The Grammys are only a day away, and truthfully, I’m less than excited about them. A new study has confirmed that it only reflects how woefully male-dominated the music industry is, I hate having to sit through all the genres I don’t listen to, and Beyoncé still hasn’t won Album of the Year. The Recording Academy has actually become a foe of mine as I’ve struggled with its rich history of snubbing and pigeonholing marginalised groups. And I’m not the only one. The history of Black people in particular boycotting and protesting decisions made on the “biggest night in music” is lengthy, and worth an exploration.
The Grammys finally decided to include a rap category in 1989, over a decade after hip-hop was created in New York and quickly swept the US as a phenomenon that would later have influence all over the world. The creation of a Best Rap category validated the genre as a staple of American music, but the Grammys undercut their acknowledgement when they decided not to televise the category. As a result, the first group of rap nominees, including Will Smith & DJ Jazzy, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy (the hip-hop group that introduced the world to Flava Flav) ended up boycotting when they should have been celebrating their success. These same artists, and many other '90s hip-hop staples like Salt-N-Pepa, would continue this trend over the next few years as it became increasingly apparent that the Grammys weren’t as invested or in touch with the rap categories.
Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Snoop Dogg have all made public statements about their disdain and disgust for the Grammys and its continued disrespect of their genre. Snoop has been nominated 17 times and never won a single golden gramophone. Out of 15 nominations, 50 Cent has only won one, and he refused to attend that year to accept it. Despite their huge contributions to their genre and the culture at large, the Grammys just can’t seem to catch the wave. And it’s not just artists themselves that feel some type of way about it. There seemed to be a collective outrage from Black viewers when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won Best New Artist and three other awards in rap categories, beating out Kendrick Lamar in 2014.
From what I’ve observed, the Grammys seem invested in only uplifting certain versions of hip-hop and Black music culture that fall within the realm of respectability and the white gaze. Writing about Beyoncé losing Album of the Year to Adele in 2017 for the New York Times, Myles E. Johnson said, “If you are a Black person who does not try to be palatable for a white audience, but instead focuses on your own culture and experience, this is seen as a transgressive act.” The politicised themes in Beyoncé’s Lemonade were very much so embedded in the Black experience, and the feeling that she was punished for it nags at many of her supporters. Macklemore’s corny rhymes won out because they was considered more socially conscious and digestible. Migos and Cardi B. are all nominated in rap categories this year, but I doubt they’ll win out over the likes of Kendrick Lamar, who is considered to have more substance. The Grammys have weirdly become the moral gatekeepers of Black art.
The Recording Academy doesn’t just suffer from cultural biases on the musical level. Only in 2016 did the Grammys begin to accept music that was available exclusively via streaming platforms for consideration. How music is shared and distributed is just as important as the kind of music that makes the nominee list. Independent artists and those without the capital investments or backing of record label often have to rely on streaming to get their music out to the masses.
Either way, the outcome of the Recording Academy biases is almost always unfavourable for Black artists, as evidenced in this Vulture list of the greatest snubs. And they have lashed out as a result. Kanye West interrupted Beck’s acceptance speech in 2014 when he won Album of the Year over Beyoncé’s self-titled album. Frank Ocean and Drake refused to even submit their music for consideration in the past two years. Solange tweeted the award show’s history of exclusion after witnessing her sister lose Album of the Year a third time.
The Grammys aren’t ever nearly as white as the Oscars. But they still have their own chequered past and a lot of work to do to get things right.