It Wasn’t Beyonce Who Challenged Racial Hatred at the 2016 CMA’s

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Rhiannon Giddens / Eric Church

Nearly a week removed from the 2016 CMA Awards, and what are we still talking about? We’re not talking about how the CMA’s were able to assemble an amazing list of legendary performers to usher in their 50 year anniversary. We’re not talking about the excellent collaborations between George Strait and Alan Jackson, or Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam. We’re not talking about how Chris Stapleton did the unthinkable again and walked away with the Male Vocalist of the Year prize, or are awed by how Garth Brooks bested out Luke Bryan for the coveted Entertainer of the Year award—the first time Garth’s won the award in 18 years.

In fact we’re not talking to each other at all. We’re shouting. We’re yelling. We’re digging into our predisposed positioning stances and blaming the other side. We’re not discussing the music. We’re either attacking or defending Kenny Chesney for the inadvertent and arbitrary facial features he many or may not have made during Beyonce’s CMA performance, or some off-the-cuff tweets from Travis Tritt. And the think pieces continue to pour in about how important Beyonce’s performance was to healing racial divides and building bridges, when ultimately all it did was unleash the mother of all shitstorms that we’re still trying to unwind from, and likely will be for weeks or months to come, and during a time when we need music to be a place apart from political acrimony more than ever.

Some have asked why there wasn’t nearly as much anger directed toward Justin Timberlake when he performed on the CMA Awards in 2015. But criticism levied towards pop performers has been present throughout the history of the CMA Awards, from Justin Timberlake, to Charlie Rich burning the envelope with John Denver’s name for Entertainer of the Year in 1975. It’s just the mainstream entertainment media wasn’t paying attention until there was a political narrative they could exploit.

And what was the result of Justin Timberlake’s performance with Chris Stapleton? It was a consensus built between mainstream and independent fans, traditional and contemporary fans that this Chris Stapleton guy is someone we can all enjoy, together, to the tune of a year later Chris Stapleton once again has the #1 record in all of country music. The performance brought people together.

What has been the result of Beyonce’s involvement in the 2016 awards? Division and acrimony. Some will tell you that Beyonce is just what country music needed to root out its racial bigotry, or as one commenter said, “Beyoncé’s outward character is associated with everything about black culture that white people find threatening. And she is proud of it.” This is the theory that continues to be forwarded in think pieces written by pop journalists who only know country music from the outside looking in, and as a bastion for Trump supporters and red state dwellers. For some reason country music must be threatened into purging its racism, as if anyone would assume that would be effective instead of counterproductive, because discussion and understanding seem to not be a worthy avenue.

And it’s that failed logic that has resulted not in the eroding of the minor, but undeniably present racially insensitive quotient to country music. It has fanned the flames. It has fueled the fire. It has given the racists of country music a forum and a springboard, and they have exploited this opportunity, and now country music is roiled in political and racial debate like every other sector of American society.

What was the biggest concern about booking Beyonce for the 2016 CMA Awards? It wasn’t that her performance would sow racial and political discord, it was that her star power would overshadow the rest of the performers and award recipients, and push others off the itinerary completely with such a big time slot. And that is exactly what happened.

Who won the 2016 CMA for Album of the Year? How many country fans can even tell you off the top of their head? It’s hard to remember even though it’s one of the most important distinctions of the night, because less than a week later it feels like an afterthought. But it was Eric Church and his record Mr. Misunderstood, which arguably is one of the best records to be released in the country mainstream in years. Like so much else that went down (and was overshadowed) on the 2016 CMA Awards, it was yet another indication that the tide is turning for the better in country music.

But again, we’re not talking about that.

And though it seems that few, if any noticed, it wasn’t Beyonce that decided to tackle hatred and racism head on in her performance at the 2016 awards, it was Eric Church. The song that Eric Church decided to perform on the 2016 CMA Awards was called “Kill A Word.” It’s a duet with a black country music performer named Rhiannon Giddens. “Kill A Word” is a song about the very themes that have come to the forefront in the aftermath of the Beyonce performance, and all the seemingly endless racial threads that it has sprouted. It’s about how important it is that we listen to each other, and instead of shouting accusations, understand how divides don’t get broken down with insults and name calling, but get exacerbated by them.

Eric Church didn’t choose to perform “Kill A Word” at the 2016 CMA Awards a week before the Presidential election by happenstance. Church says, “I’ve performed on a lot of award shows, I’ve played a lot of songs, but I don’t know if I ever had a performance that felt more important and timely than this one.”

And if there is one specific word that you think Eric Church is most highlighting to ‘kill’ in “Kill A Word,” what would it be? I think you know. I think we all know. And this lesson, and this song and performance delivered with a cool-headed grace and patience could have resulted in what so many were hoping Beyonce would accomplish on the awards simply by her presence. But instead Beyonce’s presence only overshadowed Eric Church, Rhiannon Giddens, and “Kill A Word.” You can tell this because in the continued parade of think pieces and opinion, nobody is talking about it, even though it hits right at the very themes of the issue.

Use staff and rod to turn me black and blue
Cause you can’t unhear, you can’t unsay
But if were up to me to change
I’d turn “lies” and “hate” to “love” and “truth”

The ‘lies’ and ‘hate’ were how Beyonce’s “Beyhive” attacked the CMA’s for being racist for “scrubbing” Beyonce’s involvement from the awards. The ‘love’ and ‘truth’ was the CMA’s booking Beyonce in the first place, and removing a video from social feeds at the Beyonce camp’s request.

And what of the 2016 CMA Song of the Year, Lori McKenna’s “Humble and Kind”? These were the types of expressions and lessons the CMA Awards were trying to push to the forefront with their presentation and awards. This was the message they wanted to have country music represent, fully knowing they would be one of the final nationally-broadcast cultural assemblies right before the Presidential election. Country music doesn’t need to be talked down to as if it doesn’t know it has a racial problem, and it doesn’t need to solicit help from the pop world to solve it.

And meanwhile, what are we talking about nearly a week later? The problem is, we’re not talking at all.

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(At the time of posting, this performance of ‘Kill A Word’ has just over 11,000 views. The Beyonce performance over multiple platforms has many millions.)