Wallen had his contract suspended by his label. He was criticized by fellow artists, several radio stations dropped his music, and he was unwelcome at award shows.
One year later, country music continues to be a genre where discussions about race are minefields and some see very little progress in terms of diversity.
But it’s an issue much bigger than just one artist and one moment.
“The fans had the ultimate decision and they clearly decided they were Morgan Wallen fans,” Melinda Newman, Billboard’s Executive Editor, West Coast and Nashville, told CNN.
“There’s been a lot of talk that says, if you supported Morgan Wallen and continued listening to his music, you were racist and I don’t think it’s that easy,” she said. “I think it’s a much more complex issue than that.”
“We have people who listen to artists who have done horrible things and everyone has to make that decision for themselves,” she added. “But I think that’s a slippery slope to call anyone who continued to enjoy Morgan Wallen’s music a racist.”
Country music’s comfort zone
Country music has long been associated with symbols like the Confederate flag, which represents Southern pride to some and America’s painful history of racism and slavery to many others.
Country music culture, it seems, is largely still segregated.
She told CNN that the country music industry has only done “very surface level work, as far as diversity is concerned.”
“You’ll see playlists that have more artists of color and there are a few more on the stage now, but the problem is that none of that makes the spaces any safer,” she said. “Until they stop hiding behind tokenism, it’s not gonna make anything safer.”
This issue of Black fans and artists not feeling safe in the country space is less talked about than the vitriol that happens online.
“I needed people, Black women specifically, to see me here—to know that there is a space for them,” she said. “So often Black women are put in a box. I wanted to show them that the box doesn’t exist.”
“Our country is so divided right now that I wondered how I could perform this,” she told Texas Monthly before her Super Bowl performance. “How could I make people proud and make them feel togetherness? That’s my intention, and I think what we have planned will make everyone feel seen.”
Holly G told CNN that while country music is happy to put Guyton forward as an example of progress, the community has yet to fully stand up for her in the face of the hate she continues to receive.
And she doesn’t believe the industry will because a large portion of country music fans have made their feelings about race known with their wallet.
“I don’t think that the industry has really any interest in changing their format that they’ve been doing,” she said. “It makes money for them and it works for them.”