Country

How Nashville Has — and Hasn't — Changed For Black Executives

A year after opening up to Billboard about their experiences in Music City, three of the still few Black executives in town open up about progress they've seen — and why "there's still a lot of work to be done."

Candice Watkins hoped the beginning of 2021 would feel like a fresh start — a long-awaited calm to process a year that brought the murder of George Floyd, nation-wide social-justice protests and a racial reckoning across the music industry. “Then February came,” she says, “and I experienced a whole new level of ‘survival mode.’ ”

Watkins, vp marketing at Big Loud Records, is referring to the video made public that month of Morgan Wallen screaming the N-word (among other expletives) outside his Nashville home. For Watkins, who is Black, the ensuing furor hit home on another front: Wallen is part of the artist roster she works with at Big Loud. A week after the story broke, she met with Wallen in person — at his request — for a frank conversation.

“I didn’t know if I’d walk out angrier and more hurt than when I walked in,” recalls Watkins. “But no stone was left unturned in that conversation; it was deeply honest. I’ve encountered direct racism multiple times, and never has a white man had the remorsefulness to apologize to me. There are 30-, 40-, 50-, 60- and 70-year-old men who owe me that apology. So it’s not lost on me that a 27-year-old was able to do what others in this business have failed to.”

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.”

All three executives acknowledge some encouraging recent steps forward: labels and corporations donating to varied Black community organizations and initiatives; and Spotify’s launch of the Frequency service, which features Black country artists like buzzy newcomers Brittney Spencer and Tiera. But a year from now, the trio agrees, sustainable progress will come from changes on the ground level of the industry.

For Marsh, that means not pigeonholing Black country artists or executives. “To get better as an industry, we have to retrain A&R, retrain radio and retrain listeners,” he says. Watkins sees a need for an entirely new moral compass to emerge in a genre that, she says, “has been willfully apathetic and complicit when it comes to racial injustice. Time will tell if there has truly been a galvanized reckoning that changes the tide or if it’s a trendy, performative PR moment.”

Marshall breaks it down to an even more basic directive: Hire people who are good at what they do — and happen to be of color. “Being Black is a gift,” she says. “And we are so powerful when we get to focus on our craft, not only in country but all music. Give us that chance. Then the haters will have to pay attention, be-cause there will be nothing left for them to do.”

This story originally appeared in the June 26, 2021, issue of Billboard.