Morgan Wallen wins at ACM Awards a year after being banned for using a racial slur

So what’s the shelf life of consequences? Well, Morgan Wallen just won the ACM Award for Album of the Year for “Dangerous” to enthusiastic applause (while Black artists were shut out), so while your mileage may vary, it looks like getting caught on video using a racial slur will land you in the doghouse for a few months. During that time you’ll have to suffer the indignity of having the most commercially successful album of the year, for which you will then be awarded one of the industry’s most prestigious prizes. Cancel culture is out of control!

Wallen released “Dangerous” in January of 2021 just as news broke of him using the N-word, but while he was suspended from his record label and pulled from country radio for a little while, “Dangerous” ended up spending 10 weeks at number-one, and it has since become the country album with the most weeks ever in Billboard’s top 10.

Award shows have taken different approaches to him. The ACM Awards banned him last spring at the height of the scandal. Then the Billboard Music Awards nominated him for his chart achievements but didn’t invite him to their show. Then the CMA Awards decided to nominate him, but he was only eligible in categories that would also honor fellow artists, producers, and songwriters who worked on his projects. By 2022 he was controversially invited back to the Grand Ole Opry and the ACM Awards with open arms.

Wallen did make amends, donating half a million dollars to Black organizations. But the controversy further shined a light on the persistent racial disparities in country music, which is dominated by white artists. Even before Wallen landed in hot water, amid the international outrage following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, the Dixie Chicks dropped “Dixie” from their name and Lady Antebellum dropped “Antebellum” — both names were suggestive of the pre-Civil War era before slavery was abolished.

The industry responded by highlighting more Black talent. Mickey Guyton became the first Black woman to perform at the ACM Awards in 2020. Then she co-hosted the ACMs in 2021. Darius Rucker co-hosted the CMAs in 2020, where Charley Pride received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Kane Brown, who is of mixed race, co-hosted the CMT Music Awards in 2020 and 2021. And Black artists in the industry were invited to perform at events including Guyton, Brown, Jimmie Allen, Breland, Blanco Brown, and Brittney Spencer. Even artists not known for country music were performing, like Jennifer Hudson with Chris Stapleton at the 2021 CMAs, H.E.R. with Stapleton at the 2021 CMTs, and CeCe Winans and The War and Treaty at the 2021 ACMs.

At the 2022 ACMs that just aired, Jimmie Allen was a co-host and performer, Guyton was a presenter, and the aforementioned Kane Brown, Blanco Brown, Breland, and Brittney Spencer performed. It’s encouraging to see greater attention paid to showcasing Black artists on stage … but what about the awards themselves?

Most of Kane Brown’s accolades have been at fan-voted awards. From the industry, he has only one ACM Award, Video of the Year in 2021 for “Worldwide Beautiful.” Allen won New Artist prizes from the ACMs and CMAs in 2021, but that’s it so far. Guyton has New Artist noms from both the CMAs and ACMs, but she hasn’t won any awards from either group, and she was completely shut out of the ACM nominations this year for her debut studio album “Remember Her Name,” which earned her three Grammy noms including Best Country Album. As for Blanco Brown, Breland, and Brittney Spencer, they haven’t been nominated by either country industry group.

So while you could argue that Wallen deserves another chance to be embraced by his country peers, seeing him accept Album of the Year on a night when Black artists performed but were not awarded sends an uncomfortably mixed message. Who they invite to perform on their show indicates how the industry would like to be perceived, but who they actually give their awards to shows what they actually value. So Wallen gets a second chance, but how many other artists haven’t even gotten a first chance?

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