Arthur Christory / Gavel Media

The Racist History of the Grammy Awards

Last December, Drake further demonstrated his grievances with the Grammy’s by withdrawing his two nominations for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance. Citing The Recording Academy's history of racism,  Drake’s withdrawals call into question the discriminatory practices of major award ceremonies. 

Artists of color remain woefully underrepresented in the nomination list for the Academy’s big four categories -- Best New Artist, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and, of course, Album of the Year.

In fact, the last time Album of the Year was awarded to a black artist was 13 years ago with Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters. The album itself, a record compiled of Joni Mitchell covers, perpetuates the stereotype that people of color are only successful when upholding and revering white success.

Before The Joni Letters in 2008, Ray Charles was the next most recent black artist to be awarded album of the year. His album, Genius Loves Company, received Album of the Year in 2005, only after Charles’ death in June of 2004.  

The postmortem recognition reaffirms the notion that it takes an outcome as severe as death for black artists to garner the attention and acknowledgment they deserve. An “in memoriam” should not be the first celebration of a black artist's work. 

The category of Best Rap Album was introduced in 1996 to account for the influx of quintessential rap albums released during that era. Although it was originally created to foster inclusivity, the category, as it stands today, serves only as a means of exclusion, boxing out artists of color from receiving recognition in the big four categories.

In 2020, Tyler the Creator articulated his thoughts on this inequity after his groundbreaking album, Igor, received the award for Best Rap Album. 

“It sucks that whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category. … I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. To me, it’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word. Why can’t we just be in pop?” 

This racism could be rooted in the idea that pop music is meant to be fun, digestible, and open to all. It tends to shy away from more pressing themes such as racial disparity, gender inequality, or discrimination. Does that mean, however, that records that aim to call these issues into question deserve to be cast aside and delineated to categories with less prestige and airtime? The answer is no, especially when there is a clear imbalance in who is being politicized. 

For years, white people have been reaping the benefits of a society that prioritizes white mediocrity over black excellence. When artists of color do anything revolutionary or genre-defying, their innovation is overlooked in favor of a white-washed, retail version of their ingenuity. 

This phenomenon becomes especially visible when measuring the success of white artists in genres that typically hold more cultural significance in communities of color. Eminem still maintains the record for most Grammy awards for Best Rap Album with 6 trophies. A white man being the most successful and recognized in a genre that has been historically used as both a creative outlet for black expression and a form of resistance against white oppression and appropriation only demeans the emotional and cultural complexities of the genre and those who it represents. 

Even more egregious is the 2014 Grammy nomination list that contrasts against the winner.  Marked as one of the best years for new music, the nomination list for Best Rap Album remains one of the most impressive lists, in that it includes a conglomerate of the biggest and best names in the rap genre. With a setlist of Kanye West (Yeezus), Jay-Z (Magna Carter), Drake (Nothing Was the Same), and for the first time in Grammy history, Kendrick Lamar with good kid, m.A.A.d city, one would expect the winner to at least nominally compare to the cachet of the nominees. Instead, the more commercially successful and wholly unremarkable album The Heist, by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, took home the award. 

In fact, Kendrick Lamar didn’t win a single award that night, despite this being his ceremonial debut as one of the most influential and genre-defining artists of this generation. The beautifully orchestrated production and masterful artistry of Lamar’s cohesive storytelling about his experience growing up as a black boy in Compton solidified good kid, m.A.A.d city as a cornerstone album for both narration-based rap and an entire cultural movement. Instead of being revered as the cultural icon that it is, the album was cast aside in favor of more generally appealing and less thematically challenging records. Records like Random Access Memory by Daft Punk and Macklemore’s Thrift Shop, took center stage that evening, denoting a hierarchy that holds the comfort and recreation of white people over the life, death, and experiences of people of color. 

Perhaps this is due to the belief that albums produced primarily using “real” instruments take more skill and finesse than a synth-based, electronic production that hip-hop and rap records typically rely on. While wholly untrue, this notion also creates a stereotype that demeans the work of artists of color and perpetuates a relatively monotonous aspect of an increasingly diverse genre. A reliance on “real” instruments or the basic sounds of bass, guitars, and keyboards only stifles the creativity that modern technology allows musicians in their final productions. 

In the modern age of hyper pop and industrial instrumentation, the ever so esteemed piano/drum/guitar production seems archaic. We’ve heard it before. A lot. It’s time for a new revolution of music that matches the technological insurgence we live in, and it's way past time that the original pioneers of this production receive the recognition they deserve. 

There is also the notion of the ever-elusive and mythical single singer-songwriter hybrid. These monolithic academies typically venerate the single singer-songwriter persona over the collaborative approach that marks rap and hip-hop projects. Artists like Taylor Swift, who are credited for the solo composition of their music, are seen as more impressive than artists like Tyler, The Creator or Frank Ocean, who use the art of collaboration to their advantage in the creative process. This trend of honoring the single singer-songwriter only downplays the musical ingenuity of these artists and hinders the creativity that accompanies these collaborations.  

No matter the reason, the fact remains that the Grammys today stand only as a televised performance of systemic racism. From nominees to winners, past and present, Taylor Swift to Kendrick Lamar, the Recording Academy has solidified itself as an award show for white people, by white people. Artists of color have continuously been grossly misrepresented and banished to nomination lists exclusively. Despite the rapturous outcry from fans and artists alike who are directly observing this racism, The Academy has done nothing to respond nor become more equitable and inclusive. Their immobility is rooted in a deep-set proclivity for tradition that makes them seem nothing short of geriatric. In a time defined by musical mobility and subjectivity, the Grammy’s rigidity and indolence render them completely obsolete and far from a fair representation of today’s musical hierarchy. It’s time that the Grammys transform to account for those historically marginalized before they fall off into complete obscurity.

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