The Black Music Action Coalition has issued a report on representation for Blacks and other people of color in mainstream country music, and, probably unsurprisingly to anyone who has followed the genre and some of its attendant racial controversies, the picture painted isn’t a pretty one.
The BMAC issued the damning report Thursday in advance of hosting a panel discussion Saturday at Soho House Nashville, at which point the organization will detail some of the specific changes it is asking for in the industry.
“For over 100 years, this country and industry have excluded and marginalized Black people’s contributions to this genre,” said Willie “Prophet” Stiggers, co-founder/co-chair of BMAC, in a statement. “It is our intention with this report to create a truth and reconciliation opportunity for our industry. We can not heal from the past without exposing the root, the pain or the actual truth.”
The BMAC picked up a number of statistics from Dr. Jada Watson’s “Redlining in Country Music” study to point out the need for systematic change. Among them: In looking at the 411 artists signed to the top three Nashville label groups (Universal, Sony and Warner) over a two decade period from 2000-2020, only 1% were Black and 3.2% BIPOC. Moreover, over a period spanning 19 years, when a collossal 11,484 unique songs were played by core country stations, only 13 Black artists were represented among all those songs, and only three of those 13 were Black women.
Says the report, “The long-standing industry lines that there isn’t enough Black talent, that there isn’t a Black country audience, and that the existing country core won’t embrace Black acts endured so long because Music Row, and the Country Music Association specifically, repeatedly ignored or suppressed indicators to the contrary.” The study points out that 51% of all U.S. adults say they listen to country music, and that more than 50% of the U.S. Black population lives in the South, which is seen as being ground zero for country. Contends the report: “According to a 2018 study, African American country music listeners increased 33% between 2005 and 2018. These listeners, however, have felt unwanted and unwelcome.”
“#CountryMusicSoWhite is essentially the genre’s tagline already,” says the study. “However, country hasn’t remained such a white genre and culture by accident, chance, or consumer preference. Nowhere in music do racist systems and practices so closely mirror that of the nation than in the country genre.”
The study notes the move of the CMA to ban the Confederate flag at its annual festival, following Stagecoach’s earlier such ban. “The Country Music Association banning the flag from one of the biggest country music festivals (in) the first year back since 2019 is a major and important first step, but it’s a first step.”
The report — titled “Three Chords and the Actual Truth: The Manufactured Myth of Country Music & White America” — points out the long gap between Charley Pride’s 1970s heyday as country’s only Black star and Darius Rucker’s solo star-making debut in the format in 2008. It makes no mention of the male Black and biracial artists who have recently made major inroads in country, like chart-toppers Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown and Breland. But it does single out the foremost female Black country artist of the 21st century, Mickey Guyton, and how little support she’s enjoyed judging from country’s key markers, despite a perception in the mainstream that she is a star.
“Mickey Guyton’s been one of the most visible country artists of the last two years, and she hasn’t had a song on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in six years,” the report points out. “Her ‘discovery,’ after almost a decade on Capitol Nashville but no full-length album, was a direct result of posting her song ‘Black Like Me’ directly to social media (the song received no country music airplay). Even though Guyton was in the Music Row system, which is a feat of its own, she wasn’t given the support and tools an artist needs to have any chance at success. Music Row is littered with the corpses of careers like this. However, underrepresented artists are breaking through despite the best efforts of Nashville players,” it adds, thanks to streaming and other ways of discovery that bypass seeming blockades at terrestrial radio.
“Country is a musical microcosm of a rapidly changing America, and both are challenged to admit they were built on the exploitation and then systematic marginalization of Black people, other POC and women,” the report concludes. “Music Row can no longer be treated as an outlier in conversations about equality, equity, community, responsibility, accountability and justice, and the Nashville network has to be cracked open for writers, musicians, and executives if the change is going to be real, and not just optical. One hundred years can’t be unraveled overnight, but a real discussion is a start.”
A letter accompanying the report says the BMAC “is urging country artists and companies operating in the live space to publicly ban the Confederate flags at shows and festivals. BMAC is also asking the record, publishing and management companies in Nashville to join us as we launch what we’re calling ‘Transformative Support for Emerging Black Artists and Young Professionals through a Guarantee Basic Income Program’: $1000 per month direct support to Black emerging artists and young professionals for one year.”
The Black Music Action Coalition was formed two years ago in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and as an outgrowth of the successful “The Show Must Be Paused” campaign to have the industry go quiet for a day of reflection on racial injustices and disparity.
The event Saturday at Soho House Nashville takes place from 2-5 p.m. It will be led by Stiggers and Naima Cochrane, a BMAC board member and music executive. Panelists include Gina Miller, SVP and general manager of MNRK Music Group and VP of Nashville Music Equality, and Eric Holt, managing partner of the Lovenoise Group and assistant professor of music business at Belmont University.