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Country Music Continues To Confront Racism

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we want to turn to the controversy around one of country music's biggest young stars, Morgan Wallen. He was captured on video using a racist slur a few weeks ago after a night out of drinking, and the reaction was dramatic. His music was pulled from country music radio, his record label suspended his contract indefinitely, and the Academy of Country Music says he is ineligible for next award season. But fans, or maybe people with other agendas, seem to have other ideas. Sales of his albums increased by more than a thousand percent the day after the video posted.

So that got us thinking about what this episode says about country music, or perhaps the country, so we called someone who's been thinking a lot about this, Rissi Palmer. Rissi is one of only a handful of Black female artists to make the country charts. She's also the host of "Color Me Country." That's a show on Apple Music that puts the focus on Black, Indigenous and Latino country artists. And she is with us now.

Hey, Rissi. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

RISSI PALMER: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: So obviously, I said I want to jump into the bigger questions. I just did want to know what your reaction was when you first saw that tape.

PALMER: Unfortunately, as a person of color in the United States, as a Black person specifically, that word - while I don't allow it to trigger me anymore, it definitely - it always stings when you hear it. Like, it always has a little - it packs a little bit of a punch. It was just, like, yeah. I mean, like, that's the best way that I can describe it. Like, when I watched the video, I just was like, hmm, because it just - it does. Like I said, I've - I, in my own personal life, have learned to just kind of take it like, what else you got? Like, I've been called worse by better. So...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PALMER: You know, what else you got? But it never - I think I can speak for most of us when I say that it definitely still packs - it still stings. Even if it's not directed at you personally, it just still stings.

MARTIN: Well, it's been - the reaction has been quite interesting - I mean, on the one hand, a lot of backlash, a tremendous backlash from the country music establishment, if I could call it that, from the label, from country music radio. But in general, the artists speaking out, particularly the women, seem to agree that if a woman had done this or something less - that women artists have been, you know, punished for less. And I just wondered, you know, what do you think about that?

PALMER: Yeah. I think that if - all you have to do is just go back - you don't even have to go back that far. You just go back to the Dixie Chicks - excuse me, the Chicks; they're not the Dixie Chicks anymore - the Chicks - and look at their treatment for just saying something critical about the president at the time. Like, they didn't even - there wasn't a derogatory word used, and they were effectively blacklisted. Like, none of the major organizations said it out loud, but, like, they weren't nominated for awards. They - for a long time, they weren't invited to play. For a long time, radio stations stopped playing the music at the request of the listeners. It was really crazy.

That's why it's so funny to me when people say that he's been cancelled. He hasn't been cancelled. Like, his music is still available. There are still radio stations playing him. I would love to see what one of his royalty checks looks like in a few months because, like, he's still making money. Even though he's been, quote-unquote, "suspended" from his record label, he's still getting royalty checks. And he's still booked this summer at different festivals and all that, so his agents are still going to make money. He's still going to make money.

So, like, I - cancel culture - it's really funny to me. Like, some of these things that are happening to him and - you know, I'm not - I tend not to want to say what I think should happen or what I don't think should happen because that's - you're allowed to - like, freedom of speech, you say whatever you want. You're not free from the consequences. And so these are - what he's facing are consequences. He's not being cancelled.

MARTIN: Well, that's an interesting point, because this is a - this is something I did want to ask you about, is that that - has the - sort of the culture of country vis-a-vis politics been that artists are supposed to be apolitical? Or is it that they're supposed to be - they're supposed to lean conservative? Because one of the interesting things that's emerged from this is how the partners of some very famous country stars have been posting on social media - not just, you know, sort of the kind of lifestyle, like, this-is-what-I-cook-for-dinner stuff, but I'm talking about, like promoting these ridiculous conspiracy theories about election fraud. One post appeared to support the insurrection at the Capitol.

And I'm just wondering, is it that - the kind of the notion has been that the - country has preferred its artists not to get involved in politics, but what I'm asking you is, is that actually true? Is it actually only certain people's politics are not permitted or welcomed?

PALMER: It's been a mixture. It's been either you lean conservative, or you remain apolitical because, like, very early on, country music kind of got in bed with conservative politics and patriotism and all that sort of thing. And that always connotes that you are more right-leaning. So when you get a country artist that is, quote-unquote, "liberal" or more Democratic-leaning or whatever, then it becomes like this big deal because I - you know, I don't see - I hear people say this all the time that, you know, they're being persecuted for their beliefs. But I have yet to see anybody - up until recently, I have yet to see anybody condemn anyone within the country music community for these, like, spreading conspiracy theories and that sort of thing. Like, you didn't see that. You didn't hear that.

And I remember, like, when I first came out, I was a supporter of Barack Obama, and I performed at the Democratic convention. And I remember my record label not wanting me to post pictures of it - of me there. And I was, like, I'm posting my pictures. I don't care (laughter). I don't care. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, but I remember it being a very big deal because I was - and I was thinking if I was hanging out with John McCain, like John Rich was, and writing songs for them, it wouldn't be a big deal.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, though, part of your mission right now is to, you know, give a showcase to artists of color that you don't think have gotten their due. So who should we be listening to this week? Give us a couple of names.

PALMER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Give us some cuts.

PALMER: Sure. There's a lot of really great music happening right now. He is a country rapper, but it is one of my favorite things that has come out of Nashville in a really long time. It's an artist by the name of Willie Jones. And Willie is, like - he sings, and he raps. And it's - like, it's country, but it's - like, it's also hip-hop. And he has a song called "American Dreams" (ph) that is amazing. And it is about Black men in America. And it's one of the best things that I have heard in a really long time. It's a great record, and he's getting a lot of attention for it right now, and deservedly so. So go check that out. Like, keep your mind open because, again, country rap sounds very corny...

(LAUGHTER)

PALMER: ...When you say it. But it's an amazing record. Like, it's a great record.

MARTIN: All right. That is Rissi Palmer. She is the host of "Color Me Country" on Apple Music. Rissi Palmer, thank you so much for joining us.

PALMER: Thank you. It was a pleasure as always.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN DREAM")

WILLIE JONES: (Singing) Young man, young man, got the heart of a lion and the drive of a wild, wild horse. Young man, young man, better watch how you step when you step off the front porch. Your granddad done went through hell. Don't take for granted what he built. Young man, young man, if you don't know your roots, then you don't know what you stand for. Proud to be a Black man... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.