Since 2005, the civil rights nonprofit Color of Change has been at the forefront of campaigns to educate and influence the entertainment industry and corporate America to actively create anti-racist policies and practices. In 2019, they helped pressure RCA/Sony into dropping R. Kelly, and have been working with the Recording Academy on diversity initiatives ranging from developing an inclusion rider to expanding their overwhelmingly white voter base. On Wednesday, Color of Change announced a public campaign to motivate the Country Music Association to commit to similar initiatives and a “racial equity audit,” after internal conversations between Color of Change and the CMA halted, the organization tells Rolling Stone.
Working alongside several artists in the genre as well as industry insiders, Color of Change sent a letter on Sept. 23 to the Country Music Association detailing their concerns and suggestions ahead of Wednesday’s CMA Awards, which had nominated Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album in the collaborative Album of the Year category. (The CMA had previously ruled Wallen ineligible to compete in individual categories after he was filmed using a racial slur in February.) The suggested changes and actions included a racial equity audit — essentially, an independent analysis of an organization to help it end discrimination within its practices — a rewrite of the CMA’s bylaws and eligibility requirements, a restructuring of the CMA board, and the adoption of an inclusion rider for the awards.
A meeting in October ostensibly showed the CMA’s commitment to engage further with the group. According to emails shared with Rolling Stone, however, they did not “need services related to the audit or inclusion rider” and halted the conversations, claiming they were “far enough along with our two agencies to continue our current efforts.” The CMA did go on to ask Color of Change for more information on its Black Music Executives Pipeline program.
“The CMA has had the chance to be a part of so many conversations over the last couple of years around race and justice and ensuring that people have the ability to participate,” Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change, tells Rolling Stone. “We have to hold them accountable. Don’t give us words; give us action.” Color of Change’s campaign will include a petition to “tell the Country Music Association to adopt racially just policies and practices” as well as the hashtag #NOTMYCMAs.
Color of Change’s suggested improvements specifically target the systemic ways that racism pervades country music and the Country Music Association, from entirely white officers on its board of directors to awards criteria that reinforce existing exclusion toward Black women in particular. To be nominated for Single of the Year, for example, a song has to reach the Top 10 on one of three Billboard or Mediabase charts, meaning that Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” a Grammy-nominated, critically acclaimed song that failed to chart on the country surveys, was not a possible contender. “Between 2000 and 2020, just 2 of the 129 unique nominees were Black and both were men (receiving 0.5% of the 842 nominations in the period),” Dr. Jada Watson wrote in her report Redlining in Country Music.
The letter sent to the CMA by Color of Change indicted the Nashville organization for recognizing Wallen at all. It also criticized them for not publicly defending Guyton when she was threatened online after speaking out about Wallen and racism in the genre.
“By nominating Morgan Wallen this year (even if in a ‘collaborative’ category), by failing to intervene in defense of Ms. Guyton and her family, and by failing to include Black people in leadership positions and in decision-making roles,” the letter read, “the CMA is making itself complicit in an industry that habitually devalues and dehumanizes Black people and our extensive contributions to country music.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a rep for the CMA confirmed that they had been in “close communication with Color of Change”:
“We welcomed the opportunity to connect with them in response to their correspondence in late September,” the rep wrote. “We had an in-depth conversation and remained engaged and responsive through follow-up emails. We chose not to retain their services but are working very closely with a few partners to help us shift the narrative of inclusivity in country music. We left the line of communication open and were transparent about our commitment to creating sustainable change and our ongoing efforts. We are confident in our plan and are dedicated to moving our industry forward by making changes in a thoughtful and impactful manner.”
In late September, around the same time they had been contacted by Color of Change, the CMA announced their own “Commitment to Inclusivity,” working with partners the Diversity Movement and Authentique Agency. (Color of Change is a campaigning organization, not a consulting firm, and does not take corporate dollars. It maintains it doesn’t consider those two firms “competitors.”)
At press time, no specific plans have been announced to reform the eligibility requirements for nominations, develop an inclusion rider or, as Color of Change urges, address the specific harassment that Black artists and women have experienced when speaking out about racism and sexism. None of those things, Robinson notes, were publicly addressed or implemented prior to Wednesday’s awards show.
In their statement, the CMA tells Rolling Stone that the 55th annual awards, which airs on ABC, is an example of the progress they’re making. “Wednesday night is a testament to the steps the organization is taking to make sure that CMA is a place that celebrates the excellence of all kinds in the art form of country music. During one of our biggest nights, we have made it our mission to highlight and celebrate the rich diversity of perspective that makes up country music,” they said. “We are working hard to ensure that CMA is a place where all who love this genre are welcomed.”
That seems to include Wallen, who, while barred from tonight’s ceremonies, could end up a winner.
“There is real work that can be done,” Robinson says. “It’s not simply saying that you understand there’s a problem, or you’re working with some consultants that you’re paying, but it’s putting energy and focus behind [our suggested improvements]. These things are meaningful and systemic steps that show that you’re not just presenting platitudes, but actually working for real change. We are proposing clear steps that are proven and tested and not made up along the way to make you feel good. If you’re sick, you should actually go to an expert that understands the illness.”