Luke Combs on using Confederate imagery: ‘There’s no excuse for those images’

Luke Combs performing live at the Country Thunder Music Festival

Much like the Morgan Wallen situation, I find myself surprised that country music people are actually attempting to speak about racism and the omnipresence of Confederate symbols throughout their industry. What surprised me about the Morgan Wallen situation is that the dude did something really racist, and… he faced consequences for it within his industry, and he made a comprehensive apology, and he’s actually going away to work on himself. What I expected from the country music industry as a whole was something more akin to “lol, we’re Southern and white and we’re not interested in woke sh-t and neither are our fans.” But that hasn’t happened recently.

Luke Combs is one of those Git Er Done types in country music, with an image of “working class good ol’ boy.” Over the years, he’s used Confederate symbols in his music and imagery and now… he’s apologizing? And trying to be better?

Luke Combs has issued an apology for past use of the Confederate flag in his performances. Followers on social media pointed out that when the country star appeared in the music video for Ryan Upchurch’s “Can I Get a Outlaw” in 2015, he was in front of a Confederate flag. He was also using an acoustic guitar that had a Confederate flag sticker on it.

“There’s no excuse for those images,” said Combs, a 30-year-old North Carolina singer-songwriter who has had two multiplatinum albums and several hit country songs.

“And as I have 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 of how painful that image can be to someone else,” Combs said. “I would never want to be associated with something that brings so much hurt to someone else. I am trying to learn. I am trying to get better.”

His remarks were made during a conversation with singer Maren Morris and moderator Ann Powers on “accountability and the future of country music” for the annual Country Radio Seminar. The three also discussed country-music star Morgan Wallen’s use of a racial slur.

“I know that I’m a very highly visible member of the country-music community right now,” Combs said. “And I want to use that position for good, and to say that people can change and people do want to change, and I’m one of those people trying.”

[From CNN]

I go back and forth, arguing with myself about what I think about statements like “as the world has changed drastically in the last five to seven years, I am now aware of how painful that image can be to someone else.” I grew up in Virginia, surrounded by Confederate statues and Civil War battlefields and pickup trucks with Confederate flags. People would talk about “Southern Pride” and blah blah blah, but everyone always knew what that Confederate iconography MEANT. It means racism. It means you believe the Confederacy should have won and that chattel slavery should still exist in the Confederate States of America.

All that being said, it IS true that the national conversation around Confederate imagery has changed drastically in the past decade. I never would have thought that I would live long enough to see Confederate images being removed from state flags and state buildings, nor did I ever think I would see country music stars challenge their fans and themselves to be better, to be more inclusive, and to be less racist. Is this how things change? Yeah, probably. Don’t we want people like Luke Combs to grow and evolve?

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Photos courtesy of Getty, Backgrid.

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16 Responses to “Luke Combs on using Confederate imagery: ‘There’s no excuse for those images’”

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  1. Mandy Purr says:

    Even if he chose to make this statement so as not to be subject to consequence culture it is a good thing. Hopefully, more country stars will do the same. Although, I am side-eyeing the “world changing drastically in the last 5-7 years” comment.

    • Mika says:

      Well…. his world might have changed drastically. I think there are many white people who grew up to believe that they were naturally good people – flawed maybe, but heroes of their own stories – are now looking at themselves and seeing that they might actually have been the villain. More people should be putting that growth on themselves, not the world at large.

      • Teresa says:

        This. I grew up in VA and never ever wanted anything to do with the Confederate flag. It seemed racist and redneck to me always. Something that the hunter types at school would wear. But I can appreciate how if you grow up surrounded by sameness and you don’t seek out other people it’s easy to fail to see the struggles that many unjustly face. It’s not an excuse, but I’ll take a guy preemptively apologizing from a genuine seeming place over someone saying the n word a few weeks ago.

    • ElleE says:

      I had to digest that 5-7 year timeframe too. He has obviously given this a lot of thought and presumably has the benefit of marketing teams and focus groups that his label uses. There are companies that re-package the data that Facebook sells and then sell it to artist labels.

      My personal, made-up game changer is the wide use of smartphones. Ten years ago footage of a racist rant wouldn’t garner tons of attention. It would be, “…so an old lady called Her cab driver the N-word? What else is new?”

      But today those images are shared to shame people for openly and publicly expressing beliefs they had had their entire lives. The rest of us rightfully find the images and the people themselves repulsive, and we have collectively decided, without having actually voted on it, that we want to live in a better world.

  2. MM2 says:

    So…we know he knew it was racist, but it was “okay”, or likely socially acceptable in his group, to be racist until 5-7 years ago?! I get that he didn’t feel the consequences of his racism until his posse changed in the last 5-7 years, but I bet other’s felt it, and that’s the point. Focusing on his own consequences as the damage of his actions, what a shock.

  3. Kealeen says:

    This is just another “sorry…that I got called out” situation, and I’m tired of it. These people are who they are, and have no intention of changing. Morgan Wallen’s album is still #1 on the country chart, even after being removed from multiple platforms. Meanwhile, The Dixie Chicks are still demonized in the genre of country music. People like Maren Morris and Kasey Musgraves give me hope, but there is a long way to go.

  4. Megan2 says:

    Comment from a Canadian, who grew up with the sort of family that would state publicly how not racist they were but would privately make really terrible jokes and then claim that “it doesn’t make us racist because we don’t actually TREAT people badly we just JOKE about it.”

    I didn’t understand the “real” meaning behind confederate imagery until the past few years. I mean, it doesn’t feel like that long ago that there was a remake of the Dukes of Hazzard movie that had that flag on the car, and I didn’t really understand that it was racist and I also didn’t really hear anyone speaking out about it.

    But, I changed and I grew. I expanded and diversified the voices that I was listening to, and it educated me pretty quickly once I started hearing from people who were hurt by it and who did understand the history and why it was so harmful and racist. I didn’t learn any of that from my family or my education… so it took time. It took until I was an adult and it took me actively seeking out other viewpoints and other experiences of people who weren’t white. There is a part of me that thinks “in the year 2021 there is no excuse”… but frankly, in the year of “early 2000′s when Megan2 starting paying attention to things outside of her immediate circle and family”… there was no excuse then either. There has never been an excuse for “not knowing” that something is harmful or violent… because the “not knowing” is a choice to turn away from the visible and obvious pain & suffering that is the result of not knowing. I knew racism was bad, but I didn’t understand that white people could say that and believe it and still act in ways that perpetuated it. Like, saying “I’m not racist” was literally as far as I thought it went… I didn’t understand how to speak out, how to actively choose anti-racism, and how to identify and think critically about the images and ideas I was being fed in movies, school, and family gatherings.

    All this to say… I’m not against cancelling people for being racist. I wish it was that easy, and for the people most affected by the racism I absolutely support whatever they need to do to protect themselves and their loved ones. I think, though, that we do need to allow for people to change and become allies. And I think that for white people to speak out and say something is wrong is important because it shows growth, and it gives people who idolize these individuals a role model of what that change and that growth can look like. If all the people in your community think and act a certain way, it’s easy to resist change or even to feel like change isn’t possible. But if the people in your community start to change and speak up and pave a path for you to follow… maybe change will get easier. As long as an apology is followed by actual change and positive actions, then maybe I would wait and see.

  5. tx_mom says:

    I have mixed feelings. It’s very easy to want to eye-roll this — when my (Black) child’s country friends told her the flag symbolized “heritage, not hate,” my inner-Marge-Simpson HMMMMM was set off. Because somebody knew to tell them to say that, right?

    On the other hand, honestly, how else are we going to effect change unless we let people grow? Net of net, I think this is a positive thing. It’s easy to be angry when you’ve been wronged, but if you truly want the person who wronged you to do better, you have to give them a chance to DO better and BE better.

    • AMA1977 says:

      This is the point I think gets lost. It’s the perfect being the enemy of the good. If his statement is heartfelt, if it moves the needle for even a fraction of his fans, then it’s a net good. Not perfect, and we should strive for more. But if we don’t allow people to admit that they didn’t get (or care, or know…) that it was wrong before BUT THEY DO NOW, then there will be no growth and no change. It’s like water changing the face of the earth; sometimes there is a dramatic tsunami or flood, and sometimes there is just a tricking stream, wearing away rock over years and years. Both are progress. IMO.

      • saltyCracker says:

        I agree with you. It seems like lately everyone is jumping on people who are admitting to living in blissful ignorance and finally waking up to see that their ways were wrong and hurt a lot of people. How are we to change if we don’t let people admit they were wrong, apologize and try to do better? How are we to improve if every apology is nitpicked apart and treated with suspicion? Yea, there are a lot of token phrases and actions but there are just as many people who truly want to do better.

  6. Chimney says:

    I’m torn about this. I’m all for people educating themselves and changing but what does that change actually look like. Will Luke Combs be anti-racist in life or is he just gonna remove the stars and bars from his guitar?

    I’m astonished everyday just how much leeway and space most white people get growing up (and even when they are described as “just kids” in their 20s). The ability to ignore large swathes of your country’s own history and to wallow in ignorance. Must be bliss! It’s a kind of grace black kids never receive, I learned about racism around the same time I learned to read.

  7. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    I have a hard time with white people. Full stop. And I’m whiter than Casper. I’m glad many are voicing change desires and being made aware of large and small issues which are problematic. Here’s the thing that bugs me. I’ve been calling out racist assholery and helping victims since gradeschool. I can’t watch a bully terrorize another human without nosediving between them. And it got me in trouble plenty. Everywhere. School. Church. Neighborhoods. Later in college. Clubs. So saying, as an adult, you’ve been made aware of painful words doesn’t ring true with me. Like at all. You said them for the fist bumps. You said them for laughter. You said them out loud to be heard.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    The fact that white men can be so overtly privileged as to actually use the N word and then get to apologize and take it back and *be believed* and given the benefit of the doubt … yeah actions speak louder than words. Maybe he learned; maybe he didn’t: what I know for sure is our society as a whole is terribly racist and a rich white man is never going to be held to the same standard the rest of us are. He’s always going to be protected.

  9. Amber says:

    I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt to a degree. It seems like he is making a good-faith attempt to be a better person and to be more aware of his part in upholding a racist culture. That’s a good first step, and it does take courage to admit you were wrong about something. What happens next is what makes all the difference. Will he continue to speak out on these issues? Will he critically examine the lack of Black artists in his industry? He has to back up his words here with some continuing action.