Race Issues: When Nobody Cared That Morgan Wallen Dropped a Slur

If there’s one thing to know about me, it’s that most of the music I listen to is pop. As embarrassing as it is when I’m asked to play music for others, or share my annual Spotify Wrapped playlist, it came in handy earlier this year when country singer Morgan Wallen went under fire for his usage of racial slurs against African Americans in leaked video footage. I felt a sense of relief for not knowing who he is nor having ever heard a single one of his songs. However, I would soon realize that my ignorance meant nothing because Wallen was, in fact, shaping up to be one of the biggest country music stars this generation has ever seen, a trajectory that was not curtailed whatsoever by his enormous racism scandal and subsequent boycott.

On Feb. 2, TMZ published a video recorded by a neighbor of Wallen’s in Nashville, which documented the singer and his friends after a night out. Addressing a friend who needed some extra attention after the group’s antics, Wallen reminded them to “take care of this p****-ass [n-word]” before entering his home. According to Billboard, just one month before, his album Dangerous: The Double Album debuted atop the Billboard 200 with weekly sales of 265,000. According to the magazine, this marked the most activity for any country album in more than two years, and, with over 240 million streams in the United States, won the title of most streams in a single week ever for a country album. Despite his success, executives in the music industry knew that it might’ve been time to pull the plug. Variety reported that following the release of the video, top radio chains like Cumulus Media, iHeartRadio, and Entercom pulled his music from their airwaves, and streaming giants Spotify and Apple Music suspended the promotion of his songs on their most-followed playlists. 

Yet, somehow, the only thing this managed to cause was a surge in the sales of Wallen’s music. His album did not move from the top spot on Billboard, and the magazine reports that in the week of the scandal, purchases of the record had actually increased by 102%. According to MRC Data’s midyear industry report, the album went on to be the most consumed album of 2021’s first half. Some believe that this was caused by a wave of supporters seeing this as an opportunity to retaliate against “cancel culture,” a theory backed by former Governor of Arkansas and Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee in a blog post on his website, mikehuckabee.com. Huckabee continued by describing those behind the consequences of Wallen’s actions as “hypocritical, judgmental rage mobs trying to destroy people for not living up to standards of tolerance that they fall far short of meeting themselves.” 

Wallen himself did not take such an offensive stance, offering several apologies and pledging to donate $500,000 to Black-centric charities in a July 2021 appearance on Good Morning America. Around the same time, the radio ban on his music was quietly ended. Wallen is a double nominee at the upcoming 2021 American Music Awards, where nominees are determined solely based on Billboard chart performance, though the ceremony has released a statement clarifying that he will not be a part of the show in any other capacity. Additionally, he has booked a number of concerts and festival appearances through the end of this year and the beginning of 2022, after having canceled several shows following the scandal.

It is fascinating to me that despite the video of Wallen using a slur that is widely understood in 2021 to be completely unacceptable especially right on the heels of 2020’s period of anti-racism unrest there was no adverse effect on his commercial success. In America’s state of deep polarization, especially on many cultural issues, it appears that Wallen became a sort of symbol of the “cancel culture” that has been denounced by Donald Trump and other Republicans as a tool of “the left.” The opposition to the backlash of Wallen’s racist act actually generated a positive effect on his album sales and fan loyalty points to the way many issues have become politicized, with the most unexpected moments becoming opportunities for one side to quarrel with another. 

While I wouldn’t argue that continuing to support Wallen’s music necessarily makes somebody racist, it is jarring to see that millions of consumers actively contribute to his sustained presence as a cultural figure in light of the massive controversy. What I ask of anyone, Morgan Wallen fan or not, is to empathize with the Black community that was the target of the nasty slur, and how they must feel seeing those who have committed acts of racism continue to be celebrated. This doesn’t just mean nationally, but also in our schools, communities, and workplaces. Ultimately, empathy and an effort for civil discussion amongst all people is the only way we can get out of this dark divide, and hopefully move onto more unified and less contentious days.