Confederate Imagery Banned at CMA Festival

Anyone who wants to foster the tandem promotion of racism and sedition will have to do it somewhere other than the CMA Festival. The annual gathering has declared that Confederate flag imagery will be banned at the biggest country music festival in the world, which will take place in Nashville June 9-14.

The CMA Festival becomes the second large country music festival to institute such a ban, following the Stagecoach Festival April 29-May 1, which also made headlines for putting the flag and associated racially charged imagery on the nixed list.

As in that earlier instance, promoters of the CMA Festival did not make an announcement about the ban, but rather it was publicized by journalists looking through the fine print of a list of prohibited items on the festival website, where “Confederate flag imagery of any kind” is listed alphabetically right under “Cameras with a detachable lens longer than 6″.”

In a statement given to the Tennessean (which called the move “an under-the-radar decision”), the Country Music Association confirmed the new policy, and pointed out that it had been on the website since that page went up in April.

“This year’s CMA Fest is our first major fan-facing event in nearly three years,” said the CMA’s statement. “We have always had policies in place that protect the safety of our fans and ban discrimination, but we felt it was important to further refine our language to explicitly outline what will and will not be tolerated. … In line with our first CMA Fest lineup announcement in early April, our event policy was published on our website, which states any behavior that causes one of our attendees to fear for their personal safety will not be tolerated, and that is inclusive of any displays of the Confederate flag.”

The move comes at a time when the CMA and other country music orgs are seeking to point to growing racial diversity in the genre. Headliners on the NIssan Stadium main stage at this year’s CMA Festival include two Black artists, Darius Rucker and Kane Brown. Many artists of color are represented among the hundreds taking part on other stages, including Mickey Guyton, Jimmie Allen, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Breland, Miko Marks, Blanco Brown, Brei Carter, Madeline Edwards, Willie Jones, O.N.E. the Duo, Rodell Duff, RVSHVD, Shy Carter and Tiera Kennedy. The Black Opry, an organization dedicated to promoting upcoming Black artists, is also presenting a showcase.

At Stagecoach in California five weeks ago, the ban looked to largely be adhered to. A scan of camping areas by a reporter turned up no sightings of Confederate flags, where once at least a few might have been expected. (That did not mean there was a shortage of any other divisive slogans or symbols, however, as “Let’s Go Brandon” flags were flying atop campers.) Confederate imagery was said to have already ben quietly banned years ago at Stagecoach’s marketplace, where such items were readily for sale in the 2000s.

The ban could be tougher to enforce in across the CMA Festival than it was at Stagecoach, not only because Confederate imagery continues to enjoy far more popularity in the South but because festival-goers are spread across downtown all day, walking in and out of events that include several free stages. The policy should be easily enforceable at the events that are ticketed or require a festival pass, however, including the nightly all-star shows at Nissan Stadium.

Confederate imagery was for years a staple of many country and Southern rock shows — on stage as well as in the audience — with performers claiming it was a symbol of “rebel pride,” not racism. The issue came to the fore as bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd publicly and sometimes awkwardly grappled with whether to keep brandishing the flag. The need to purge it from country music, at least from an artist/industry standpoint, was amplified as representatives of the genre discussed its history of exclusion the past few years.

Maren Morris and Luke Combs both spoke to the issue in a 2021 virtual conversation on racial issues that was part of the Country Radio Seminar conference. “At these country music festivals, I see the Confederate flags in the parking lots,” said Morris. “I don’t want to play those festivals anymore. If you were a Black person, would you ever feel safe going to a show with those flying in the parking lot? … I feel like the most powerful thing as artists in our positions is to make those demands of large organizations, festivals, promoters, that’s one of the things we can do is say, ‘No, I’m not doing this. Get rid of them.’”

Combs, who has been arguably the biggest star in country over the past five years, had appeared in a video with flag imagery early in his pre-major-label career, but subsequently apologized. “There’s no excuse for these images,” Combs said in the Country Radio Seminar discussion. “As I’ve grown in my time as an artist, and as the world has changed drastically in the last five to seven years, I am now aware how painful that image can be. … I would never want to be associated with something that brings so much hurt to someone else.”

In 2015, in the wake of killings of nine Black parishioners in a South Carolina church by a white man who had previously brandished Confederate imagery, many major retailers that had allowed Confederate-styled items made a move to pull or disallow their sales, including Amazon, Wal-Mart, Sears/Kmart, eBay, Etsy and Google Shopping.

In 2020, NASCAR announced that fans would be prohibited from displaying Confederate imagery at all events and venues. A survey at the time found that NASCAR fans ages 45 and up were decidedly against the ban, 50% to 23%, while racing fans 44 and under were in a statistical tie on the issue.

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