Morgan Wallen hails from Tennessee—the home of the Ku Klux Klan, the former land of lynch mobs, and the deathbed of the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest hero—and croons endlessly about its virtues and beauty. After he famously said the N-word, his fans made him a martyr to cancel culture, saluting him as their own Colin Kaepernick. This combination of racist origins and behavior makes country icon Morgan Wallen the antithesis of Blackness. After the N-word controversy, Wallen attempted to redeem himself, not through apology, but through song: he released “Broadway Girls,” a collab with Southside Chicago rapper Lil Durk. This move was the classic “I Have a Black Friend” Moment: with streams, sales, and autotune, Wallen attempted to return to the good graces of the Black community. On the surface, this move was an epic failure. But for me, a Black man from New York City, this placed him on my radar for the first time, and ever since I discovered this track, I have not been able to shake my shameful infatuation with his work. Through love songs about home and a romanticization of what is leftover from the urban elite, Wallen appealed to parts of me I didn’t know were still healing and gave me poetics that–when analyzed using aesthetic cognitivism–hold Black revolutionary potential.
Living as a Black person in the legacy of slavery means trying to piece together who you are without a homeland. Wallen’s songs are collages of his homeland and its glory, built from the forgotten scraps of rural existence; titles like “Talkin’ Tennessee” and “More Than My Hometown” proudly communicate his propensity for declaring his origins. In the lyrics themselves, Wallen tells the story of his land and his people by encapsulating it in small representations of his culture–the kind overlooked by the gaze of mainstream media and “high culture” due to their apparent triviality. As he tells us in “Still Goin’ Down,” he is from “a town where the doors don’t lock,” a “scene a little more Podunk than pop,” and “a small town, southern drawl crowd.” He further defines this place as one in which “we’re sippin clear, drinkin beer on a Friday night,” where “every country girl got on her cutoffs,” and where they “circle up big trucks around a fire, still kickin up some dust behind the tires.” By compiling a collection of unlocked doors, weekend beverages, shorts, and cars, Wallen creates a picture and feeling of home that struck me like one of Cupid’s arrows, imbuing me with a surface-level sense of love and understanding of Southern culture, despite having never ventured below the Mason-Dixon line myself.
Through this artistic practice, I have come to see Wallen as someone who is “the same gas station cup of coffee in the morning” and whose “heart’s stuck in these streets like the train tracks,” as he describes in “More Than My Hometown.” While gas station coffee and train tracks may hold little to no significance alone, Wallen collects these overlooked items to create an identity in the shadows of the powerful. His objects are poetically valuable not for their beauty, complexity, or rarity, but instead because of how they come together to build an aesthetic, a home, and an identity out of what remains.
As Black people, Morgan Wallen is not our home. The backroads he so artfully extols are haunted by the spirits of our ancestors who hang from his beloved trees. His homeland is the graveyard of Black mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers executed without cause or trial, and of the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. The same land which Wallen’s art is designed to revere and preserve holds years of Black suffering, oppression, and death. Even Wallen himself is a continuation of this legacy, as his use of racial slurs demonstrates.
So, I am not suggesting that we find home in Wallen or his people. What I am suggesting, however, is that we use his poetic construction of a homeland as a blueprint to visualize our own. The way to revolutionarily consume Wallen’s music is not by praising its value as such, but rather by evaluating it through the lens of aesthetic cognitivism. Wallen himself sings, “If I’m ever gonna move on, I’m gonna need some whiskey glasses, cause I don’t want to see the truth.” “Whiskey Glasses” is a double entendre; he needs glasses of whiskey, but he also needs his whiskey to function as glasses. The second meaning is the relevant one here. Just as whiskey glasses are an alternative way to see the world that is instrumental to Wallen’s healing, Wallen’s poetic devices can be valuable to healing African-Americans as a lens through which they can visualize a path forward. I am not praising the racist country music canon, but rather speaking of the potential power Wallen’s poetics hold for the Black listener to use it as a locus to open up their own canon.
The imagining of a Black homeland is nothing new: Negro spirituals and Afro-Futurism are two Black art forms that used this sort of creative process to bring us closer to freedom. Both mediums were created in an oppressive society, yet used a cultural imaginary to produce a supernatural world in which Black freedom and homelands could be considered. This kind of psychic transformation holds the secret to revolutionizing oppressive art like Wallen’s: we can use Wallen's poetics to construct our own homeland in the midst of his oppressive one. I am not saying we should ignore Wallen’s problematic ties; instead, I am proposing we actively fight his oppression using his own devices.
This artistic transformation is powered by a weaponization of the leftover. Negro spirituals imagined a Black future, but they were written as part of a religion created when enslaved people turned the slaveowners’ oppressive Christianity into their own source of community and rebellion. Just as Soul Food took the remains of the masters’ meals and made a culture out of it, the Black church took the leftovers of oppression and made it revolutionary.
Thus, we must engage in a similar transformation of the leftover with Wallen to take his work from racist to revolutionary; fortunately, the listener can learn this practice from Wallen’s aesthetics themselves. His imagery of the homeland grows out of everything that has been left behind–by the American elite, or by a woman. My favorite Wallen song, “Sand in My Boots,” illustrates the poetics of the leftover perfectly: it is the story of a summer fling in which Wallen shares a perfect night by the beach with a woman whom he tries to bring back to Tennessee, hoping to share its beauty. Wallen believes that she will meet him before he departs for Tennessee, but she does not, leaving him to reckon with this heart-wrenching contradiction: for “something about the way she kissed me tells me she’d love eastern Tennessee, but all I brought back with me was some sand in my boots.” Wallen captures his love, his desire, and his heartbreak, into the image of sandy boots. This almost-love story is compelling as an example of Wallen’s poetics, but it is even more powerful when considered as an artistic endeavor: Wallen is taking the leftover–his unrequited love represented by the remaining kernels of sand–and spinning it into an art piece in order to heal. He creates a narrative that is as much a love story as an ode to his home out of the leftover pain, and this creative process is regenerative.
If Wallen can use an artistic transformation of the leftover to heal from a one-night stand and to charge $400 a seat at his show, one can only imagine its potential when weaponized for the African-American revolutionary canon. Just as he turned “a parking lot into a party” with a reclamation of the small forgotten details in “Up Down,” the Black listener can turn an oppressive country canon into their own revolutionary one via the same aesthetic cognition. Most enjoy Morgan Wallen for the masculine drumline or the gritty guitar, for that is who he is, but someone who listens to songs like “Sand in My Boots” with the cultural imagination of Negro spirituals and Afro-Futurism can also use his poetics of a homeland built from the remains of the powerful as a way to heal. While Wallen’s aesthetics of beer, trucks, and whiskey may represent oppression and “low culture,” it gives me a strong emotional response, which is precisely the role of the artist and the revolutionary. Emotion spurs radical change; thus Wallen’s love of the home—a radical emotional leftover from a scrawny white boy hailing from the backroads of racial oppression—is a potential tool for Black revolutionaries.