music industry’s white establishment can't be performative in their allyship if real change is to happen.
"White allyship for people of color requires that you reach back from a position of privilege to listen, learn, and get on board," she said. "As well, you also have to occasionally give up something to show that you’ve made a change."
The racial reckoning country music is experiencing comes at a time where other industries are having their own racial reckonings, and trying to address systemic wrongs that have existed for quite some time. Despite the makeup of country changing in recent years, the genre still has a race problem — whether it be gatekeeping what is and isn't country or a mainstream band being unaware of the power they hold over an independent artist.
"Because Black people are everywhere now — and good at whatever we do — there should be room for us in country music," White said. "Black people forgive when white artists appropriate our music. However, [white people] have a problem whenever Black people move into [tradtionally non-Black] music. It’s a problem."
Oliver III, agreeing with White, put it more bluntly: "[White people] flexing the muscles of privilege is wrong. As long as [Black people] are continuing to push past this, we’ve won."
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Marcus K. Dowling is a journalist, broadcaster, and entrepreneur. In the past 10 years, he has contributed to Rolling Stone, VICE, Pitchfork, Complex, The Bitter Southerner, Bandcamp, Mixmag, ESPN's Undefeated, and more.