Morgan Wallen stepped onto country music’s most historic stage over the weekend, a sign many interpreted as the Grand Ole Opry giving the struggling star his blessing and a path to reconciliation after using a racial insult in front of the camera.
While the country star’s return to the public eye seemed inevitable, a Opry’s tweet about Wallen surprising fans during its regular Saturday broadcast, drew strong criticism of the predominantly white institution and its history as a guardian.
Artists such as Yola, Allison Russell, Rissi Palmer, Noelle Scaggs of Fitz and the Tantrums, Joy Oladokun, Chely Wright, as well as Grammy winners Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, explained how Opry’s decision could have consequences. disturbing for artists of color in country music.
“Morgan Wallen’s thoughtless redemption tour is the nail in the coffin of me realizing these systems and this city isn’t really for us,” wrote Oladokun on Sunday.
Wallen was filmed last year using a racial slur, and although some organizations temporarily banned him, he returned to the airwaves and remains the Most Popular Artist of 2021 across genres. He resumed touring the arenas last year and released new music, including collaborations with rapper Lil Durk, who is black, and country artist ERNEST. Wallen made an unannounced appearance on the Opry, which has been broadcasting for nearly 100 years, to sing along with ERNEST.
This time the criticism focused more on the silent signage of the Opry than on Wallen himself.
“It’s the idea of a young black artist walking into this place and wondering if SOMEONE is on his side”, wrote Isbell. “What many of us consider a great honor can be terrifying for some.”
Empty promises of racial fairness
For many black artists, the promises of change and racial fairness within country music institutions continue to ring empty.
In 2021, writer Holly G started a blog called Black Opry to create a hotbed for black artists and fans. Since then, it has grown in less than a year to become a full-fledged community and shows in venues across the country. The enthusiasm for what she created grew so much that venues turned to book shows.
She met the artistic director of the Opry and offered to host a show next month for Black History Month in conjunction with Black Opry. She said that Opry’s rep stressed that they carefully select who appears on their stage.
They figured out that they could invite a few black performers on stage and make them debut, which will calm people down or calm people down a bit.– Holly G, writer and founder of the Black Opry blog
After Wallen’s appearance, Holly G wrote a letter requesting an explanation of how the Opry felt Wallen met their standards.
“They figured out that they can invite a few black performers on stage and make them debut and that will calm people down or calm people down a bit,” she told The Associated Press on Monday. “But if you look at the structure of the institution, nothing has changed. They have two black members over the entire history of the institution.”
An Opry publicist did not return a request for comment from the PA, and Holly G said she also did not receive a response to her letter on Tuesday morning.
Wallen apologized for his racist language
Shortly after Wallen’s video posted on TMZ, the country singer apologized and told fans not to defend his racist language. But his fans galvanized their support for him, boosting his streaming numbers when radio stations took him off playlists. Wallen himself acknowledged a lack of awareness when asked Hello america in July of last year to find out if country music had a problem with breed.
“It would seem so, yes. I didn’t really sit down and think about it,” he replied.
A Wallen publicist did not return a request for comment from the AP.
LISTEN | CBC Radio’s music panel q discusses Morgan Wallen’s backlash:
q10:47Will Country Music Star Morgan Wallen Bounce Back After Being Canceled?
Charles Hughes, professor at Rhodes College, Memphis and author of Country Soul: Music and Race in the Southern United States, said playing the Opry – one of the most important institutions in the history of the genre – legitimizes artists.
Hughes said Wallen’s path, via the Opry and other stages he performed on, looked like the “wayward white artist” being welcomed back into the family.
“The story of reconciliation is really powerful and reconciliation without any calculation, real calculation, can actually be worse,” said Hughes. “Because if you don’t fix the problem, you sort of act like it hasn’t happened.”
Not “worth fighting to share space”
Musician Adia Victoria noted that blackface clad minstrels have performed comedies on the Opry for years. The very first Opry performer for the first show in 1927, harmonica player DeFord Bailey, was fired and left the music business. Only Charley Pride, who died in 2020, and Darius Rucker have been officially invited to become regular members.
The Opry management team selects member artists based on their professional success, such as sales and industry recognition, and their commitment to their audience. Wallen is not a member, but was a guest artist.
The moment of Wallen’s appearance at Opry came on the same weekend that Grammy-nominated country star Mickey Guyton tweeted about a racist commentator, while a white country star RaeLynn said in an interview with a conservative podcaster that gender was not racist because she had never experienced racism herself. Guyton is black.
The confluence of all these incidents in a matter of days has been grueling for artists of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Holly G. That is why she sees the need to create new spaces and organizations outside of the long-standing institutions of the kind that didn’t make everyone feel welcome.
“We are going to create our own audiences, our own stages and our own traditions,” she said. “It’s not worth fighting to share space with people who unequivocally don’t want you there.”