On its surface, when news hit of Beyoncé leading the 2017 Grammy Awards with nine nominations, it read as nothing short of a win for the behemoth pop star. The Houston native has scored nods in the three big categories: Album of the Year, for her sixth studio offering, Lemonade; and Song of the Year and Record of the Year for its lead single, “Formation.”
Beyoncé will compete in other categories, such as Best Rock Performance (“Don’t Hurt Yourself,” with Jack White), Best Pop Solo Performance (“Hold Up”) and Best Rap/Sung Performance (“Freedom,” with Kendrick Lamar). The end result is that Beyoncé has become the first artist ever to earn nominations in such an array of categories in a single year.
On that feat, Neil Portnow, CEO and president of the Recording Academy, told the Associated Press in an interview: “Artists are feeling emboldened and courageous and just wanting to step out of the predictable boundaries of what they have done. Of course, [Beyoncé] is the poster child for that.”
With these new nominations, in addition to already winning 20 Grammy Awards, Beyoncé has become the most nominated woman in Grammy history, with 62 nominations. Yet if we are to believe that Portnow is sincere in his description of Beyoncé, it ought to be made clear that despite her historymaking news, the Grammys have failed to truly honor her artistry beyond very predictable boundaries of R&B and “urban contemporary.” The Negro League subcategories, if you will.
That is not to negate, diminish or even place an asterisk near Beyoncé’s Grammy history. Hell, I’s a Negro and very happy with Negro-centered celebrations. However, it does speak to an overall pattern that this show has long had with honoring black art, especially if it is crafted by a black woman. Of all Beyoncé’s Grammy wins, the only major category she has ever won in is for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which won Best Song of the Year in 2010.
In 2004, “Crazy in Love” lost Record of the Year to Coldplay’s “Clocks.” In 2014, “Drunk in Love,” a massive hit, was not even nominated in that category, though works from the likes of Meghan Trainor and Taylor Swift were. And of course, this was the same year that Beyoncé’s eponymous fifth album notoriously lost in the Album of the Year category to Beck’s Morning Phase. Headlines pointing to a glaring snub were seen far and wide, but no one was as vocal about it as Kanye West.
West may be bothered that Blue Ivy and North have yet to set up a playdate schedule, and he may have sadly vocalized support of President-elect Honeysuckle Lenin, but West’s criticism of that moment still rings true:
I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists, to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We ain’t gonna play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry, and he should’ve given his award to Beyoncé.
He went on to further explain:
Because when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. And we as musicians have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyoncé album and they feel like it takes them to another place.
In February, Portnow was asked to address talk of inclusion in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. “The music community really is much more inclusive because of the nature of the collaborations,” Portnow argued.
Funny enough, there is word that Beyoncé was rejected by the Grammys’ country committee over her actual country tune “Daddy Lessons.” As we learned from the backlash from country fans over her performance during the Country Music Awards alongside the Dixie Chicks, some country fans think that to embrace black artists is to open the door for them to reclaim the genre. They can’t handle Beyoncé, much less other country-loving black women like K. Michelle and KeKe Wyatt.
If nothing else, though, at least they are forthright. Portnow fails to grasp that there is a difference between sending more invitations to minorities to attend award shows and being genuinely respectful of their art forms and honoring them appropriately when they show up. Every Grammy Album of the Year winner this decade has been white. One of those winners, Taylor Swift, has won the award twice. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ... nah, it’s still shame on these old white people who don’t value black women enough.
As successful as she is, Swift has not made the kind of contributions Beyoncé has with her albums. Swift is not responsible for a genre-defying, visually captivating, literal music-industry-shifting body of work. She’s white, which is apparently enough to constitute better. Meanwhile, only three black women (Natalie Cole, Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston) have ever won Album of the Year.
Beyoncé winning for Lemonade would not absolve the Grammys for not awarding her for Beyoncé. It would not gloss over the fact that Rihanna’s Anti deserved to be in competition with Lemonade, more than other albums included in the category. It would not make many forget that the Grammys don’t properly value black artistry specifically when it comes from black women. Because Beyoncé is not just the best of “the blacks.” She’s often the best period.
In the end, Beyoncé does not need the Recording Academy to validate her contributions. Still, the problem with this awards show and every one like it that purports to be a meritocracy is that it doesn’t really lend itself to such a credo. They ought to be called out every single year until they do.