“Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?” These venerable words came from the mouth of Public Enemy’s Chuck D on 1988’s “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic.” It is a sentiment that’s been shared by so many other artists, critics and fans over the years. When it comes to the Recording Academy, black artists have grown skeptical at best and enraged at worst. The Long Island, N.Y., MC wasn’t just spewing sour grapes, either. That song was released a full year before rap was formally represented at the award show.
This Sunday marked a milestone year for the Grammys, which entered their 60th year and a return to New York City after 15 years. When the nominations were announced in November, 17 of 20 of the nominees in the major categories were artists of color.
Although Kendrick Lamar kicked off the show in typically astounding fashion and took home five more trophies—bringing his career total to 12—and Childish Gambino nabbed one for his amazingly soulful left turn, Awaken, My Love, one has to ask why any black artist gets wrapped up in the award ceremony given its history of snubbing them, miscategorizing them and/or putting sales above substance.
What seems like a monumental and direct result of the industry’s crackdown on a lack of diversity does little to dispel the decades-in-the-making sense of distrust and disappointment brought on by the Recording Academy.
Grammys have long been a sign of achievement. Winning one is the entertainment equivalent of being knighted. The “Grammy Award winner” prefix gives your name gravitas and cachet that other artists do not have, especially when it comes to monetary negotiations or whether you’re going to top the marquee at a major venue.
However, it doesn’t truly measure merit the way it professes to; otherwise, the aforementioned artists wouldn’t be nearly as revered as they are in their community.
According to the Grammys webpage, the academy members who select nominees are members and registered media companies. The winners are chosen by a slew of musicians, executives, singers, producers, etc., who’ve participated in a minimum of six commercially released songs. Considering how whitewashed the higher-ups in the industry and media at large have been in terms of the ratio of execs to creatives, it’s no wonder why diversity and, in many respects, common sense hasn’t prevailed.
Those aforementioned defiant lyrics of Chuck D about the Grammys speak to how the Recording Academy is constantly out of touch with black culture at large, vying for music that’s easily digestible and incredibly popular over social relevance and rhythmic innovation.
Such an occurrence happened yet again this year. There was a glaring omission in the best rap album category that didn’t go unnoticed: A Tribe Called Quest. The five nominees were Jay-Z’s 4:44, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy, Rapsody’s Laila’s Wisdom and Migos’ Culture.
Q-Tip, a member of the ATCQ quartet, took to his Instagram page to spew some hot venom at the Grammys, repeating “Fuck the Grammys” over several consecutive posts. His frustration was understandable. Tribe’s 2016 album, We Got It From Here … Thank U for Your Service was a triumphant return and critical success, to the point where the Grammys added the group as the closing performers of the 2017 ceremony.
One of the most important points Q-Tip made in one of his posts was the fact that the academy had failed to recognize many prominent black artists enough, if at all, stating that Marvin Gaye had only one and Bob Marley had none, etc.
Award shows are, at the very least, subjective, and it’s impossible to please everyone. That said, the Grammys, with few exceptions, have been continually tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing cornerstone pieces of music by black artists, often vying for the option that made the more notable fiscal impression, which is far easier to measure.
Should black artists care about the Grammys at all, even if they were to win one? Let’s explore some history.
Left Out of Contention
Prior to 1989, hip-hop acts like Run-DMC that were lucky enough to get nominated found themselves in the R&B categories (1986’s Raising Hell album got a nod in best R&B performance by duo or group); in several circles, rap wasn’t recognized as a genre with staying power.
When the category of best rap performance was finally created in 1989, it wasn’t among the categories chosen to be televised (only 30 percent of awards are aired live during the ceremony). Hip-hop staged a boycott as a result, a stance against the academy’s gross lack of acknowledgment.
There wasn’t even a best rap album award until 1996 or a best R&B album award until 1995. This further illustrates the perceived indictment of black music, implying that black music albums aren’t substantial bodies of work, regardless of how praised and influential they may have been. Although, to be fair, the Grammys have lagged when it comes to several genres, including reggae and heavy metal (see the infamous 1989 incident when art-rock mainstays Jethro Tull won best heavy metal performance over Metallica as a reference).
Echoing the same thoughts that begat the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite over the past few years, institutions like the Grammys and the Academy Awards have been shortsighted when it comes to truly honoring a black artist who displays outstanding results.
It cannot be argued that artists of color have not birthed some miraculous songs and albums over American history. LPs like Superfly, A Love Supreme, Mothership Connection, Sign o’ the Times and Illmatic are a mere drop in the black pool of genius. All of them influential and infectious, but none of them Grammy winners. Most of them weren’t even nominated. In order to gauge the scope of arguable ineptitude by the academy, here is a list of artists who have never received a golden gramophone:
- Jimi Hendrix (zero nominations)
- Chuck Berry (zero nominations)
- Sly and the Family Stone (zero nominations)
- Bob Marley (zero nominations)
- Run-DMC (one nomination)
- J Dilla (three nominations)
- Curtis Mayfield (three nominations)
- A Tribe Called Quest (four nominations)
- 2Pac (six nominations)
- Public Enemy (six nominations)
- Diana Ross (10 nominations)
- Nas (13 nominations)
Even when the academy does recognize some of our greatest contributors, the ratio of awards to hits and influence doesn’t quite add up.
This is particularly true when you also factor in what these few are winning for. James Brown and George Clinton are forefathers of funk, the inspiring agents for megastars like Michael Jackson and Prince, and the very foundation of the entire genre and culture of music that is hip-hop and rap. However, each of them has just two Grammys in careers that, when combined, cover a century of music. Brown won for the watered-down version of past music with “Living in America,” and Clinton only got his two awards within the past three years, thanks to his collaboration on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Teddy Riley is the architect of new jack swing, and his production, songwriting, instrumentation and singing blessed countless R&B and hip-hop hits over the 1980s and 1990s, from Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show,” Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” and Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” to Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” and Blackstreet’s “Before I Let You Go.” However, he only possesses two Grammys himself as a group member of Blackstreet for their 1997 smash, “No Diggity,” and as an engineer for Jackson’s Dangerous album in 1991.
When it comes to departed black superstars, the Grammys also have been fairly transparently spotty when it comes to giving honor to the dead. Whenever a Caucasian luminary dies, expensive and expansive tributes are paid every single time, while the Recording Academy is far more picky when it comes to the deaths of others.
For instance, Prince and Michael Jackson got elaborate Grammy-night tributes befitting men as important as they are, but others who were equally innovative got smaller treatments. This year’s Grammys honored Tom Petty with a full five-minute duet from Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris. Meanwhile, the same evening, Jon Batiste and Gary Clark Jr. had to share in a medley tribute to both Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, two men whose influence was undoubtedly larger in music overall and rock (perhaps even on Petty himself), and Batiste and Clark were onstage half the amount of time.
In 2016, both David Bowie and Glenn Frey got lengthy, star-studded, gloriously staged sendoffs from Lady Gaga and the Eagles with Jackson Browne, respectively. However, the tribute for Maurice White, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, who had himself won seven Grammys to Bowie and Frey’s combined six, was reduced to Stevie Wonder’s singing a quick verse of “That’s the Way of the World” at the podium right before announcing an award. It looked and smelled like a big afterthought for someone as accomplished as White was.
In contrast, black award shows have done much better jobs of giving props to both the living and the dead. The BET Awards are an exemplary example of this. Each year since 2001, their Lifetime Achievement Award segment produces retrospective videos, numerous live covers from stars and legends alike, and unforgettable performances by the honorees themselves, from Smokey Robinson and Chaka Khan to Charlie Wilson and New Edition.
BET also gives the dead the most tasteful and joyous tributes imaginable. The BET Awards in 2009 centered the entire broadcast around the death just days before of Michael Jackson. In 2016, Prince friend and collaborator Sheila E. closed the show with a ferocious medley of his classics that brought the house down.
Getting Boxed In
One of the Grammys’ damning practices against black artists is the constant relegation of genre. The awards are divided by numerous genres, but there are the four “general field” awards that recognize an overall impact regardless of style: best new artist, record of the year, song of the year and album of the year. The last mentioned is often the most coveted of the evening, since it’s usually that last trophy given out during the telecast.
In the past three decades, only 7 out of 30 acts that have won album of the year were black (as well as only 46 of 150 nominees in the category): Quincy Jones (Back on the Block, 1991); Natalie Cole (Unforgettable ... With Love, 1992); Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard, 1994); Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1999); Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2004); Ray Charles (Genius Loves Company, 2005); and Herbie Hancock (River: The Joni Letters, 2008). The reason for the disparity is usually that many black artists are “limited” to their respective genres of R&B and rap. The most notorious incident came from the last artist you’d expect this to happen to.
Michael Jackson remains the biggest-selling artist in music history and is regarded as the King of Pop and one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Unfortunately, not even he was immune to the myopic watch of the Grammys.
His 1979 LP, Off the Wall, was the highest-selling album of the year—among any genre—and became the first album in history to generate four top 10 singles from a single album (“Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” “She’s Out of My Life” and the title track).
However, the Grammy academy deemed it worthy of only a single Grammy nomination: best R&B performance for “Don’t Stop.” Jackson felt that this was a tactic to limit his work to black music, and inspired him to make the musical and sonic decisions that led to Thriller three years later. “Wait until next time,” Jackson wrote in his autobiography, Moon Walk. “They won’t be able to ignore the next album.”
More often then not, the Grammys miss the boat when given the opportunity to honor a piece of work that’s truly transcendental and wildly influential. Off the Wall, which is the template for nearly every black R&B album that came after it, was just one example. The academy looks to reward popularity over prophecy.
The record M.J. broke with Off the Wall was that of his former Motown labelmate Marvin Gaye. His album What’s Going On was the first to have three top 10 Billboard singles, with “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and the iconic title track. It was a double-platinum smash and an overwhelming call to action both socially and artistically.
But with all its praise, only a single nomination was accumulated: best R&B male vocal performance. Unlike M.J., Gaye did not win; Lou Rawls (“A Natural Man”) took home the prize in 1972 (he also edged out Isaac Hayes, B.B. King and Stevie Wonder in that category). Gaye would later win two, but like Brown and Clinton, he won for music far beyond his prime, with 1983’s “Sexual Healing.”
The old adage “It’s an honor just to be nominated” is not that simple and can be patronizing. The consolation of being nominated and/or winning in your genre exemplifies the notion that black music is shallow and incidental, not deep and impactful enough to compare to that of its white counterparts. Just ask India.Aire.
In 2002, she and her double-platinum album Acoustic Soul led all artists with seven nominations leading up the ceremony, and she was one of the closing performers as well. Although she was up against industry darling Alicia Keys in several categories (Keys won five that evening, and deservedly so), odds were still in Aire’s favor to get at least one or two.
Unfortunately, just like Jay-Z this weekend with his nine nominations (and who also was up against stiff competition, in Kendrick Lamar, many times), she, too, got The Color Purple results, going home empty-handed.
The public outrage that ensued very well may have prompted a new category—best urban contemporary album—to be introduced, which Aire won the next album around. But sometimes the notion of “Don’t worry; we’ll fix it next time” is really just a dose of “Too little, too late.”
Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d. city left critics speechless with adoration, and droves of fans flocked to it. A socially aware concept album about his teenage years in urban Los Angeles, the Compton, Calif., MC received seven nods and was favored to win multiple awards.
Not only did Lamar not win any, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis swept him in the four rap categories for their fatefully titled album The Heist, propelled by a novelty-style single, “Thrift Shop.” It seemed so lopsided and wrong, even Macklemore himself, according to Lamar during an interview with Ebro in the Morning on Hot 97.1, texted him to tell Lamar that he deserved to win. But it didn’t stop him from keeping the trophies, did it?
Owning the Issue
In last year’s awards, Beyoncé had an inside track to win album of the year for Lemonade, a multidisciplined narrative that inspired and empowered a generation of women dealing with infidelity and self-discovery. She’d lost for her self-titled album two years before to Beck, and it seemed as if she had a great chance.
However, Adele’s 25, with its 10 million copies sold, took home the award—the second time the British singer-songwriter captured it (after 2010’s 21). Adele tearfully confessed in her acceptance speech that Beyoncé’s album was better, stating that she “can’t possible accept this award,” continuing to say the “Lemonade album was so monumental,” after which the statue broke in two before she left the stage.
Perhaps the answer lies with ownership, a sentiment expressed by Beyoncé’s sister Solange. At that same event, she’d won her first Grammy for her song “Cranes in the Sky,” but it didn’t stop her from speaking her mind. That night she tweeted, “Create your own communities, build your own institutions, give your friends awards, award yourself and be the gold you wanna hold.”
Some thought it was bitterness over her sister losing in the big categories or the fact that her own critically acclaimed, No. 1 album, A Seat at the Table, only got a single nod, but her point is poignant and ultimately should serve as a template for proper validation for black artists.
Expecting validation from the Recording Academy of music elitists who more often than not do not resemble or identify with the black artists they’re judging can indeed by a sign of emptiness or pretension within.
Sure, Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Quincy Jones have more than 20 of these; sure, Michael Jackson won eight in one night and Lauryn Hill won five in an evening. However, the statues do not define them, especially since most the honors are mere makeup calls and stay-in-your-lane awards.
In 2013, Frank Ocean won two Grammys after his breakout Def Jam debut, channelORANGE, but he purposely withheld his 2016 album, blonde, from last year’s Grammy contention. In an interview with the New York Times, Ocean stated that the voting system of the Grammys was “outdated,” that the institution only had “nostalgic importance,” and that they didn’t represent “people from where I’m from and hold down what I hold down.” Drake did the same this year for his 2017 release, More Life.
Will we see an exodus of black artists to follow, realizing that awards like the Grammys aren’t that important, or do they see the writing on the wall when it comes to blacks (not) winning in the general-field categories, or both?
While awards shows like the Soul Train Awards, NAACP Image Awards, BET Awards, Trumpet Awards and others have been around for decades, they certainly aren’t perfect, either.
The BET Hip-Hop Awards, for example, while their intentions were fine at first, over the years have focused far too much on popular rappers and given little to no attention to MCs like Black Thought or a Pharoahe Monch or a Phonte Coleman, who are still making compelling and entertaining art. And with the ever growing absence of crossover acts at black award ceremonies, they seem to lack the “mainstream” clout of the Grammys, the American Music Awards or the Oscars.
However, when it comes to black people voting on black art, it’s been a great starting point, and poetic justice.