The hottest star in music so far in 2021, Morgan Wallen, has suddenly gone very cold. His music was yanked from Cumulus Media, the second biggest radio chain in the nation, as of midnight CT after a storm broke out over his being captured on video using a racial slur.
Cumulus, which is especially powerful in the country radio sphere, sent out a directive to the program directors of all of its 400-plus stations with the header “MORGAN WALLEN — EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.” The message read: “Team, unfortunately country music star Morgan Wallen was captured on video Sunday evening using a racial slur. Effective immediately we request that all of Morgan Wallen’s music be removed from our playlists without exception. More to follow.”
The directive was signed by Brian Philips, EVP of programming for the chain, and John Dimick, the company’s head of programming operations. Notably, no mention was made of the ban being temporary or of waiting for more details to emerge about the incident.
Other radio stations around the country are expected to follow with an at least temporary ban on Wallen’s music, notwithstanding the fact that his “Dangerous: The Double Album” release is about to have a fourth week at the top of the charts, setting a record for consecutive weeks at No. 1 not seen by a country artist since Garth Brooks in the late ’90s.
Wallen issued a statement Tuesday night after TMZ first reported the incident, saying, “I’m embarrassed and sorry. I used an unacceptable and inappropriate racial slur that I wish I could take back. There are no excuses to use this type of language, ever. I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better.”
As of late Tuesday night, Wallen’s rep said there would be no other immediate comment. Reps for Republic Records, which releases his music in conjunction with Nashville’s Big Loud label, did not immediately return requests for comment.
The video, posted on TMZ Tuesday night and reportedly recorded by Wallen’s neighbors, shows him yelling profanities after a night out in Nashville, including the N-word.
Said one figure in country radio who did not want to comment for attribution: “Morgan Wallen appears in virtually every half-hour of music across 4000 stations across America right now. How’d you like to get that message at midnight, that you have to take him out of the music blocks you already set up for Wednesday? If anybody has other songs they’ve been wanting to hear in the morning, they may get to hear them tomorrow.”
DSPs also appeared to be taking action. As of late Tuesday night, Wallen, who has been called the biggest out-of-the-box streaming success in country music history, did not appear anywhere among the dozens of photos or track listings or playlists on the home page of Apple Music Country, where observers said he had been featured earlier in the day. And his songs were no longer anywhere to be seen in Spotify’s list of 50 top Hot Country songs.
It was not the first time in recent months that Wallen had been embroiled in scandal, although the previous instance rolled off his back more quickly than this one might. In October 2020, he was seen making out with fans while partying maskless in Alabama, which cost him a “Saturday Night Live” performance he was scheduled to make the following weekend. But “SNL” rebooked him for December after he made an apology, and the show made light of it in a sketch in which he appeared.
While some fans pointed out that Wallen appeared to be using the term as a “term of endearment” among friends and not as invective, the zero tolerance policy for the word is unlikely to get him any reprieves any time soon among major media companies, regardless of how fans might react when many of them awaken to the news that a hero of theirs is in disgrace Wednesday morning.
Wallen has a history of having used the N-word on social media, quoting rap lyrics. Back in 2012, when he would have been 18, the then-unknown sent out a tweet that is a lyric by rapper Meek Mill: “I burn bread i aint talkin toast n—-.”
The Wallen scandal comes at a particularly inopportune time for country music — not that there ever would have been an opportune one — as many involved with the genre have recently been involved in publicly discussing a racial reckoning they feel is needed in country, trying to boost the profiles of Black artists who have existed mostly on the margins in an effort to show that the music is making small steps toward real diversity. Wallen’s utterance, as the face of the genre right now, is likely to stand as a huge setback in those efforts and reinforce stereotypes… which even some stars of the format are saying are true stereotypes.
Tweeted Maren Morris: “It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first ‘scuffle’ and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.”
It actually IS representative of our town because this isn’t his first “scuffle” and he just demolished a huge streaming record last month regardless. We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word. We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.
— MAREN MORRIS (@MarenMorris) February 3, 2021
Still, others were insisting this was a blip, not emblematic. “The news out of Nashville tonight does not represent country music,” tweeted Kelsea Ballerini.
One of the few Black singers with a major presence in contemporary country music, Mickey Guyton, was quick to tweet that this was far from wholly unexpected, though. “The hate runs deep. Smfh,” quoting TMZ’s story. She then followed up her post with: “This is not his first time using that ‘unacceptable’ racial slur and we all known that. So what exactly are y’all going to do about it. Crickets won’t work this time.”
This is not his first time using that “unacceptable” racial slur and we all known that. So what exactly are y’all going to do about it. Crickets won’t work this time.
— Mickey Guyton (@MickeyGuyton) February 3, 2021
How popular was Wallen’s music, going into Tuesday night? Besides having far and away the biggest selling and streaming album in any genre since “Dangerous: The Double Album” made its blockbuster debut three weeks ago, Wallen currently also has five out of the top 20 tracks on the Rolling Stone songs chart. With the roll that it’s been on, Wallen’s album may continue to stream in significant numbers, but it won’t be with the assistance of TV appearances or continued massive radio play any time soon.
Is it possible some country fans will revolt at Wallen being removed from the airwaves? “Any listener that doesn’t take extreme offense at the character of these remarks is not a listener we need to entertain,” said one figure in the industry, who said that texts being shared Tuesday night did not indicate a hesitance to take action. “Program directors are like, ‘Oh my god — this guy.’ No one is saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? He’s really popular.’ It’s more like, ‘It’s going to be tough to make those changes immediately, but we’ll do it.’ You can’t be pro-N-word. It’s the inarguable word.” Can he make enough amends to be ushered back soon into the good graces of country media? “That’s for him to figure out. He’s gotten out of jams before, but this is gonna be tough.”
The news out of Nashville tonight does not represent country music.
— Kelsea Ballerini (@KelseaBallerini) February 3, 2021
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