Morgan Wallen (left) and DaBaby.
Morgan Wallen: Jason Kempin—Getty Images; Emma McIntyre—Getty Images
August 4, 2021 1:38 PM EDT

DaBaby’s career is over—at least, if you take the word of thousands of people on Twitter. On July 25, while delivering a rant at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami, the rapper veered into homophobic territory, mocking gay men and those with HIV/AIDS. He was soon flooded with criticism on social media, received public condemnations from Dua Lipa and Elton John, and was dropped from multiple festivals including Lollapalooza last weekend and Governors Ball in September. At the same time, an oppositional force came to his defense, with rappers like T.I. bemoaning cancel culture and the ways in which artists can face major consequences for seemingly small offenses.

But if those people are feeling fearful that there’s no room for their edginess (or, as many would put it, offensive tastelessness) in pop music anymore, they only have to look back a couple months ago, to the curious case of Morgan Wallen. In February, the rising country star was caught on camera saying the N word. He was taken off the radio, suspended by his label and had his tour dates canceled indefinitely; his career appeared to be in free fall. But instead of receding into obscurity, Wallen’s popularity surged: he stayed atop the Billboard 200 charts for another 8 weeks following his “cancellation,” racking up enough streams to eventually top the mid-year report from the the media data company MRC, beating out heavyweights like Justin Bieber and the Weeknd. And after laying low for months, Wallen has returned to public life: he showed up onstage at a Luke Bryan concert this week to madcap applause.

Wallen’s public journey over the past year shows that consternation (or optimism) about the power of cancel culture to end a celebrity’s public life is often overstated. For some, “cancelling” can be a powerful tool to hold amoral public figures accountable in a way they never have been before; for others, it is the epitome of mob mentality and an affront to free speech. But the reactionary corporate moral panic that purportedly now rules American culture—the radio stations, music festivals and advertisers who rush to sever ties with anyone who stands against their “values”—is often less powerful than the fans themselves, while bigotry is often forgiven in favor of the bottom line. While the wrath of social media has cost DaBaby current goodwill as well as the revenue from several partnerships and tour dates, it wouldn’t be surprising if he, just like Wallen did, returns in full force in a few months—just in time for another pop star to be put up on the shelf.

The two controversies, meanwhile, mark something of a crossroads for the artists’ respective genres and their larger troubling histories with bigotry. Racism has long been embedded within country music, with Black artists like Mickey Guyton speaking out about the abuse they have faced. Homophobia has long been a part of hip-hop lyricism and posturing—and over the past few months, Lil Nas X’s recent homoerotic music videos have been met with clear discomfort by several rappers. The cultural showdowns enveloping DaBaby and Wallen could help dislodge long-ingrained prejudices–or they could actually serve to further entrench the anti-mainstream animosity of two proud and often insular genres.

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DaBaby and Wallen might seem to arise out of near-opposite worlds, but a lot binds them together. They’re almost the same age, with their upbringings separated by a state line: Wallen grew up in Sneedville, Tenn., while DaBaby grew up in Charlotte, N.C. Each scored their first big hit in 2019: DaBaby with the scabrous “Suge,” an homage to the embattled and violent hip-hop mogul Suge Knight; and Wallen with “Whiskey Glasses,” a nihilistic ode to heartbreak and alcohol.

And both of their rises have been inextricably linked with controversy, their reputations as loose cannons only boosting their outlaw bonafides. In 2020, Wallen was arrested for public intoxication and disorderly conduct in downtown Nashville, then booted from a scheduled Saturday Night Live performance for flouting social distancing guidelines by kissing women in packed bars at the University of Alabama. All of his misbehavior, however, only served to endear Wallen to his core Southern fanbase, which he unambiguously catered to in songs like “Country A$$ Shit” and “Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt.” In January, his second studio album Dangerous: The Double Album debuted atop the Billboard charts and broke the record for most streams for one country album in a week. The pandemic had caused country music to rapidly adapt to a new streaming era, and Wallen had become a poster boy for this new generation.

In February, however, Wallen was caught on camera drunkenly saying the N word to a white friend while on what he called a “72-hour-bender.” After the ensuing backlash, Wallen checked himself into rehab, took a meeting with the Black Music Action Coalition, and issued a public apology in which he told his fans not to defend him: “I fully accept any penalties I face,” he said.

But despite having little promotion or radio play, Dangerous became the biggest album of the first half of 2021, according to MRC. It didn’t matter that the controversy may have turned off a large population on the coasts who weren’t the target demographic of his music to begin with. Kyle Coroneos, the founder of the website Saving Country Music, says that the backlash to Wallen resulted in the “Streisand effect,” named for an incident in which Barbra Streisand’s attempts to hide photos of her property that documented coastal erosion ended up generating more attention than they would have received absent her attempted suppression. The attempt to bury Wallen online only galvanized interest and curiosity, especially among diehard country fans who associated “cancel culture” with an opposing political ideology. “He’s become a kind of folk hero for a lot of people,” Coroneos says. “I think Morgan Wallen fans are spinning it and trying to support it in any way they can, to quote on quote ‘own the libs,’ or however you want to put it.”

The success of Wallen on streaming came as something of a blow to country radio, which has long held an esteemed position in the industry as the primary gatekeeper of taste and popularity. After months of giving him zero radio play across the country, many stations felt they had no choice to put him back on. In July, he re-entered Billboard’s Country Airplay charts with the single “Sand In My Boots.” Johnny Chiang, director of operations at Cox Media Group Houston, which includes country stations KKBQ and KTHT, says that the station’s fans have made their opinions about Wallen clear over the last few months. “We’ve resumed playing his music not because of my choice or anyone’s choice, but based on what the listeners wanted,” he says. “Our listeners were telling us that, in their minds, he was contrite, genuine in his apology, and that they loved his music and he should be played again.”

Wallen has spent the last couple months testing the waters; he livestreamed an acoustic performance of “Sand In My Boots” with fellow country stars Eric Church and HARDY and started his in-person apology tour on Good Morning America with a Michael Strahan interview. While many online expressed chagrin at his quick return to public life, Wallen received raucous applause when he sauntered onstage to join country heavyweights Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Tyler Hubbard in Nashville this week; he sang “Whiskey Glasses” and appeared to take shots of tequila.

It is all but inevitable that when he returns to the concert circuit, he will be embraced by his fans with open arms and wallets. The Cancel culture is NOT the majority of Country music fans,” the Texas country singer Mike Donnell commented on a post on Morgan Wallen’s Facebook page in April. “Just know once you do make your return…..the majority will be right there behind you bud!” The comment received over 700 likes.

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A few months before Wallen was arrested in Nashville last year, DaBaby was making headlines for slapping a woman in the face at one of his concerts. It wasn’t his first such incident: he beat up a rival at the Louis Vuitton store, was involved in an altercation in which a 19-year-old was shot dead at a Walmart in North Carolina, and garnered outrage for insulting the TikTok and YouTube teen star Jojo Siwa in one of his songs. He is an unpredictable, physical dynamo in concert, and his lyrics are filled with threats and intimidation; his truculence is essential to his image and popularity. “I like pushing the envelope,” he told the Guardian last year.

So maybe it was unsurprising that at some point, the rapper would push farther than the mainstream public could tolerate. Last weekend, DaBaby took the stage at Rolling Loud in Miami—which has quickly become one of America’s most energetic and rowdy festivals in recent years—and first raised eyebrows for bringing out Tory Lanez, a notorious hip-hop figure who was arrested for an incident last year in which the rapper Megan Thee Stallion claimed Lanez shot her, which he denied. After the performance, videos started to circulate of DaBaby delivering a strange rant in an attempt to hype the crowd up: “If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, or any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases, that’ll make you die in two to three weeks, then put your cellphone lighter up… Fellas, if you ain’t sucking dick in the parking lot, put your cellphone lighter up.”

The blowback from the outside world was swift and near-unanimous. Stars like Dua Lipa, Elton John and Madonna each issued statements condemning his words. His remix of Lipa’s “Levitating,” which was perched at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, was removed from many playlists. Lollapalooza, Day N Vegas and Governors Ball each quickly removed him from their lineups and released statements, with Governors Ball announcing that they did “not tolerate hate or discrimination of any kind.” #DaBabyisOverParty trended on Twitter. The iHeartRadio Music Festival and Austin City Limits dropped him soon after.

And after initially doubling down on his statements—and bemoaning on Instagram how “the internet twisted up my motherf-cking words”—DaBaby issued a suspiciously formal apology to the LGBTQ+ community. In many ways, it was similar to Wallen’s: he pled ignorance, agreed to receive education, and alluded to growing as a man. The apology was met with an eyeroll from many online, who have grown accustomed to the public apology template used by so many over the last few years. There are many who are done with DaBaby, and assume his career is over.

But just like Wallen’s, much of DaBaby’s core audience has already shown a willingness to look past his bigoted statements. His most prominent defender was the rapper T.I., who alleged that DaBaby was getting bullied and that the LGBTQ+ community was trying to “attack, villainize, demonize, crucify, condemn” him. (T.I. and his wife Tameka “Tiny” Harris were recently accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse that allegedly took place over the past 15 years; the couple has denied the allegations against them.) Lanez and the rapper Boosie Badazz also rushed to his defense. And under a YouTube video in which the popular rap radio show The Breakfast Club criticized DaBaby for his words, the comments section filled with people instead attacking the show’s host, Charlamagne tha God, for perceived hypocrisy.

So while people try to bury DaBaby, the Streisand effect is taking hold once again: search interest on Google for him is at its highest point since 2019. “The more people pile on, the more people are going to then start to sympathize with him,” the hip-hop radio host Peter Rosenberg said on Hot 97 this week. DaBaby is still getting played on rap radio along with many other rappers who have weathered controversies related to violence, homophobia or racism, from Eminem to Doja Cat to the late Pop Smoke. Chris Brown, who was convicted of felony assault, has been fully reintegrated into hip-hop’s firmament, showing that once toxic figures will be readily embraced by the industry if they prove themselves to be financially productive.

The stories of Morgan Wallen and DaBaby show that while bigoted comments can land public figures in hot water in ways they might not have a decade ago, there is no central arbiter giving or taking away the rights and privileges of music stars. Over the next few years, the music world will continue to be a battleground between those vehemently fighting bigotry and those vehemently fighting for some idea of freedom of speech. Superfans, all the while, will keep hitting play on the music they like.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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