When International Bluegrass Music Association secretary Michelle Conceison led a Sept. 29 World of Bluegrass town hall meeting on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), she wafted her arm toward four additional panelists, all of them white.
“This is not the diversity we hope this task force will embody two years in,” she told IBMA conference attendees in Raleigh, N.C., and online. “We have some work to do.”
Three organizations representing country music and its related genres are owning up to a distinct underrepresentation of minority voices in the creative and executive ranks of the agencies, as well as in the idioms at large. The Americana Music Association held a pair of DEI-themed panels, moderated by freelance music journalists Andrea Williams and Marcus K. Dowling, during its business conference in Nashville on Sept. 23. The IBMA addressed DEI issues in two sessions on Sept. 29. And the Country Music Association issued a formal note to members on Sept. 29 outlining steps the agency has initiated to increase multiculturalism in the country music community.
Fifteen hours after the CMA announcement, The Los Angeles Times reported the organization had banned Morgan Wallen from attending the 55th annual awards on Nov. 10, an unprecedented move in the wake of a February incident in which TMZ exposed the singer’s use of offensive, racist language.
That controversy countered the self-reflection that has taken place in country-related formats since a white Minneapolis policeman murdered Black citizen George Floyd in May 2020. Multiple smartphone cameras captured the brutal incident, revealing a level of prejudice in American culture that many Caucasians thought had been reduced. That moment came months after the 2019 PBS series Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns explored the depth of African-American influence on country and some of the ways in which Black musicians and fans have felt excluded from the genre.
Subsequently, Black voices have received greater attention in country music, including Blanco Brown, Kane Brown, Jimmie Allen, Brittney Spencer, BRELAND and Willie Jones. Mickey Guyton, who received a Grammy nomination for her vulnerable ballad “Black Like Me,” will be recognized as the breakout artist of the year during CMT Artists of the Year on Oct. 13. Rissi Palmer has emerged as host of an Apple Music radio show, Color Me Country. And Miko Marks ended a 13-year hiatus from recording — spurred by negativity from existing music executives — to release a new album, Race Records, on Oct. 1.
“This is an emotional time for me and I’m sure for a lot of artists that are in this world,” said Marks during the Americana panel “Black Opry Presents: The Unbroken Black Circle.” “There’s a racial reckoning right now. We’re at a crossroads.”
Underscoring that observation, the IBMA and CMA both outlined specific goals on Sept. 29 designed to increase minority representation. The CMA membership letter indicated two DEI organizations have been enlisted to assist in a 13-point campaign that includes financial investment and expanding the candidate pool for jobs. The IBMA’s commitment includes not only future progress, but also an active effort to identify ways in which Black contributions to bluegrass in the past may have been erased from the genre’s history. That comes at a time when some conservative state legislatures — including Tennessee lawmakers — have passed laws or resolutions that attack critical race theory, making it difficult for educators to accurately represent the Black experience in classrooms.
The very existence of racism is an issue many white Americans would prefer to paper over. But ignoring people’s differences creates its own problems.
“Colorblindness, the idea that one does not see skin color, is often presented as a virtue,” Brandi Waller-Pace, founder of the nonprofit educational organization Decolonizing the Music Room, told IBMA attendees. “It’s problematic because people are racialized. When I walk around in our society, people see a Black woman, and I might get treated a certain way based on that. I cannot call myself ‘not Black’ and not be racialized. [Thus,] if you erase my blackness, you erase those experiences and how they impact me. But you also erase all the things I love about my blackness.”
Paradoxically, the Wallen incident — discussed during the panel “All Americana: Diversifying the Industry Beyond the Stage,” in which the participants avoided mentioning Wallen by name — provided the industry an opportunity for progress.
“I’ve heard of examples of a lot of managers speaking with their artists, having deep conversations about that issue or similar issues,” said Big Loud vp marketing Candice Watkins. “It shows us where we are as an industry.”
Panelists lamented, however, that most white artists have remained silent on racial issues. Ultimately, moving forward will be difficult without ongoing, honest dialogue. While the majority of industry members would likely agree that the most obvious racist actions — including the use of inflammatory epithets — is wrong, a bevy of more subtle examples of racism still dogs the culture. Even people who wish to be allies of the Black community display speech, actions or inaction that can be unintentionally demeaning, and those issues cannot be addressed if they go unrecognized.
If people can be “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said drummer Megan Coleman (Yola, Lucie Silvas), the walls can come down, leading to more authentic integration.
That will require a lengthy, sustained focus. Panelists indicated that some Black artists and executives have remained on the sidelines, discouraged by past injustices from fully engaging in the industry. Recognizing that reticence, the IBMA task force intends to actively reach out to communities of color.
“We can’t just expect because we’ve said we welcome folks [that] they’re going to want to be here,” said Conceison.
In their more optimistic moments, some Black artists and executives recognize the current moment as an opportunity to move toward equity, even if the industry still has a long way to go.
“It’s our time,” said Marks. “It’s my time. It’s your time. And we can do this together. I feel like there’s a real unity.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter, which features the latest airplay, sales and streaming charts along with compelling analysis of market trends and conditions. All for free. Click here to subscribe.