Kane Brown Is Right About the Racial Tokenism in Country

Country music in 2021 exists in two completely separate worlds. No, we’re not talking about mainstream vs. independent, or traditional vs. contemporary, though those are certainly distinctions that can be made as well.

We’re talking about the one world that is based in the reality presented via streaming numbers, music and ticket sales, critical regard along well-established metrics such as quality of songwriting, instrumentation, and originality, and the general appeal and name recognition among the population for an artist, whether it’s in the mainstream or independent, contemporary or traditional worlds, which have their own benchmarks and pecking orders. This is where most of country music’s fans and artists reside.

Then there’s another world where the hierarchy of artists is based almost exclusively off of identity factors such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, and how such things fall upon the grievance scale. Influence and value can also be sowed by how expressive you are about certain political subjects, often excusing or even boosting some white, or straight, or male performers on this scale. But overall, who you are is more important than what you do.

This second population is resigned to a small, but very noisy demographic mostly consisting of journalists often decidedly outside of the country music fold and knowledge base, activist artists and their publicists, academic intellectuals, and outright political apparatchiks who have absolutely no ties to country music whatsoever, but recognize the genre as fertile soil for sowing attack vectors and gaining ground in the culture war.

Without question, the woke side is absolutely dominating the public narrative at the moment. But they’ve not accomplished this feat by convincing people to their side. They’ve done it by operating a culture of fear and compliance where if you dare cross their ideological absolutism, you will be branded a racist, sexist, misogynist, and homophobe, and social media hit mobs populated by trolls and Stans will be dispatched to destroy your character.

This group of individuals also self-curate their realities on Twitter, insulating themselves from real world truths on the ground about country music, while constructing self-affirming echo chambers feeding an illusion that they’re really getting somewhere with their strident social media campaigns, and posturing think pieces that are solely read by their fellow activist intellectuals while actual country music fans, artists, and professionals just go about their daily business unaffected.

This is how the forces of wokeness in country music are winning every battle, but losing the war. Every late night talk show now is an indoctrination into woke ideology, but their ratings have never been worse. Artists who score high on the identitarian scale receive a lopsided amount of press coverage and awards, but this doesn’t always translate into subsnative career support. Awards shows now weigh identity heavily into their decisions, but their viewership and social interactions are plummeting. There is no more vilified artist in country music than Morgan Wallen, yet he still unquestionably dominates the country landscape via sales and streams, even without significant support from radio, touring, or industry awards, while the press is outright hostile towards him.

Of course this identitarian movement has a built-in excuse for these anomalies: everyone’s racist, sexist, and homophobic. But in their well-intentioned effort to make country music more inclusive, they’re often overlooking a significantly critical understanding: It is insulting and patronizing to recognize, highlight, or award artists solely based off of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. And neither the artists nor the public are as stupid as those in the press who believe they’re pulling levelers of power and influence believe they are. They know when an opportunity or an award is bestowed solely due to identity, and it tarnishes the achievement, especially when that becomes the focus of the media.

Billboard released their annual Nashville issue last week, and of course it was filled with signaling, posturing, and platitudes solely based off of race and identity, including the cover story that focused on Kane Brown, Brothers Osborne, and Mickey Guyton, presenting them as examples of country music’s more “inclusive” future.

There’s one big problem with this pronouncement though: none of these artists are country. You can’t make country music more inclusive with hip-hop, pop, and arena rock acts. If it’s to have any meaning, the artists must be country themselves. And though at times all of these artist have dabbled in country music, none of them are significantly or exclusively country at this point in their careers.

Kane Brown actually has an incredible country voice when he chooses to use it in that capacity. Unfortunately though, he rarely makes that choice. Mickey Guyton presented about the perfect nexus between traditional and contemporary influences early in her career, but has since gone full pop on the production side. Brothers Osborne do have a host of good country songs in their back catalog, but their last album Skeletons was an unabashed effort towards arena rock.

But regardless of the country credentials of these specific artists, both Kane Brown and T. J. Osborne had some incisive and important observations in the Billboard piece, and called out the tokenization of their identity by country music awards, and in the media. For those who may be unaware, Kane Brown is biracial, and T.J. Osbone came out as gay earlier this year.

Kane Brown spoke about winning the ACM Video of the Year award in 2021, saying, “I just won my first ACM Award, and it wasn’t like, ‘Congratulations on winning your first ACM. How does it feel?’ It was like, ‘How does it feel being Black and winning your first ACM?’ So in my head, I was like, ‘I feel like I’m about to win this award because of everything going on right now.’”

And that’s the way a lot of the public felt as well. This statement from Kane Brown is insightful on two fronts. First, it speaks to how Kane Brown wonders if all the attention he received at the 2021 ACMs was based on race instead of merit. It also speaks to how the media specifically played a significant role in that mindset by not focusing on Kane Brown’s win due to the quality of effort, but how he’s African American. Putting identity first was patronizing to Kane Brown.

J.T. Osborne had a similar observation, and one that illustrated another way the media plays an adverse role in this issue.

“It’s nice when people want to help out,” Osborne said. “But it can be frustrating, especially in Pride Month: ‘Do a playlist, Spotify wants you to do this.’ If you want to help me, do that s–t in f–king November. You doing it in Pride Month is nice, but that’s really helping you.’”

So often identity-based media coverage and awards are not about the artists themselves. These media members, outlets, and awards institutions use these artists as tokens and sometimes unwitting pawns to signal their virtue to the public and their peers in the industry, and often, insulate themselves from criticism they’re not woke enough from the ever-present online mobs. Again, the fear being sowed by mobs forwarding social justice causes isn’t necessarily resulting in substantive wins for marginalized groups, it’s just demanding a compliance that if anything, is distracting from underlying issues involving race, identity, and country music that may go unaddressed due to all the symbolic gains presented on the surface.

It’s the transparency of it all that comes across as disingenuous, and sometimes insulting, both to the public, and to the artists. Back in 2015 when Saving Country Music was talking about Mickey Guyton, she could barely get anyone to pay attention. Now she’s all over the place, and receiving criticism for her omnipresence. She co-hosted the ACM Awards. She sang on the National Memorial Day concert in May. She’s singing on the Capitol 4th concert on July. She was just announced as one of the country participants for a Metallica tribute. All of a sudden she’s everywhere like Sheryl Crow, with many believing it solely has to do with her race.

In truth, Mickey Guyton probably deserves many of these opportunities. She’s a great singer, especially at these sort of special occasions. In 2015, Mickey Guyton sang Patsy Cline’s classic “Crazy” in the East Room of the White House in a memorable performance. It’s just few remember it because few in the media were paying any attention to Mickey Guyton at that time.

None of this is to overshadow the importance of diversity in country music, and the principle everyone must agree upon that no artist be held back due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other uncontrollable factor. It’s just that in the effort by some activist journalists and artists to disrupt perceived or actual hierarchies in the country music industry, they’re creating new hierarchies based entirely on uncontrollable factors of identity. They’re supplanting one unfair system with another. Meanwhile the obviousness of it all is rendering the efforts ineffective, and often, counter-productive.

It’s all also completely counter to what should be the ultimate goal, which is to get the public and the industry to be receptive to all artists regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and to normalize performers from these marginalized groups as part of the country music community. You’ll never do that by harping on their identity, and prefacing their music with identity markers as opposed to the merit of the music itself.

Of course some will say, “Well, we wish we could do this, but these people have been marginalized in country music for decades, and so we need to speak up.” That may be true, but the sooner people stop using identity to sow division, the sooner the ideal can be obtained. And your plan to solely promote artists based off of race, gender, and sexual orientation is not working, and it never will. Both the public and the performers know better.

Country music has some amazing artists from marginalized groups that if given equal footing, would excel. It’s just many of them are marginalized by mainstream acts that ultimately belong in other genres. Because even though country music still has strides to make toward being more inclusive to all people, the most marginalized group overall are those who play actual country music, which ironically, happens to include a lot of artists of marginalized identities.

© 2024 Saving Country Music