Grammys: Still So White?

Academy tone deaf to progress

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Last year’s Grammys left people so astounded that Adele’s “25” took album of the year over Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” even Adele cracked her Grammy in half.

“Lemonade,” a 12-track reclamation about being a Black woman in the American South, became the third best-selling album worldwide in 2016. “25” is Adele’s soulful journey post-motherhood, lyrically insightful and vocally tear-jerking as usual, but lacks the musical innovation and thematic urgency captured by Beyoncé. This decades-old problem resurfaced social media as Adele took the stage, and following in the tide of other culturally biased award ceremonies, #grammyssowhite flooded Twitter.

The Academy should have acknowledged Beyoncé’s pivotal album, calling out police brutality and the lack of governmental support for communities of color after Hurricane Katrina, at a time when the country was retrograting as fast as Beyoncé slays. Instead, they took a familiar route — echoing the sounds of a white-dominated culture.

The ceremony has cast musicians of color to the side since 1959, snubbing Ella Fitzgerald in 1959, Michael Jackson in 1988 and Kendrick Lamar in 2016, just to name a few. Even as music becomes more globally integrated, the Academy proves a consistent track-record of swaying away from diverse recognition.

CEO of the Academy Neil Portnow, told Pitchfork, “We don’t, as musicians, in my humble opinion, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity. When you go to vote on a piece of music — at least the way that I approach it is —  you almost put a blindfold on and you listen.”

Portnow’s humility is actually colorblindness — failing to address musicians of color expressing institutional oppression. The only blindfold they are wearing is to the experiences of marginalized communities.

Hip-hop was born in the early 1970s, by Black DJs mixing soul, funk and disco at block parties. The genre wasn’t even acknowledged as a Grammy category until 1989. Ironically, Eminem, who built a career on cultural appropriation, holds the record number of awards for  best rap album. As revealed by Eminem’s acknowledgement, the Academy continuously encourages the exploitation of Black artists, which prevails in every aspect of our culture.

It wasn’t until 1998 that a hip-hop album won album of the year, shattering the genre’s glass ceiling with Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”

Some of the awards dished to white artists in recent years are outrageous. In 2012, the agitated and monotonous strumming of British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons’ “Babel” won album of the year over Frank Ocean’s dreamily nuanced and contemporary R&B album “Channel Orange.”

Even worse might have been when Taylor Swift won album of the year 2016. If the latter’s power-posed white feminist departure from country to pop is more acclaimed than Kendrick Lamar’s multi-character, multi-genre, spoken word of Black oppression, then what is the point of these awards other than to whitewash the music industry?

Only 10 Black artists have won this coveted award over the past 60 years, the last being jazz musician Herbie Hancock in 2008. That doesn’t even cover all of the influential Black musicians who have gone un-nominated.

The Grammys were created following the trend of artistic award ceremonies such as the Oscars and Emmys. Both of these ceremonies have had their share of racial criticism, and it is only expected that the Grammys would get theirs. Beyond leading in votes, their expressive view of pop culture is not representative of major consumer demographics.

Frank Ocean boycotted the awards ceremony last year because of “cultural bias and general nerve damage.” But artists have been voicing their views for years, like Jay-Z, who protested the Grammys’ lack of Black representation in 1999, 2002 and 2011.

Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” won the award for best urban contemporary album, an outdated category that segregates R&B-influenced pop to a less important category that still feels comfortable using “urban” to mean ‘“Black.”

Yet she gracefully accepted her comfort token and expressed, “We all experience pain and loss, and often we become inaudible. My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history.”

The Academy might have listened to her this year, as the nominees have never been so dominated by people of color. It is the first year in the ceremony’s history that a white man hasn’t taken space for album of the year, that a song in Spanish, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito,” is nominated for song of the year and that a woman is nominated for best rap song, with Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.”

These artists don’t need a Grammy to validate their chart-topping achievements, but it is important that the most highly-sought awards in the industry are really listening to the present.

2018 reflects a better-tuned audibility, but let’s not be so ready to turn to our Grammy viewing-parties and gobble the past 60 years like our hors d’oeuvres.