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Black musicians question The Opry’s dedication to anti-racism after Morgan Wallen’s performance

An appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage has long been considered one of country music's top honors.
Emily Siner
An appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage has long been considered one of country music's top honors.

On Saturday night, the Grand Ole Opry fired off a celebratory tweet as country musician Morgan Wallen made an appearance on one of the city’s most revered stages.

But some of Nashville’s musicians did not see it as cause for celebration. Instead, Wallen’s appearance called into question the Opry’s dedication to anti-racism and creating a more welcoming space for Black artists.

Last year, Wallen became a Rorschach test for how people viewed country music’s issues with racism and privilege. He was caught using a racial slur on video, then apologized for it. His actions and his apology kicked off a slew of think pieces. His music became more popular than ever, skyrocketing to the top of the charts. People even bought billboards around Nashville to show their support.

Since then he has made a few high-profile appearances, joining other country artists or more recently even climbing the hip-hop charts for a song with rapper Lil Durk.

But his weekend appearance at the Opry struck a chord.

“The decision that the Opry made to have Morgan on just showed that they are willing to be a part of that culture instead of participating in change,” says Holly G. She’s the founder of the Black Opry, an organization that aims to create safe spaces for Black country artists and fans.

(Clockwise) Roberta Lea, Joy Clark, Jett Holden and Tylar Bryant played music together at the Black Opry House in October 2021.
Jewly Hight / WNXP
(Clockwise) Roberta Lea, Joy Clark, Jett Holden and Tylar Bryant played music together at the Black Opry House in October 2021.

Just a few months ago, Holly G says she met with the Opry to discuss planning an event for Black History Month in February. It would showcase Black artists on a stage that many of them have dreamt of playing.

And her idea seemed to align perfectly with the Opry’s stated intentions to diversify. The venue was one of many businesses that made a pledge to anti-racism after the death of George Floyd. In June 2020, the Opry tweeted, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable. And it has no place at The Grand Ole Opry.”

They went on to detail how they would increase their efforts to “identify and showcase diverse talent” on stage.

And in 2021, several Black artists did make their Opry debuts.

In some ways, that makes Wallen’s appearance hurt even more, Holly G says.

“They invited them there under the guise of wanting to do better,” she says. “And now they’ve proven they actually don’t have any interest in any meaningful or structural change.”

The Black Opry released an open letter, asking for an explanation from the venue. And artists — especially women of color — have rallied around it.

The Opry has not responded to WPLN’s request for comment.

Race in country music

Stephanie Jacques is a mixed race country singer and songwriter. A lot of her music centers around her experience of being a woman of color in Nashville, and in the country music industry.

Jacques says she’s often been told her career would go further if she stopped putting race in her music. But she rejects that idea.

“People can tell when you’re not being your real self,” she says. “Hiding that isn’t helping me, and isn’t helping women who are coming up behind me.”

The industry, and county music fans, have not always been kind to women of color. Just a few days ago, singer Mickey Guyton posted a screen shot of a tweet where someone told her, “We don’t want your kind in country music! All you people talk about is your god damn race and skin color!”

Jacques usually sees other women of color coming to Guyton’s defense, a stark contrast she says to the way so many fans rallied around Wallen.

And now she feels like one of the city’s most beloved institutions, the Opry, isn’t standing up for artists of color either.

“If you say you don’t stand for hate, and you say you stand for equality and equity then you have to back that up,” Jacques says. “And backing that up might mean not having certain artists on your stage — which might cost you some revenue, but it gains you integrity.”

Jacques says she’s always dreamt of playing the Opry. She grew up watching it. It’s a dream she shares with her grandmother. But now she says she won’t do it, and is calling for other artists and fans to boycott the Opry too — until they respond to the Black Opry’s letter.

What this says about Nashville, and the music industry

To singer Joy Oladokun, this is bigger than country music.

What she calls “Morgan Wallen’s thoughtless redemption tour” peels back the curtain on the painful truth about race in Nashville, and in the music industry more broadly.

Oladokun is signed to Republic Records — which is partnered with Wallen’s label, Big Loud Records.

“If the roles were reversed,” she says, “I would have to crawl back into fame on a bed of nails before people would maybe even stream a half a single.”

Oladokun says she doesn’t want to play the Opry, but she knows that she serves as representation for a lot of young Black girls with guitars. And one day, they might want to — so she feels she needs to speak up for them.

“In a town where Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth on Jefferson Street, there should be more respect for Black art and artists,” Oladokun says. “But there isn’t.”

Paige Pfleger covers criminal justice for WPLN News. Previously she has worked in Central Ohio at WOSU News, covering criminal justice and the addiction crisis, and was named Ohio's reporter of the year by the Associated Press in 2019. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR, The Washington Post, Marketplace, and PRI's The World, and she has worked in the newsrooms of The Tennessean, Michigan Radio, WHYY, Vox and NPR headquarters in DC.
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