Polarizing US country star highlights Nashville's race problem
Morgan Wallen, pictured performing in June 2019, had 2021's top-selling album, despite triggering controversy by casually using a racial slur Jason Kempin AFP/File

This time last year, Morgan Wallen was under fire for dropping a racial slur, a moment caught on video that saw the American country superstar's career take a nosedive.

But the backlash was short-lived. After being "suspended" from his label and barred from the genre's awards ceremonies, Wallen's star is again soaring.

His second studio album, "Dangerous: The Double Album," was last year's commercial juggernaut, notching more than three million units sold -- eclipsing the likes of Drake, Adele and Olivia Rodrigo.

On Wednesday, Wallen will play New York's Madison Square Garden as part of a massive cross-country tour. He even added a second show Thursday at the famed venue due to "overwhelming demand."

It's a swift rebound that has critics asking what, if anything, he or country music's Nashville gatekeepers have done to take accountability for his casual racism -- or if they care at all.

"His album sales skyrocketed because of people who basically felt like we were making entirely too much of him using the n-word," said Sheryl Guinn, president of Nashville's branch of the NAACP civil rights organization.

"He hasn't suffered any repercussions," Guinn told AFP. "The fact that he didn't go to the awards -- who cares about the awards when you're making money?"

Wallen's persistent dominance is a conspicuous example of resistance in country music, a genre long accused of elevating its white men at the expense of people of color and women, to address the injustices entrenched in its ranks.

"The hate runs deep," tweeted Mickey Guyton -- the first Black woman nominated for a solo country Grammy, who will sing the national anthem at this weekend's Super Bowl -- in the wake of Wallen's slur.

For Guinn, the situation speaks more broadly to racism in the United States, a country that less than two years ago saw its streets erupt in mass demonstrations triggered by the police murder of a Black man, George Floyd.

The core issue isn't Wallen specifically, she said, but "that America in and of itself doesn't care enough about eradicating racism."

"Country music is a reflection of its fans; they have fans all over the world," she added. "And I'm certain that there's certain areas of other music genres that are just as supportive of this type of foolishness."

"The issue is the racism that exists, period -- his was just on full blast."

White privilege

During the initial furor, Wallen made a few apologies and did vow to "do better" -- also saying on the program Good Morning America that he hadn't "really sat and thought about" whether the country industry had problems with race.

And he's emerged from the controversy seemingly unscathed.

Last month, Wallen played a song with his labelmate Ernest at the Grand Ole Opry -- country's most famous stage -- which the venue promoted with a tweet that read "Surprise!" to introduce the disgraced star back into the fold.

Many social media users found the tweet flippant -- while others praised what they saw as resistance to "cancel culture."

Wallen's management did not respond to an AFP request for comment.

Charles Hughes, author of the book "Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South," pointed to "the broader system" that "allows for him to be brought back in with very little in terms of real reckoning on anybody's part."

"I'm disappointed that he didn't do more but I'm not surprised," the country scholar continued, citing the industry's willingness to forgive and forget for the sake of profits.

"You're never going to lose money in the United States if you bet on white resentment and white privilege," Hughes said, adding that even without a financial incentive, he hoped the industry "would have more of a moral imperative, or at least a political imperative" to take action.

"But turns out that's not true."

Zach Scott Gainous, a Nashville-based entertainment lawyer and artist manager, said controversy surrounding artists can draw more attention to their work, and can "reinforce" the "fandom of that particular artist."

And for fans who want to separate the art from the artist?

"Either you are choosing to be oblivious to what's actually happening or you're supporting him," Guinn said. "And I don't necessarily know that there's a difference between the two."

Structural change

According to Hughes, Nashville must now "fundamentally rethink who gets spotlighted and why," structural change that necessitates more than creating "limited superficial spaces and then patting yourself on the back."

Black musicians in country and folk -- and especially Black women -- in recent years have carved out space the industry has long denied them, reclaiming on their own terms the genre that owes its roots to Black artists.

Along with promoting performers, Hughes also urged recruiting and hiring more Black people industry-wide.

"I think it's so important to shift our conversation away from" Wallen, said Hughes. "There's so many other people doing great work. That's where the focus needs to be at this point."

© 2022 AFP