The Grammys Fumbled Its R&B Categories, But Should We Even Care?

photo: Matt Baron/Shutterstock.
If there’s one thing Twitter is gonna do, it’s get mad over Grammy nominations. I am including myself in the royal “we” of the bird app because minutes after the 2021 Grammy nominations dropped, I, too, was yelling into the void about how wrong certain categories were.
No women in the Best R&B Album category? How dare you, Recording Academy!
Completely shutting out Canadian King Abel Tesfaye (better known as The Weeknd)? The nerve!
And even when the award show does something I agree with, like nominate Beyoncé for the most Grammys this year (nine in total) making her the most nominated female artist of all time, I remember how little they actually reward Queen Bey (she has yet to win the coveted Album of the Year) and get mad all over again. 
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This happens every year. 
The Grammys’ women problem is notorious and well documented. Even worse, though, is its Black women problem. The awards have a terrible track record when it comes to recognising rap music and the Black artists who make it (remember when Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album? #NeverForget). They also love relegating Black stars to the “urban” categories. One theory about why The Weeknd was shut out is that voters couldn't decide if he was Pop or R&B. He's also expressed in the past that the Grammy groupings are "not fair" to Black artists. So yeah, the show that is supposed to recognise the best in music also has wildly confusing classifications that make it even harder for us to win. 
The outrage over the 2021 Best R&B Album category is warranted (John Legend, Luke James, Gregory Porter, Giveon, and Ant Clemons make up the all male nominees), but in the Best Progressive R&B Album category — again, whatever that means — Chloe x Halle and Jhené Aiko each got nods. Beyoncé and H.E.R are also inexplicably represented in another R&B grouping (Best R&B song), but not the others. In a year when Black women dominated the charts, Aiko is still the only Black female artist nominated for the general category of Album of the Year. Culture writer Ivie Ani has also noted how frustrating and archaic the term “World Music'' is (they recently changed it to “Global Music” so, um, same). To recap: the Grammys are saddled with silly categorisations, plagued with years of winners that do not hold up, and consistently trap us in an outrage cycle every time they announce their nominations. So, why do we care again? 
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Photo: Rachel Luna/WireImage.
The Grammy nominations used to really matter to me. The 1996 Grammy nominees album was very important to my adolescent development as a pre-teen pop music junkie. I dare you to go down that track list and not find an eternal bop (“Waterfalls!” “Gangsta’s Paradise!” “You Oughta Know!”), but we also didn’t have Twitter back then (I can just imagine the discourse over the inclusion of Hootie & The Blowfish). We also didn’t specifically have the necessary chorus of Black Twitter to hold white institutions accountable for their love of misogynoir and their obsession with sleepy albums by white dudes (Nicki Minaj has entered the chat).
Back then, the Recording Academy told us what to like. It was back when the Grammys actually maybe had an impact on charts. If they did in 2020, first-time nominees BTS wouldn’t be the biggest boyband in the world. So, we know that the Grammys are waning in cultural relevance and that the show has even been heavily criticised for its voting practices (there have been strong arguments for its winners being rigged, which The Grammys deny), most recently by The Weeknd himself in reaction to his album After Hours being snubbed. There are rumours the shutout has to do with The Grammys forcing him to choose between performing at their show or the Super Bowl. (The Grammy Chief denies any corruption, while reps from Super Bowl have not yet commented.) If true, the Grammys gave a Black artist an ultimatum and then blocked him from accolades he deserves. It's shocking, but also not surprising.
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If we know all this, why do we — music critics, general fans of pop culture — still get all riled up when the Recording Academy shows up and shows us who they are over and over again? 
Is it because the artists still clearly care — a lot? Watching Megan Thee Stallion giddily find out about her noms during the nomination livestream was so heartwarming I may have teared up a little. And while Kehlani took the high road with her now-deleted tweets about her snubs, Justin Bieber took the opposite approach. 
Bieber really cares that, even though he nabbed four noms, he was shut out of the genre he has been expertly appropriating for years. His now viral statement is hilarious for many reasons. First of all, someone needs to tell Bieber that “Yummy” is definitely a pop song and second, that his best R&B album was actually Journals, not current nominee Changes. Mostly, someone should tell Bieber that in a year that saw women dominate R&B — Kehlani, Jhené Aiko, Teyana Taylor, and Summer Walker are literally on this month’s cover of Billboard being hailed as “powering an R&B renaissance” — that he should step aside and let Black artists be great in the Grammy categories that actually acknowledge them. That said, there’s a solid case for the fact that Black artists shouldn’t have to wait around for a historically racist institution to give them crumbs when most of these genres they shut us out of were created by Black musicians in the first place (see the origin stories of country, techno and rock). For the lesser known Black artists who did get noms this year, we shouldn’t be waiting for white gatekeepers to validate them. If we all tapped out, the Recording Academy wouldn’t have the power it does. So, again, why don’t we? Aside from the Twitter rage, maybe the answer is that we already have. 
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New York Times music reporter Joe Coscarelli tweeted a theory about why the Grammys don’t have the same cache as The Oscars: 
I think he’s onto something, but I would add that “music obsessives” are not only young, but they are also Black. And how long can you love something that refuses to love you back? At this point, maybe the thing the Grammys are best at is providing us with the annual comforting tradition of all-caps yelling on social media about all the ways they messed up — again— and that’s it. 

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