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- American country music singer and songwriter
One year ago, country music shunned Morgan Wallen, a 28-year-old Tennessee native and a rising star in the industry.
Following a night out with friends, a drunken Wallen was caught on video yelling a racial slur and other profanities at his friends. The video went viral; the repercussions were swift and severe. It looked like Wallen’s career was over just as it was getting started.
Today, Wallen is one of the most popular musicians in America. He recently performed at the Grand Ole Opry — arguably country music’s most important stage — and this week was announced as a headliner at the Patriotic Festival, which moves to Norfolk after a long and successful run in Virginia Beach.
His planned performance on Memorial Day weekend, in a city that’s 41% Black and majority-minority, naturally raises the question: Is it appropriate to give him so prominent a platform?
As with so many incidents of this sort, it depends on your perspective.
Wallen came to public prominence as a contestant on the singing show The Voice. His second album, “Dangerous” (released in 2021) raced to the top of the charts and stayed there, spending its first seven weeks as No. 1.
It made Wallen a certified superstar in country music. It also put him under a very bright spotlight.
Wallen had his problems before the racial-slur incident. In early 2000, he was charged with disorderly conduct in Nashville for his behavior after being ejected from a bar. A night of partying without a mask in Alabama later that year, also caught on video, prompted “Saturday Night Live” to cancel his appearance for violating the show’s COVID-19 safety protocols.
Both were embarrassing but did little professional harm. He won “Best New Artist” at the Country Music Association Awards in November 2020.
Then came that video. Backlash rained down.
Big Loud Records, Wallen’s label, suspended him “indefinitely.” Country stations stopped playing his music. The industry turned its back on him.
Country music fans were more forgiving — or more defiant, depending on one’s perspective. They bought Wallen’s music in droves and, to no one’s surprise, radio stations and his record label followed suit. A month after the video, Wallen was back on the airwaves and, a few months later, back in his label’s good graces.
Everybody likes making money and Wallen was a goldmine. His sales and popularity seemed to increase after the incident, which is quite a commentary on the American experience.
But the experience that’s important was Wallen’s. Did he learn from his mistake? Is he apologetic and regretful? Did he grow as a result?
That, again, is in the eye of the beholder. During a July interview, Wallen expressed remorse and tried to explain his choice of words and pledged to donate $500,000 to Black charities.
He also ended the year, unexpectedly, at the top of Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop chart. His collaboration with rapper Lil Durk, “Broadway Girls,” reached No. 1.
But is that remorse? Is that punishment? Should Wallen remain in the wilderness or be invited in from the cold? Does he deserve to be headlining events like the Patriotic Festival in Hampton Roads?
Therein lies the central question in the debate about “cancel culture.” We can believe there should be a path for redemption for some offenses, but the penance must be sincere, not performative, and should demonstrate a genuine desire to learn and to grow.
Some will never forgive Wallen, as is their right. And, unfortunate as it may be, some will be drawn to him because he used that word, which Wallen should reject in the strongest terms.
But Wallen’s real opportunity is with everyone in between — those who enjoy his music and will be on hand in May when he performs at the Patriotic Festival. There, he has a responsibility to use his second chance constructively, to use his platform to encourage tolerance and foster understanding.
That’s not too much to ask of him. Here’s hoping Wallen makes the most of it.