Alessia Cara was the only woman to win a major award during the televised show at the 60th annual Grammy awards. The only one. The show made it astoundingly clear to nearly 20 million viewers just how big of an inequality problem the Grammys and the music industry have when it comes to women. The disparity came as no surprise, of course, particularly after a recent study by USC Annenberg's Dr. Stacy Smith revealed some shocking statistics, like the fact that 90% of Grammy nominees over the past five years have been male.
But even more dismal was the lack of recognition for female artists of colour. After last year's backlash when Beyoncé's Lemonade lost Album of the Year to Adele's 25 (which Adele herself was shocked over) and the awards show's snubs of Rihanna's Anti, music fans and insiders alike hoped that this would be the year minority women finally got some long-awaited celebration of their contributions to popular music. (After all, a Black woman has not won the Album of the Year award since Lauryn Hill in 1999.)
While articles and press releases were quick to point out how diverse the nominees list was this year because no white men were nominated for categories like Album and Record of the Year, there were few women nominated — and no women of colour in any of the major categories. Not one. The only woman of colour to accept an actual award on stage was Rihanna when she joined Kendrick Lamar to take home the "Best Rap/Sung Rap Performance" for her feature on his track.
And yet, the conversation following the Grammy awards has been largely focused on the music industry's gender inequality problem, instead of its diversity problem. It seems the entertainment industry and media news cycles are only capable of addressing one problematic issue at a time. When thinkpieces and social media hone in on importance of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, the conversations surrounding diversity often get lost. Last night, for instance, Twitter delivered the new trending hashtag #GrammysSoMale. But now that gender inequality is finally at the top of everyone's minds, it feels like diversity inequality has taken a back seat.
Why can't we talk about both?
The few women of colour who were nominated this year didn't receive any support from the Recording Academy. SZA, 2017's biggest breakout music star, was undeniably snubbed. She was the most nominated woman at the awards show with five nods, yet she was shut out entirely, most shockingly losing the Best New Artist category to Alessia Cara. Now, there's no arguing Cara was incredibly deserving of the award; her music and message have made major waves over the past few years, and she's always a champion for women. In fact, last night on the red carpet she passionately told Refinery29 that we all need to "speak for women that don't have a platform" and remind everyone that "we will not be silenced," wise statements that should be applauded.
But as talented as Cara is, her debut album dropped in 2015. SZA, meanwhile, took 2017 by storm and was by and large the music world's predicted Best New Artist winner thanks to the June release of her debut album, Ctrl. The record debuted at number three on the Billboard charts and was listed as either the best or second-best album on year-end lists everywhere from The New York Times to Time; enthusiastically vocal celebrity fans ranged from Diddy to Paramore, Solange, Issa Rae, and even Cara herself. This was SZA's moment.
And then there was Cardi B, one of music's most buzzed about artists of the past year. In 2017, she became the first female rapper to top the Billboard chart in 19 years and has spent 29 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 with "Bodak Yellow." But she lost to Kendrick Lamar in both the Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song categories during the non-televised pre-show. Lamar is hands down a more talented lyricist, and "Humble" was itself a huge track this year, and an important one both culturally and politically. But with Lamar having seven Grammys under his belt, it felt like Cardi deserved to make history by becoming the first female rapper to win either one of those categories. And not just because she's a woman, or a woman of colour, but because 2017 was the year of "Bodak Yellow," and both the song and the artist deserved an honour from the Grammys. Yet while she wasn't good enough to win, she was good enough to deliver the Grammys one of their most-anticipated performances of the night, outshining Bruno Mars when she joined him to rap her verse on the remix of "Finesse."
Many viewers were not surprised at the snubs for women of colour, since the Grammy's has a complicated history with Black artists and Black women, especially, often offering them up as entertainers during the show to draw in viewership but opting out of giving them accolades for their music. It's why many lovers of hip-hop and R&B skip watching the Grammys all together, and why events like Essence's Black Women In Music and BET's Black Girls Rock exist — because if the Recording Academy won't acknowledge Black female artists, Black women will do it themselves. Even female artists of colour in the music industry blatantly acknowledge the lack of respect. Singer India Arie told Refinery29 on the red carpet that she's not surprised female artists of colour at the Grammy's haven't fared much better since her own disappointing shutout year in 2002.
"I am a person who has been wounded by the politics of the music industry," she said. "Not just because the winners have been mostly men, but I've also been overlooked as a woman of colour. The first time I came to the Grammys, I was nominated for seven. I didn't win one. A lot of the reason I didn't win was — well, because it was political. I've been watching [the Grammys] over the years from the inside, how the music industry draws so many things along lines of race. Even when it's the biggest stars, like it'll be Beyoncé and Adele, and it still comes down to race a lot. But that's the world we live in, right? I think the world is slowly changing, and the industry will too. But it's a slow change."
Naturally, dissecting why women of colour are not winning awards leads us to look at who is actually voting for the winners. But the Recording Academy has never released a demographic breakdown of its voting members (Refinery29 has requested it multiple times over the years). Based on the qualifications required to be a voter, however, the odds are pretty high that the Academy is largely white and male. According to Grammys.org, to be a voting member you must be a dues-paying Recording Academy member and a music industry professional with “creative or technical credits on at least six commercially released tracks.” And according to Smith's inclusivity study, just two women from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group worked as producers across 300 popular songs from 2012, 2015, and 2017.
"There is an epidemic of invisibility for women of colour in this important creative role," Smith says. "Our data did not speak to why there is a lack of representation, but one explanation to consider may be the makeup of the Recording Academy, much like we look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Oscar nominations. Having data on the demographic composition of the Academy is crucial to understanding what might be driving recognition through nominations and voting."
So the obvious question after all of this conversation is how, exactly, to solve the music industry's inclusivity problem for women of colour, both behind the scenes and in front of it. In a tone-deaf statement after the awards show, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow suggested that, "Women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level" should "step up, because I think they would be welcome." As if there aren't millions of women out there who have been "stepping up" for decades, writing songs, studying music, submitting demos, uploading original music on YouTube, auditioning, making mixtapes, and doing whatever it takes to get their music out there. The problem is that so many of them — and women of colour, in particular — lack the tools and access that those with more privilege have been afforded.
"For systemic change to occur and to see more women at all levels of the music industry, artists, content creators, and executives at the labels all need to work together to ensure access and opportunity are available to all talent, not just those that belong to certain groups," Smith says. "As we tackle the biases in recruitment and hiring in both the business and artistic side, we hopefully will begin to see change occur across the industry that reflects the world we actually live in."
The moment has arrived for the entertainment industry to truly take action to make sure the time is up for all kinds of mistreatment, invisibility, and inequality. And until that happens, the bigger question might be whether or not the Grammys are still relevant to our music culture at all.