Are Black Entertainers Over The Grammys’ “Backhanded Compliment”?

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.
The words "Black History Month" often evoke stories of luminaries like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While their legacies will always be crucial to the culture, this year, we're going beyond. Roots, is R29Unbothered's Black History Month series that delves into the tangled history of Black identity, beauty and contributions to the culture. Follow along as we shine light on Black history and Black present throughout February and beyond — because Black history is made every day.
Each award show season comes with heavy criticism and debate over Hollywood’s failure to acknowledge minorities and their contributions to the entertainment industry. On Sunday, a deserving Tyler the Creator walked away from the Grammys with the award for Best Rap Album for 2019’s IGOR. And while he was grateful to receive the esteemed accolade, he admitted feeling conflicted, considering — as he stated — the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ habit of categorizing “guys who look like me” as rap or urban artists.
Advertisement
"It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that's genre-bending or that's anything they 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,” he expressed. “When I hear that, I'm just like why can't we be in pop? Half of me feels like the rap nomination was just a backhanded compliment.”

Perhaps this is why big names such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z (for the second year in a row) were noticeably absent Sunday night, despite making an appearance at other Grammy events throughout the weekend.  Many felt The Carters were snubbed for Lemonade and 4:44 respectively, despite both albums having an irrefutable impact on both the music industry and pop culture at large. Jay-Z even addressed the Grammys habit of snubbing him in the couple’s song “Apeshit.”
During this year’s annual Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala, Diddy — who also skipped Sunday night’s ceremony — said "Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be.” He also expressed similar sentiments at the Roc Nation brunch on Saturday, which brings together some of the industry’s most influential Black artists to celebrate what Diddy himself called a display of Black Excellence. 
"It's 2020 y'all, and it's different than when it was 2016," Diddy said during a toast surrounded by Jay-Z, Meek Mill, and others. "We at a Black billionaires brunch. You understand? And we here together and we're gonna keep staying together. United we stand and there ain't nothing else."
Advertisement
Given the Academy’s long-criticized reputation, are big names skipping a show where they don’t actually feel seen?
Boycotting awards shows isn’t new for Black artists. Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff boycotted the 31st Grammy awards in 1989 after a decision had been made that the first-ever award for Best Rap Performance would be announced off air. Salt-N-Pepa, Russell Simmons and LL Cool J, all joined Smith and Jeff in boycotting the show. Smith later joined his wife Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee, boycotting the 88th annual Academy Awards amid the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. In 2016, Frank Ocean opted not to submit his music for the 2017 Grammys, saying the awarding, nomination, and screening systems were “dated.” After 2016’s Grammy ceremony, Kanye West — who threatened to boycott the 2017 awards if Ocean was not nominated — stated that he felt the Grammy awarding system “is way off and completely out of touch.” 
The question plays into a larger conversation surrounding how Black entertainers and others within the industry are organizing to create spaces in which they can uplift their own work — rather than relying on mainstream approval. 
In 2018, BuzzFeed’s Sylvia Obell explored how Black Hollywood has begun inventing its own award show season. Events like Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon and the ABFF Honors — an annual awards ceremony that celebrates the Black motion picture and television industry — foster communities in which the Black entertainment industry can not only uplift one another, but also be themselves.
Advertisement
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Tessa Thompson told BuzzFeed News during Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon that year. “We invent these days because we need it, because we aren’t being seen, we aren’t being acknowledged. So we take the power back and we acknowledge ourselves and each other.”
"Too often, our industry and Academy have alienated some of our own artists -- in particular, through a lack of diversity that, in many cases, results in a culture that leans towards exclusion rather than inclusion," Recording Academy Chairman and Interim Chief Executive Officer Harvey Mason Jr. recently admitted to Academy members.
While the Recording Academy is working to implement new diversity practices, as they announced on Sunday, it’s clear that these initiatives have an extensive history of negligence to make up for.
Related Content:
Advertisement

More from Pop Culture

R29 Original Series