She declines to share further details of their talk and says she neither condones nor minimizes what Wallen did. Still, based on that conversation, Watkins was able to forgive him. “But I can’t forget,” she adds. “Now comes the hard work to repair, rebuild trust and make a positive impact. I hope he continues to do the deep work to educate himself and grow.”
Last August, Watkins — along with fellow Black executives James Marsh and Rakiyah Marshall — spoke to Billboard about their experiences in Nashville. Nearly a year later, Black artists have more visibility and recognition in Music City than ever: Mickey Guyton became the Grammys’ first Black female solo country nominee, Kane Brown was the Academy of Country Music Awards’ first biracial individual winner for video of the year, and Jimmie Allen became the ACM’s first Black new artist winner. The three top country award shows had Black or biracial co-hosts for their latest installments: Darius Rucker for the Country Music Association Awards, Guyton for the ACM Awards and Brown for the CMT Awards. But as Watkins, Marsh and Marshall tell it, the needle hasn’t moved as perceptibly for Black executives.
“I’m still one of the few higher-ranked Black music executives working in Nashville,” says Marsh, national director of radio and streaming for Warner Music Nashville. But with the pandemic subsiding and the Wallen incident and Floyd murder trial “putting more gas back on the fire” for change, Marsh — who is co-chair of his company’s in-house diversity, equity and inclusion task force — says he sees a dedicated push toward ensuring people of color get a platform to speak to important issues and a fair shot at jobs and promotions.
“The pandemic slowed things down,” continues Marsh, “so, to be fair, we need another year of watching and improving. I can’t say what’s happening at other companies — but we’re digging deep here as best we can to change the culture of country music and Nashville.”
Marshall agrees that “there’s still a lot of work to be done for anyone of color that has to coexist in this genre.” So last November, she took matters into her own hands. After spending a little over three years as creative director at BMG Music Publishing, she founded Back Blocks Music, a publishing and artist development firm she also leads as CEO. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Marshall. “When it came down to asking what I needed to do to continue growing in my career, I couldn’t get any feedback. So I decided to bet on myself, and it has been incredibly rewarding. By paving my own way, I can more clearly see how to get a seat at the table with the other decision-makers, thereby allowing me to better discover and elevate the unique voices we have in the music industry.”