The organic nature of the performances was one of the show’s major strengths. Instead of force-fed inclusion, the Academy’s pairings allowed the art to speak for itself, proving that country music should be a place where anyone — regardless of who they are or what they look like — can feel like they belong. This year’s nomination pool saw a record four Black artists up for awards (Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, and John Legend for a Carrie Underwood collaboration), a milestone ACM CEO Damon Whiteside called “a big step in the right direction.”
The broadcast featured a handful of Black artists across genres performing alongside white country superstars, bringing inclusivity and their shared love of music to the forefront. Guyton, who co-hosted the festivities with Keith Urban, performed her powerful song “Hold On.” Album of the year nominee Brown, who became the first Black artist to win, as a lead artist, in the video of the year category, sang “Famous Friends” with collaborator Chris Young. Jimmie Allen, who took home the award for new male artist of the year, performed “Freedom Was a Highway” with Brad Paisley.
Americana duo The War and Treaty (husband and wife Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount) hit the stage with Dierks Bentley for a bluegrass rendition of U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love),” originally written as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In a show highlight, gospel icon CeCe Winans brought the house down during “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with Underwood, which appears on the country star’s current gospel album, My Savior.
While it wasn’t the entire focus of the ceremony, the celebration of country’s Black artists and fans throughout the night would have been hard to miss. Urban applauded the talents of singer and producer Blanco Brown, who was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident last September, shortly before Brown presented the group of the year award. Kenny Chesney’s performance of “Knowing You” for the In Memoriam segment closed with a standalone picture of the legendary singer Charley Pride, who died from complications of COVID-19 in December 2020.
The Academy also highlighted Nashville’s new National Museum of African American Music, and applauded the venue for “sharing its mission to educate and preserve” the influence of Black music. Given the growth and visibility of Black artists on the country music scene during the last few years, these moments celebrating Black music and culture were touching and appreciated.
While it was likely intentional to make more subtle inclusionary choices, the 2021 ACMs could have benefitted from a more overt show of solidarity with communities of color. The show was one of the first broadcast since the public became aware of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo’s deaths at the hands of police in Minnesota and Chicago, which has resulted in protests nationwide. And although he was barred from recognition at this year’s ACMs, Morgan Wallen — who caused a firestorm earlier this year after footage of him using the N-word became public — was never mentioned, and a condemnation of racism within country music was never alluded to during the broadcast.
With the recent discussion surrounding issues directly involving the Black community and the efforts of The Academy to include Black artists during the show, a mere mention of injustices facing the Black and other communities would have packed a resounding punch. While one could argue that these straightforward mentions may have altered the casual tone of the night, it may become more necessary as time goes on for awards shows to directly address the issues impacting these groups, especially as the guards change and a new generation of country music superstars and consumers become more integral to the genre’s commercial success.
Of course, this responsibility of addressing controversial topics cannot fall solely on the shoulders of corporations or awards shows. Artists and their fans have to demand change both on the surface (visibility for country artists of color), and underneath it (a greater emphasis on rectifying the “traditional” views of who can thrive in country music spaces). These decisions may feel minor, but are powerful enough to assure fans and onlookers that country music is a space where everyone is heard, seen, and appreciated for who they are.
As Urban said to close the night, “country music is a huge, big family where everyone is welcome,” and if the 2021 ACM Awards are any indication of a more inclusive future for country music, things are starting off on the right foot.
The ACM Awards are produced by Dick Clark Productions, which is owned by MRC. MRC and Penske Media are co-parent companies of Billboard.