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How the country music industry is responding to George Floyd’s death — and facing its own painful truths

Demonstrators take part in a protest march in downtown Nashville on June 4 over the death of George Floyd, who was killed May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Rachel Berry really didn’t think many people would see her Instagram post. But she knew she had to say something.

“Not sure who will actually read this but figured I’d give my viewpoint on what’s going on in the world & hopefully open up some eyes on what goes on in the mind of a country music fan who’s in the minority,” Berry wrote on Instagram last week. “This girl loves country music and she loves going to country music concerts. However, I would be lying if I said that she has never felt uncomfortable when she’s at one.”

Berry, a 28-year-old from New Jersey, described the fears she often feels as a black woman at country shows and festivals: Being worried that if she stands up to dance, someone will yell a racial slur. The uneasy feeling walking through parking lot tailgates and seeing Confederate flags. Sometimes, she declines to go to concerts because she Googles the city’s name and “racism” and the search reveals racist incidents. “All I ask from not only the country music community, but every human being on this Earth, is that if you see or hear something that is wrong, speak up,” she wrote.

Country music fans know that, for a lot of artists, speaking up does not come naturally. Nashville singers are frequently encouraged to stay quiet about topics deemed controversial, such as gun control or politics, so they don’t alienate fans or risk backlash. (See: Dixie Chicks, March 2003.) But the killing of George Floyd, who died May 25 in Minneapolis police custody after an officer knelt on his neck, sparked an unusually large public outpouring from country singers, labels and organizations.

Some artists already known for making their views public — Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Brothers Osborne, Jason Isbell — wrote repeated messages condemning racism and police brutality, and supported Nashville protests. Others posted the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or encouraged donations to organizations funding racial justice. Thomas Rhett wrote an in-depth post about being the father of a black daughter.

Musicians participated in #BlackoutTuesday on June 2, posting black squares on their Instagram grids as part of a music industry campaign to raise awareness of inequality and how much their business has profited from black artists (though the campaign became controversial when participants’ use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter started drowning out information online about the Black Lives Matter movement). Darius Rucker, one of a handful of major-label black country singers, wrote, “This whole thing just really breaks me down to my core … it is no longer alright for me to perpetuate the myth that things are okay.”

And multiple acts, from Dan + Shay to Lindsay Ell, commented on Berry’s post, which started circulating around Nashville. (Little Big Town: “We hear you and we love you and we’re standing with you.” Cam: “I’ve heard similar stories too often and we as artists need to help create and demand a safer and more inclusive space.”) Berry, inspired to write her message after seeing Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild receive negative comments for sharing a video of Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae’s young son asking about racism, was “shocked” by the widespread support.

“It felt good just to know that my voice was heard,” Berry said. “They were pretty much like: ‘We see you. We haven’t really thought about that, but this post has opened our eyes … our crowd is more diverse than we think.’ ”

Although the popular image of a country music listener is a white person from the South, and concert crowds are overwhelmingly white, the genre’s popularity has expanded from coast to coast in recent years; a 2016 Country Music Association study found that nonwhite and Hispanic fans were the format’s fastest-growing audience. Country music’s roots are also in black history: the banjo originated in Africa and was played by enslaved people when they came to America. Eventually, white artists started to use the instrument.

But around the time music recordings were commercialized early in the 20th century, black singers were filtered out of country as gatekeepers labeled their music as “race records,” while white artists were placed in the “hillbilly” and “country and western” categories. When Charley Pride broke out as a country star in the 1960s, his label initially didn’t use promotional photos so radio stations wouldn’t realize they were playing a black artist.

'You do know the banjo is an African instrument, right?!': The black roots of country music

Racial inequity in country music persists, though that fact — and the genre’s history — is rarely acknowledged by people in the industry, even as the few contemporary country artists of color talk about their experiences. In 2019, Jimmie Allen became the first black artist to launch a country career with a No. 1 hit but acknowledged it was depressing that it took so long for someone to accomplish that feat. Kane Brown, who is biracial, said some songwriters refuse to write with him. Mickey Guyton, who just released a powerful song called “Black Like Me,” has faced racism at her own concerts; she said she was called the n-word in a meet-and-greet line and was told not to talk about it.

Last week, Guyton participated in a Zoom call titled “A Conversation on Being African-American in the Nashville Music Industry,” in which she and other members of the Nashville community spoke candidly about what they go through that their white colleagues would never consider, including feeling alienated from the country genre, the fear when they see Confederate flags and tattoos, and using caution when traveling in rural areas. One music executive recounted being called “colored” and the person defending the remark by explaining, “I’m from the country, and that’s just what we call you.”

Kortney Toney, the event’s founder and corporate partnerships manager for the Nashville Symphony, said about 840 registered users watched the call on Zoom; she was “overwhelmed in a good way” with the response. She has been inundated with messages of people calling the talk enlightening and heartbreaking; others said they cried. Some told her it inspired them to do some serious thinking about times they had been complacent and didn’t use their voices to speak up for minorities in the music industry.

“It was incredibly hard for all of us to be vulnerable in that space and to allow our walls to be brought down,” Toney said. But she was worried people would just post on Instagram about #BlackoutTuesday and then go back to their regular lives. “I really wanted to be able to create something that would ignite a fire, that would help to facilitate change. Honestly, it did even more than I could have imagined, based on the feedback that I have received.”

Since the panel, multiple higher-ups at various companies asked for her guidance, as they are already trying to implement changes. Record label heads have asked other panelists about ways they can work together.

Toney added she was also glad to see statements from country artists and was particularly moved by a post from Tim McGraw, which featured a photo of people of different skin colors putting their hands together. “It was really impactful and just meant that, to me, people are listening — and they’re understanding our pain, almost for the first time, really.”

Country stars who spoke up about the national uprising did so in a variety of ways: Hashtags. Heart emoji. Bible verses. Paragraphs of text. Photographs of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police in her apartment. Several, such as John Rich and Clint Black, criticized the protests. Some artists said nothing at all.

“I have been surprised by some big names, yes, of outright saying something,” Guyton told Rolling Stone when asked her thoughts on the reaction from country singers about what’s happening in America. “But I have been surprised by the ones that I thought would be a little bit stronger in their stance. It’s sad that it’s scary for people to publicly denounce racism.” (When Guyton tweeted a similar sentiment, Maren Morris responded, “They think it’s polarizing their fan base or is ‘political’ which it is 100% f---ing not.”)

Of course, plenty take action without using social media — but when you’re a celebrity with millions of followers, people have expectations. Some of the genre’s biggest stars (Kenny Chesney, Sam Hunt, Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert among them) haven’t posted anything, and fans noticed. Aldean’s wife, Brittany, defended their lack of posts in an Instagram statement to her 1.6 million followers.

“Let’s remember, the goal here isn’t to trend on social media or to be ‘politically correct’ to our followers. Any quick and easy action like a social media post, that endeavors to solve such a complex and systemic issue, is probably not going to be a meaningful and effective action,” she wrote. “I just wanted to let people know that our silence doesn’t mean racism, by ANY means. It simply means people process things differently.”

A few country artists said their posts in the last week resulted in lost followers, and they did not care. “THE FOLLOWERS I’M LOSING PROBABLY WOULDN’T LIKE MY ON STAGE BELLY SHIRTS ANYWAY,” Kassi Ashton tweeted.

And now, with more people than ever paying attention, many in the country industry will try to take the next steps toward meaningful change.

“People ask me all the time why I stick it out in country music. It’s hard getting the door slammed in my face everyday,” Guyton tweeted earlier this year. “But I’m not doing this for me anymore. I’m doing this … to show every little girl that looks like me that they can sing country music & be accepted.”

Read more:

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