Have you ever wondered what a physical manifestation of systemic racism looks like? Look no further than the Grammys.
Winning a Grammy is undeniably considered the pinnacle of musical artistry. Being recognized by a reward as distinguished as the Grammys is surely an honor any artist would kill for. But for some artists, getting acknowledged by the Recording Academy is much more complicated than others.
The Grammys has a storied and ugly history of racial bias in giving awards, nominations and determining genres in which albums fall under. Don’t believe me? Frank Ocean, Kanye West, JAY-Z, Beyonce, Sean (Diddy) Combs and countless others in the music industry have refused to attend the Grammys due to its clear favoring of music made by white artists. Michael Jackson and Prince’s all-time classic records “Off The Wall” and “1999” were not even nominated for album of the year. Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 project “good kid, m.A.A.d city” lost rap album of the year to Macklemore’s “The Heist,” a decision that left every fan of rap music scratching their heads.
In her piece about racisms presence at the 2017 Grammys, NPR staff writer Ann Powers writes, “When artists of color only win awards that are not included in the telecast — the only artist other than Beyoncé to get behind the podium on Sunday was Chance the Rapper — that's systemic racism, buried so deeply within the structures of an institution that it can be read as inevitable.”
Two years later, we are in the same place as we were before. After winning rap album of the year for his 2019 effort “IGOR,” Tyler, The Creator pointed out the Grammys’ tendency to categorize music based on race. "It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that's genre-bending orthat's anythingthey always put it in a rap or urban category. I don't like that 'urban' word — it's just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me. Why can’t we just be in pop?"
To anyone who listened to the album front-to-back, “IGOR” was far from through-and-through rap. Incorporating elements of neo-soul, jazz, synth pop and funk, the only reason the album is considered anywhere close to rap is because it was created by a black man, who has been categorized as solely a hip-hop artist.
Based on its continual favoring of music made by white pop artists, the Grammys seems to operate under the assumption that real music comes from standing-still, and playing an instrument, rather than the sample-driven, grungy nature of a genre like hip-hop. The Recording Academy’s dogma surrounding genre placement has led to pop or country music to dominate the album of the year category, as it's more accessible for their idea of what authentic music sounds like. The last time a project that was not pop, country or rock won album of the year was 17 years ago, when OutKast won the award for their double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Furthermore, no black artist has won album of the year since 2008.Since then, landmark albums such as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy have left indelible marks on music, yet were spurned by the Grammys for album of the year.
At this point, it's no coincidence that mostly black art in music (like rap, R&B, soul) is pushed to the side by the Grammys. Just days before the 2020 Grammys took place, reports surfaced of vote-rigging and even sexual misconduct. In addition, no one besides the Academy itself actually knows how the nomination system and voting even works. It remains an ambiguous process The Academy has some serious soul-searching to do ahead of the 2021 awards. In order for it to be “music's biggest night,” all of music has to be included, especially the talented and well-deserving black artists. Introducing a system of voting that is inclusive, transparent and more-genre blind is something the Grammys desperately needs.