Big Loud’s Candice Watkins Speaks Openly on Being a Black Executive in the Nashville Music Industry

Candice Watkins, Vice President of Marketing for Big Loud Records, has become an important voice for racial equality in the Country Music industry. She was among several influential panelists who were part of “A Conversation on Being African American in the Nashville Music Industry” — alongside Charlene Bryant, Mickey Guyton, Gina Miller, Shannon Sanders and Kortney Toney — and agreed to share their experiences of being a Black person in the Nashville music industry. That event was held on Blackout Tuesday, June 2, which served as a day for the music industry to intentionally pause and reflect on ways to actively protect, support and empower the Black community. Watkins boldly decided to be honest and candid about her experiences, thereby empowering and encouraging the others to speak their truth and create an unforgettable moment that is bringing about industry change

Watkins is using her voice and experience to continue to contribute to larger conversations taking place in Nashville and across the country. As a board member of Nashville Music Equality, which is dedicated to creating anti-racism in the Nashville music industry, she is a calm, reasoned and important voice on matters of social equality. Watkins tells CMA Close Up why she decided to speak up.

As Told to Beverly Keel

Every once in a while, I’ll have a journalist who is doing a story on diversity in Country Music reach out. Whenever that request made its way to me, even three years ago, I felt that the story was valid and legitimate, but I had a strong sense that it would have fallen on deaf ears, to be honest. Until now, it never felt like the right moment to speak to the press about my experience of working in Country Music as a Black woman.

If I had shared my story three years ago, could it have maybe done something? Sure. But I didn’t feel like it was time yet. It didn’t feel like it does now.

This year, a mass awakening about racial injustice swept across the world, especially in the United States, and even in music. The resounding effects were palpable for me. So many of my peers and colleagues in Country Music were listening, engaging and leaning in. It’s something that I have never witnessed to that degree in my 14 years in Nashville. And that’s when the right time presented itself to share my story — when the moment is happening, when there’s an engaged and mobilized audience. I wouldn’t have dared miss that important opportunity.

After I spoke candidly about my experiences as a Black woman in Country Music on the panel on June 2, which was Blackout Tuesday, I received so many emails and text messages from friends that I was shocked by the response. For me, I talked about how I live my life every day. My existence is normal to me. I didn’t know that sharing my everyday life would actually be shocking to people. The resounding sentiment was that they had no idea what the Black experience was like today.

I was so glad that all of us shared our stories that day, myself included, and that we were honest and vulnerable. Hopefully it made a significant impact. Now people know a little more about what our experience is like in Nashville or Country Music, such as not feeling safe around town or when we go to festivals or road trips and video sets.

I had a very prominent executive in Country Music tell me that she was shocked and embarrassed that she didn’t know what it was like for us. She had also said how she wished the panel had been recorded because she would have made it required viewing for her staff and future new hires.

I had several people say, “I am making a vow that I won’t stand for racism. If you are brave enough to share your story, I can be brave enough to call it out if it ever happens in front of me.” I teared up when I read that. The responses were remarkable. It seemed to almost give people permission to investigate the magnitude of the problem for themselves and to hopefully feel more ownership in resolving the problem.

Where do I want to see the conversation go from here? This is the toughest question I’ve been asked. Specifically, for the Nashville Country Music industry, there still needs to be a lot more conversation, sharing and listening — especially of personal stories and systemic roots. That’s only part of the equation. Another part that is difficult to share because it can sometimes sound cliché, but there’s no way around it is: change is a personal, inside job. People have to change their belief and value systems. They have to have their own reckoning.

Where will we be in five years? I hope that we are more diverse, both in the genre and industry. I hope that people have personally come to grips with any racist beliefs that they have and that they’ve changed. I also hope people call out racism and racially-damaging words and actions, when witnessed. I hope there is more unity. I hope the stereotype that Black people don’t like, desire to work in, or play Country Music will cease to exist. I hope all truths come to light and that we’re all better for it.

Before June 2, I never had any hope that racial injustice would be overcome. Now, I think I have an ever-so-small glimmer of hope that change could be possible. It’s a very small glimmer of light in a really dark room, but it’s still there.

Drawing on her experience working with Candice at UMG Nashville, Cindy Mabe says, “Candice has been a vital voice in conversations of broadening diversity for our music community. Candice has always known who she is and what she stands for. It didn’t matter how others viewed her choices. That is strength…more than anything, she believes in inclusiveness in every role she’s ever been in. But well before the current spotlight was cast on her, Candice has been a solid beacon of light and energy…”
– Cindy Mabe, UMG Nashville President
“Candice holds such an important role in the Country side of the music industry as a Black female music executive…It is rare to see a woman of color at her level, which is incredibly vital to the conversations happening in our world now…She listens to what others are saying to get a full understanding of the task at hand, and then adds such a wonderful perspective that helps move the needle in Country Music towards the space that it needs to be in…She has the opportunity to be at the table and speak into the bigger conversations that are happening…It is so beyond refreshing and important to hear her and voices like hers continue making this industry more inclusive and respectful of one another, regardless of race or gender…”
– Kortney Toney, Nashville Symphony Corporate Partnerships Manager, Nashville Music Equality President and “A Conversation on Being African American in the Nashville Music Industry” Panelist
To see other Nashville Music Equality panels or to learn more, visit Nashville Music Equality’s Facebook page.