Music

Three Lessons to Learn From Morgan Wallen’s Racial Reckoning

The star’s caught-on-camera slur, and his continued rise on the Billboard charts, illustrates country music’s biggest problem.

A man with long, brown hair sings and plays guitar onstage.
Morgan Wallen performs at the CMA Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, on Nov. 11. Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

It’s not yet clear what will happen next with Morgan Wallen. A rising country music superstar, 27-year-old Wallen has been at the center of several self-made controversies in recent months. First, in October, he was disinvited from a performer slot on Saturday Night Live after videos of him partying mask-less with college co-eds turned up online. He offered a mea culpa for his actions, then appeared on the show in December; he even poked fun at his own mistake in a sketch.

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But his latest “mistake” is harder to forgive. After footage emerged of the country star using the “N”-word while intoxicated, a firestorm followed that included his removal from radio and streaming playlists and his contract “suspended” by his record label, although the specific meaning of this remains vague. Many country fans and media critics expressed disappointment with his actions and welcomed the consequences. But a separate group of Wallen’s supporters rallied to keep his latest album, Dangerous, at #1 on Billboard’s albums chart and his streaming numbers at high levels, near to what they’d been the week before.

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Wallen himself has been repentant. He has released a series of apologies, most recently a five-minute Instagram video on February 10, in which he admits wrongdoing and pledges to “be better”—both in terms of racial understanding and controlling his alcohol use. Beyond this, he asks his defenders to let him “take ownership for this” and “accept any penalties” that are coming his way.

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But whether this marks the end of Wallen’s career or is just a temporary blip in his history, the incident has provoked a larger conversation about race and racism in country music. Social media platforms played host to predictably feverish conversations, commentators wrestled with the implications of the moment, and media outlets rushed to cover the ensuing controversy. Such moments have occurred before – most recently, the removal of Lil Nas X’s blockbuster hit “Old Town Road” from Billboard’s Country charts in 2019. Like these predecessors, Wallen’s racist outburst registered as both important moment and metaphor for the broader racial politics of country music in both past and present. Here are three crucial lessons to learn about the state of country music from Wallen’s drunken use of a slur and its fallout.

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Lesson 1: Racism is, and has long been, a problem in country music.

Morgan Wallen’s callous use of a racial slur is not unprecedented among country music artists. Black country stars of previous eras, like Charley Pride and O.B. McClinton, reported hearing racist comments and words from their colleagues. These were sometimes said in the “joking” fashion that white folks use as rationalization, and sometimes used with more obviously hurtful intentions. Beyond this, Black artists have faced racialized mistreatment from both audiences and the industry since the genre’s early days, as white artists (especially men) are afforded greater musical and professional opportunities. And the genre itself was initially structured through a central racial conundrum: despite its multiracial sound and audience, country was established as the sound of whiteness.

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Record labels and country radio stations have generally targeted white listeners, ignoring – as scholar Amanda Martinez has shown in her work on the subject – the significant presence and buying power of non-white country fans. Country artists and executives doubled-down on this by aligning with prominent conservative politicians; in the late 1960s, “New Right” leaders like Richard Nixon and George Wallace championed country as the soundtrack of the (white) Americans being left behind in the Civil Rights era. And major artists have embraced “Lost Cause” revisionism and neo-Confederate nostalgia through songs, iconography, and even band names. While country’s political history is complicated, the genre has consistently affirmed its relationship to white identity.

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There have been several Black country stars throughout the genre’s lifespan, from DeFord Bailey in the 1930s through Darius Rucker in the 21st century. Even so, the space has remained notoriously narrow (especially for women of color), despite the music itself having always been heavily marked by white performers’ incorporation of Black musical influences. Morgan Wallen, for example, is one of several recent hitmakers to incorporate the woozy textures of post-Drake hip-hop into his crossover-friendly sound. Put simply, country music has been defined by the presence of Black sound combined with the absence of Black people.

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Even as the erasure of Black musicians remains the most visible example of country’s tenacious whiteness, the systemic problem extends to other communities who have both contributed to country and been marginalized within it. The sounds of Latinx and Indigenous traditions have both been critical to the genre’s development, but artists from those backgrounds have almost routinely failed to find industry support. Country’s myopic racial identity makes little room for the acknowledgement of Latinx and Indigenous artists within the music’s ongoing evolution and popularity—perhaps even less room than it has available for Black people. And Wallen’s caught-on-camera slur, and his continued top spot on the Billboard charts, serves as an extreme illustration of this racial power dynamic.

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Lesson 2: Reconciliation is not enough.

The response to Wallen’s use of the N-word must forcefully address this broader reality and go beyond simple calls for reconciliation. Two prominent examples of this trope emerged just prior to the Wallen slur. In late 2020, Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, two undisputed kings of country music, released “Undivided.” The song offers a series of clichés—including the wish to get past “all black or all white”—to argue that we must unite despite our differences. Then, one day before the Wallen news broke, Luke Combs and Billy Strings released the similarly banal “The Great Divide.” Both songs are part of a longer tradition of conciliatory country anthems, but they also seemed particularly and unsettlingly attuned to the immediate aftermath of the Trump era. As national debates rage over accountability, violence, and supposed “cancel culture,” four of country’s most prominent white men told us that we should all make nice.

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A similar rhetoric emerged immediately after Wallen’s tape and its consequences. Some country personalities forcefully condemned his actions, but others called for everyone to forgive and heal. These defensive pleas often seemed heartfelt, but the continued fan support ends up linking Wallen to country music’s tendency toward weaponizing reconciliation rhetoric against calls for deeper change.

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From the aftermath of Reconstruction to contemporary police violence, such talk of healing—buttressed by the notion that “both sides” are to blame for making trouble, and supposedly proven by instances of interracial friendship—has been used to reinforce unjust systems and quiet those who speak out against them. As much as reconciliation is about forgiving, it is also about forgetting. Morgan Wallen, who has been pitied by many as an unfortunate victim of alcohol and defended as having said nothing worse than what hip-hop artists do, appears to be the latest beneficiary of this historical impulse. As Elamin Abdelmahmoud noted in Buzzfeed, “Country music needs redeemed white men more than it wants its Black artists to be successful … This cycle of forgiveness serves as a stand-in for absolving the genre’s establishment, over and over again.”

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Wallen’s actions require a defiance of the longer historical tendency to excuse white transgression in favor of peace, quiet, and commercial logic. There are other, better ways for country fans to respond to his missteps than with excuses for them—like, well, not excusing them.

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Lesson 3: Support Black people in country music.

Part of what makes the Morgan Wallen incident so infuriating and the calls for healing so frustrating is how they stand in contrast to Black artists’ current challenges to country music’s racial and gender politics. Black country performers have an unprecedented presence in the genre, with artists from Jimmie Allen to Reyna Roberts to, yes, Lil Nas X achieving commercial success and critical acclaim. Some of their music even critiques American racial politics in ways that far surpass calls for healing. On Martin Luther King Day 2021, for example, up-and-comer Willie Jones released “American Dream,” an eloquent and twangy denunciation of white supremacy.

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Black women in particular have led the call for change in the genre. Building on the legacy of Linda Martell, Ruby Falls, and others, a new generation is reshaping country’s sound and meaning. Artists like Brittney Spencer and Chapel Hart challenge the limits of the mainstream in their work, while Rhiannon Giddens and her colleagues in Our Native Daughters claim space in contemporary Americana. Rissi Palmer has built upon her work as a recording artist to create “Color Me Country,” a podcast spotlighting country’s multiracial roots and inclusive contemporary mix. In her work, Nashville-based journalist Andrea Williams denounces country’s structural racism, as well as lifting up the voices of Black artists from past and present. And many others continue the historic project of insisting that, as writer Pamela Foster titled her history of Black country, it is My Country, Too.

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Within this community, the artist Mickey Guyton has emerged as a prominent voice. Her Grammy-nominated 2020 single “Black Like Me” (which topped this year’s Nashville Scene poll of country critics) capped a year of powerful releases and many more years of celebrated work. Despite numerous singles and EPs, as well as resounding critical acclaim, Guyton has yet to release a full-length album or receive significant radio airplay, part of a larger crisis facing country women, especially artists of color. She pins the blame for this on the resistance of the industry and has spoken out against racism and sexism in the country industry, even from some seeming allies. “Black Like Me” and her other 2020 releases are framed around her desire to both address and transgress these limitations. “The hate runs deep,” Guyton tweeted after the Morgan Wallen incident, later adding that “this is exactly who country music is. I’ve witnessed it for 10 gd years.”  As Wallen’s streaming and sales numbers remained chart-topping following his seeming cancellation, the advocacy collective WOMAN Nashville led a social-media campaign to boost the sales of “Black Like Me” and Guyton’s most recent EP Bridges. The movement propelled the EP to #11 on iTunes’ all-genre albums chart. Both through her music and her continuing story, Mickey Guyton offers a striking counterpoint to the reckless entitlement of Morgan Wallen and other white men who dominate country airwaves.

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But supporting Mickey Guyton and other Black artists isn’t just about proactively reacting to racism. It is also an acknowledgement that, as throughout history, Black artists are making some of the best country music of our moment. This is true regardless of their music’s subject matter, but we are particularly lucky to have such powerful discussions of Blackness and racial politics as part of the mix. Songs like “Black Like Me” or “American Dream” continue a rich tradition, as artists like Guyton, Jones, and their contemporaries both acknowledge the realities of historical anti-Blackness and honor the Black survival and genius that persisted in spite of it. That reckoning and recognition is the story of country music and the country that produced it.

If Morgan Wallen teaches us anything, it’s that we need to pay more attention to the people his genre chooses to ignore.

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