Hours ahead of Wednesday night’s (Nov. 10) 55th annual Country Music Association Awards, Color of Change has launched a campaign calling for the CMA to be held accountable for what the online racial justice organization describes as its “anti-Black culture, its complacency in the industry’s habitual devaluation of Black people, and its incentive structure that jeopardizes the safety and wellbeing of Black artists and their careers.”
Color of Change also states that after initially meeting with the CMA, the association declined to enact several steps recommended by Color of Change to revise several policies and practices that would create a more inclusive environment for Black people, women and other communities facing systemic exclusion.
Among those recommendations are that the CMA agree to a racial equity audit, meeting Color of Change’s requirements for a transparent and accountable audit, and for the CMA to remove Morgan Wallen as an eligible candidate from all awards categories, following Wallen’s use of a racial slur in February (Wallen’s project Dangerous: The Double Album is nominated for album of the year at Wednesday’s CMA Awards, and Wallen is the CMA Awards’ reigning new artist of the year). Color of Change also recommends the adoption of an inclusion rider prior to the production of the next CMA Awards, to set a process for hiring and casting to expand and diversify the awards candidate pool.
Color of Change, which was founded in 2005, was among several groups working with the Recording Academy to include an inclusion rider to diversify the Grammy awards show. The Recording Academy adopted the rider earlier this year for the 2022 show. Color of Change says it was also instrumental in pressuring RCA to part ways with artist R. Kelly in 2019 from its roster in light of the many allegations of sexual misconduct. (In September 2021, R. Kelly was found guilty of all nine charges brought against him by the U.S. government, including sex trafficking and racketeering. RCA parent Sony still controls Kelly’s catalog.)
Color of Change also asks that the CMA review and revise its nominations eligibility requirements so they “no longer systematically shut Black artists out of the nomination process. The CMA must develop new requirements and implement them before the next CMA awards.” Eligibility in many categories is now based on releases appearing on the Billboard and Mediabase country charts. Additionally, Color of Change’s recommendations call for the CMA board and award-voting body to be restructured to become more diverse, while the lifetime director positions should be eliminated. The organization also asks that the CMA rewrite their bylaws to address hate speech and sexual harassment and eliminate barriers to more Black executives joining the CMA board. Color of Change also noted that only two of the CMA’s 77 board members are Black.
Color of Change launched a petition urging the CMA to adopt racially just policies and practices as well. The petition is accompanied by the hashtag #NotMyCMAs.
“Country music would not be what it is today without Black artists who have shaped the genre from its inception, including legendary figures like Darius Rucker, DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride, and Linda Martell. Yet, the industry continues to systematically exclude Black country musicians and creatives — particularly Black women artists like Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, and Miko Marks, who frequently report being tokenized, harassed, and made to feel unwelcome,” Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson said in a statement. “By rejecting calls for structural change from racial justice advocates, country music artists, and fans, the Country Music Association is demonstrating a disturbing commitment to upholding a status quo rooted in racial discrimination. The CMA has an opportunity to lead the way for the country music industry — to change patterns of exclusion and degradation and to take action toward meaningful progress on racial equity and inclusion.”
Palmer tells Billboard today she supports the Color of Change’s action. “While my experience with the CMA personally has never been what I would deem hostile, the changes Color of Change are asking to be made in regard to the bylaws, the board, casting, auditing, and eligibility are extremely reasonable and deserve to be responded to directly. Real change is not implemented with just artists on stage, it’s behind the camera and in the boardroom as well. It’s a foundational and structural change that must be made.”
Marks also feels changes need to be made. “There has to be a dismantling and unweaving of the status quo,” she said in a statement to Billboard. “This is an opportunity for the country music industry to grow in a more diverse and inclusive way.”
Rolling Stone, which first reported Color of Change’s demands on Wednesday, reports that Color of Change sent the CMA a letter outlining their issues on Sept. 23. A meeting and further conversations took place into October before the CMA told Color of Change that it was working with other organizations to address inclusion and diversity issues.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a representative for the CMA did not address any of Color of Change’s specific allegations, but said, “We had an in-depth conversation and remained engaged and responsive through follow-up emails. We chose not to retain their services but are working very closely with a few partners to help us shift the narrative of inclusivity in country music. We left the line of communication open and were transparent about our commitment to creating sustainable change and our ongoing efforts. We are confident in our plan and are dedicated to moving our industry forward by making changes in a thoughtful and impactful manner.”
The CMA confirmed to Billboard it is working with companies including The Diversity Movement and The Authentique Agency, though the CMA offered no further comments beyond the initial statement.
At this year’s CMA Awards, the new artist of the year category includes Mickey Guyton and Jimmie Allen, marking the first time two Black artists have been nominated in the same year for the category, which launched in 1981. Darius Rucker is the only Black artist to have won in the category, in 2009. Kane Brown is also up for his first CMA Awards nominations this year, four years after notching his first No. 1 hit with “What Ifs” in 2017. Last year, Rucker co-hosted the CMA Awards alongside Reba McEntire, marking the first time a Black artist has co-hosted the awards show since Charley Pride co-hosted alongside Glen Campbell in 1975.
Robinson was not available today to expand on the Color of Change’s allegations against the CMA, according to a Color of Change spokesperson. Billboard reached out to representatives for Guyton, Brown, Allen and Wallen for comment, but has received no reply or comments from the artists.