Taking Stock of 2021: Andrea Williams weighed in on where the country music industry was with racial equity

As part of our series taking stock of 2021, I asked Andrea Williams, author of Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues and one of the foremost journalistic voices advocating for racial equity and equality in country music, to grade the progress (and lack thereof) on that front over the last year.

Jewly Hight: In 2020, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement reached the entertainment industry and brought on certain public displays, like Blackout Tuesday. Promises and pledges to do better were made, task forces were formed. What is your assessment of the follow through during 2021 on an institutional level,

Andrea Williams: On an institutional level, honestly, I don’t think we’ve seen much change. And if we’re going to go back to 2020 and promises and pledges and all of that, if we’re going to be completely honest, these institutions didn’t pledge a whole lot, right? There were a lot of vague terms about Black lives mattering and about valuing diversity and wanting to create a safe space and making everyone feel welcome. What does that really mean? We’ve, collectively speaking, had a really hard time, or have failed altogether, to get some concrete asks on the table that then we can measure up and say, “Are you meeting these demands or are you not meeting these demands?”

So I’m going to look at it from my perspective, and I’m going to say that a handful of artists getting pushed to the forefront, if you will, getting invited to play on awards stages, all of these things is not the change that is going to carry us into the future and create an equitable industry. This is a way to cover up for the fact that we didn’t have anybody really doing this beforehand. It is something that looks good, because Nashville and the country music industry was so far behind. But if we’re talking about real equity, if we’re talking about the things that really make the difference, we’re talking about Black A&Rs, who can ensure that we’re getting Black artists signed regularly, if we’re talking about Black management firms, if we’re talking about Black musicians that get regularly salaried gigs, we ain’t got that yet.

JH: You started speaking to something else I was going to ask you about: Some of the most visible gestures that happened during 2021 did happen on award shows, with nominations, with performances by Black artists and also with things like the ACMs inviting Mickey Guyton to host the awards show, CMT honoring her as Breakout Artist of the Year and also giving predecessor and elder Linda Martell the Equal Play Award. So what did you make of of those moments? What do you think they meant?

AW: Let me be real clear: I don’t want to diminish anything that has happened in any of these historic moments, Mickey getting out there at the ACMs, at the CMAs bringing two Black women along with her. I’m not going to diminish that at all. But again, I think we have to be careful about what we’re asking for.

So let me drop it to baseball real quick, like I always do. In my book Baseball’s Leading Lady, I talk about the fall of the Negro Leagues, which happens post-Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson’s integration was supposed to be this incredibly great thing. And in some ways it really was. But once we fast forward 10, 20, 30, 75 years where we are now and we take honest stock about where Black people are in the industry, we are really still struggling, because at the end of the day, we got the surface level change. We got the Black man who was allowed to play on the white team. We didn’t get the structural change. We didn’t get Black people behind the scenes in decision-making positions. And that’s what we’re seeing here right now.

Linda Martell should have been honored in 2020. That was the 50th anniversary of her album [Color Me Country]. She only had one album. It dropped in 1970. That’s the moment. So I’m not going to say that they shouldn’t have later done it, but it very much looks like scrambling to try to make up for lost time to try to say, “OK, yes, we are better than you think we are. We are not so far behind the eight ball.”

But this is really the easy, low hanging fruit. I think in an essay, I said this fruit is not even low hanging. It’s on the ground. Like, this is the barest of minimums. When we’re talking about [Guyton’s] award nominations, [her nomination for] best new artist, I mean, that’s fine because the eligibility requirements for that are a little bit lax. Mickey’s not eligible for any of these other categories. We haven’t heard the ACM or the CMA say, “We’re going to change that.” They understand how radio works and how exclusive it is, how it is the same handful of white men and a couple of white women thrown in for good measure, that over the last 20 years, Black women have represented this tiny, tiny, tiny amount of [radio] spins, less than one percent of spins over two decades. They know that. They also know that their awards eligibility, in many cases, is tied to that. So if we’re saying that we’re really trying to do the work, that’s where the work is. It’s not entirely difficult to say, “Yeah, let’s let the Black woman host [the awards show]. Let’s let the Black woman sing [on the show].” It looks like a lot, because they weren’t even doing that before. But that is not the work that creates sustainable change in the future.

JH: You made the point that a lot of the promises that were made in 2020 were not very concrete at all, and therefore difficult to measure. What else have you been looking for and what have you actually seen this year when it comes to top-down change benefiting music-makers and professionals of color on the business side of things?

AW: I think if we’re talking about the institutional change, that top-down progress, we’ve got to be honest that the people that are here [in positions of power] now are the people who were here in 2019 and 2018, and in many cases, back to 2000. They are the same type of people who were here in the ’90s when Frankie Staton was doing her showcases and we had the Black Country Music Association fighting tooth and nail to get Black people in these spaces. They are really, if we’re going to be completely honest, an updated version of the people who were here in the late ’60s and early ’70s who said, “Oh, we’ve got Charley Pride. I don’t know about you, O.B. [McClinton]. I don’t know about you, Stoney Edwards. I don’t know about you, Linda Martell.” It’s the same pattern. We’ve got the same people in place. What I would like to see is a recognition of that, an acknowledgment of that, so that we can open up the conversation, and then the voices who actually know what to do, who can lead this thing forward have the space to step in. But right now, all these people who have completely dropped the ball on this, if they ever picked it up, are the ones who are looking to to make the change. I don’t know how that works, particularly when we are not forcing accountability.

I think that’s why a lot of the change that we’re seeing, if you can call it that, has been really surface level. you and I worked on this piece for NPR [Music] about Black Woman making these incredible strides [in country and roots realms]. They’re still doing it in a space that hasn’t changed all that much, that is still, at its core, pretty hostile, pretty unwelcoming.

JH: We’ve been, so far, talking in collective terms. But when you consider individual action and progress alongside that, how do you feel like the two compared in 2021, collective versus individual?

AW: Actually, I think that what we’re seeing so far is individual completely.

I should throw in right here that when I’m talking or writing or tweeting, ninety-nine percent of the time, unless I reference Americana specifically or roots specifically, I’m talking about mainstream country music, and I’m doing that on purpose, because there’s a whole lot of money here. I mean, we’re talking about a $10 billion industry that is really headquartered here in Nashville, siloed in this one specific place that we don’t see in other genres.

I think even white people now will acknowledge the contributions that Black musicians and certainly Black creative traditions contributed to what we now know as country music. If that is the case, if we are the forefathers, then this is this is mine the same as it is yours. This got passed down to me the same way got passed down to you. We can talk about what that means in terms of the music, of being able to participate in the genre, but we’ve got to talk about the actual industry that is a billion dollar industry.

So if we’re talking about the success in those spaces, there is nothing collective right now. There are some individuals who have been able to carve out a path, nontraditional as it may be. But there is no space yet. Even Black artists are not really hiring Black musicians in the way that I certainly thought they would back in 2020, when I was yelling at the white people to hire Black musicians. Black people aren’t even doing that yet.

There is no, “OK, if I’m Black and I go to MTSU or Belmont and study music business, because I’ll have the credentials, I know that I can get the internship, get the entry level gig, work my way up and become an executive in this space.” We are talking really about individuals.

This industry is so hyper-focused on the path of least resistance, because they are running behind, trying to catch up to this movement. It is really easy to take the same handful of people, the same handful of faces, and push them out there. And if you’re not paying attention, you will think that it is representative of a larger movement. It is not, not yet, particularly not in mainstream country music.

Now there are people like [Black Opry founder] Holly G. She’s doing great work. It is primarily on the margins, and I don’t say that in a negative way. You know, Toni Morrison said, “We are the mainstream over here on the margin.” But to be clear, [Holly G and the Black Opry] hasn’t dipped into that $10 billion bucket yet. And I don’t think she’s trying to. I think she understands from a practical point of view that we might need to build our own spaces that are free from all of the negativity and hostility, all the isms in the mainstream space. I get that. But we need to hold these people accountable, because this is our inheritance. I’m talking about, can you eat? Can you feed your family from this 10 billion dollar industry?

JH: To wrap up, what progress toward real racial equity and equality in music are you going to be looking for in 2022? What are your eyes on for the next year?

AW: I think for me, it’s going to be more of the same.

I’m all about Black artists. I support every Black artist here trying to do their thing. But I am connected to people outside of that group in a way that I don’t think a lot of people are right. I know Black musicians and Black songwriters and Black producers. The songwriting room and the studio is where the actual equity is being built. These are the [royalty] checks that keep rolling, even when you’re 75-years-old and too old to tour.

My eyes are also in these executive offices. If you say you want to see something different, and you know you don’t know how to do the different thing, I need to see you bring the people in who can create that real change. I want to see you bring the people in who can start to change the culture from the inside, so that we are not forcing that handful of Black people that we’re letting come up to the front of the stage into this hostile environment, into this environment that is still not welcoming to them. Like, this idea that we still have to assimilate into this other thing, because the culture is still geared towards people who don’t look like us.

I think we are ultimately putting too much pressure [on artists alone]. Should we apply some pressure? Yes. Is it wrong to 100 percent say, “Yo, the artist got to change this thing”? Yes. Would I have said that a year and a half ago? Maybe not. I mean, my glass wasn’t even half full. I think it was spilling over, in terms of what I anticipated Black people specifically would do in this moment. If you had asked me if I thought Black people would be going out with white bands and releasing songs, talking about the Black experience that were written and produced with white people, I would have never guessed that. So this is me adapting in real time and saying, “Y’all, we got to take the focus off the artists.” I’m going to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and say, “Look, they’re just doing the best that they can, trying to build out careers as artists.” Also keeping in mind that the spaces that they are trying to move into, particularly if they are in country music, are still really white. If you want to fit into this, you got to move a certain way. So I’m saying at this point, we’ve got to get some other people in the conversation.

There have always been Black artists. We know there have always been, throughout history, these pockets of time where you have these groups of Black artists who are trying to give it a go. This part is not new. Nothing that we have seen thus far is new. The new thing is if we get the change elsewhere in the industry, if we get the Black executives, if we get the Black producers, if we get the Black songwriters. A Black songwriter has never won song or record of the year in this industry. Ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. We don’t talk about that. So that’s where my eyes are right now, because I know that if you can get Black executives in the room, it makes it that much easier for Black artists. Hopefully, they’ll make it a little more safe, so that when Black artists come in, they can be free to move how they want to move and think more globally, think more collectively. I’ve said from the beginning that if we lift from the bottom, everybody else rises.