Morgan Wallen, one of country music’s biggest new stars, was swiftly rebuked on Wednesday by major radio stations, streaming services, record labels, fellow artists and the CMT network after a video surfaced of him using a racial slur.
The genre’s brightest new headliner so far this year, Wallen currently has the No. 1 album in the country for three weeks running, having found traction even on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, where country has traditionally struggled. But all of that threatened to crumble starting Tuesday night, when TMZ posted a video, seemingly filmed by a neighbor, that appeared to show Wallen returning from a night out in Nashville and shouting at someone to take care of another person in his group, referring to that person with a racial slur.
By morning, Spotify, Apple and two of the largest radio conglomerates in the country had removed Wallen from playlists and airwaves, while the singer’s record label and management company, Big Loud, announced that it would “suspend” his contract indefinitely. Republic Records, a division of Universal Music Group that distributes Wallen’s releases in partnership with Big Loud, said it supported the decision, adding “such behavior will not be tolerated.”
Representatives for Wallen did not immediately respond to a request for comment. TMZ reported that the singer had apologized in a statement, saying, “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever.”
But the prompt action by the industry, and especially by power players within tight-knit country music circles, seemed to signal a shift in a world that has traditionally struggled with race, representation and political issues.
A major owner of country radio stations, iHeartMedia, decided to remove Wallen’s music from its playlists immediately in response to the video, a spokeswoman said, and Entercom, another large player in radio, did the same; representatives for the companies said the decisions would impact more than 150 stations. Variety reported that Cumulus Media, another major owner of country music stations, had sent a directive to hundreds of its stations asking them to remove Wallen from their airwaves.
The TV network CMT also said it was pulling all of Wallen’s appearances from its platforms. “We do not tolerate or condone words and actions that are in direct opposition to our core values that celebrate diversity, equity & inclusion,” CMT said in a statement.
The uproar comes as Wallen, 27, is at a high-point of his young career. He first gained national visibility as a contestant on “The Voice” in 2014, and has represented a major breakthrough for country music in the world of streaming, which now dominates how music is typically consumed but has been slower to catch on in Nashville.
His latest album, “Dangerous: The Double Album,” has topped the all-genre Billboard 200 chart, and it broke the country streaming record by a wide margin, with its songs racking up 240 million streams in the first week. On Wednesday, Wallen held 17 of the Top 100 spots on Apple Music’s overall song chart, including two in its Top 10, but he had been removed from the service’s flagship Today’s Country playlist. Spotify had also removed Wallen’s music from its Hot Country playlist.
Spotify declined to comment on how it would promote Wallen moving forward; Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Despite the formative roles of Black musicians in early country and hillbilly music, racial inequity has persisted for decades in the genre and conversations regarding insensitive language and popular Confederate imagery have often been shunted aside.
Last year, during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many Nashville artists broke with tradition and addressed race directly, making statements of solidarity on social media and issuing apologies for past ignorance. The Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum, two best-selling acts with names that suggested the Civil War-era South, announced that they would alter their names.
Beginning Tuesday night, several country music performers spoke up about Wallen’s use of the slur.
Mickey Guyton, a country singer-songwriter, posted on Twitter about being a Black performer in the industry and the “vile comments” she receives daily, suggesting that Wallen’s behavior was hardly a surprise and questioning his “promises to do better.”
“When I read comments saying ‘this is not who we are,’” she wrote, “I laugh because this is exactly who country music is.” Guyton recently became the first solo Black woman to be nominated in a country category at the Grammy Awards with her single “Black Like Me.”
She added, “I question on a daily basis as to why I continue to fight to be in an industry that seems to hate me so much.”
Wallen, has been in the limelight for the wrong reasons before. Last year, he was arrested and charged with public intoxication and disorderly conduct in downtown Nashville.
Months later, he came under scrutiny after he was seen in videos on social media flouting social distancing guidelines intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, drinking shots, kissing fans and mingling in groups while not wearing a mask during a celebration after a University of Alabama football victory.
That led “Saturday Night Live” to drop Wallen from an upcoming show. Wallen apologized, saying that he planned to “take a step back from the spotlight for a little while and go work on myself.” Two months later, Wallen was invited back to perform on “S.N.L.”, and he appeared in a skit that poked fun at the incident.
“To no consequences!” Wallen says in the clip, raising a beer bottle to make a toast.