Culture

Can the Grammys finally do right by Black artists?

Perhaps chart positions shouldn’t be a factor in the nomination process, but it is rare that Billboard’s No. 1 song of the year isn’t nominated in any Grammy category. Industry insiders speculated that he was being penalized for appearing to prioritize his Super Bowl performance on Feb. 7 over the Grammy Awards show, which was originally slated for Jan. 31. After the nominees were revealed, The Weeknd took to social media. “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…” he wrote on Twitter. 

His decision to boycott the Grammys – which he announced in a New York Times article this week – only reiterates the distrust many Black artists have toward the Recording Academy as a whole: “Because of the secret committees,” he told the paper, “I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.” 

Other musicians also took issue with the nominations. In January, a group of white artists – Alastair Moock & Friends, The Okee Dokee Brothers, and Dog on Fleas – who were nominated for best children’s music album penned an open letter to the Recording Academy requesting that their names “be removed from final round ballots.” 

They wrote that they couldn’t “in good conscience benefit from a process that has – both this year and historically – so overlooked women, performers of color, and most especially black performers.” The academy subsequently agreed that the category lacked diversity and honored the artists’ request, according to Billboard Magazine. 

Cuomo, Democrats, and the politics of personal conduct

The consistent criticism of the academy arises from stats like this one: Only 10 Black artists have won the album of the year award since the first one was handed out in 1959. Grammy voters have yet another chance this year to do right by Black musicians – but will they?

When the cultural zeitgeist trained its sights on racial reckonings last summer, the Grammys weren’t exempt from the heat. In June, the Recording Academy announced changes including renaming the best urban contemporary album category to best progressive R&B album – an apparent rethinking of the word “urban,” which more people in the industry are saying is racially insensitive. 

Earlier in 2020, Harvey Mason Jr., chairman and interim president and CEO, acknowledged in a statement the institution’s shortcomings related to race, foreshadowing some of the year’s efforts: “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.”

Later, in November, the best world music album category was changed to best global music album to find “a more relevant, modern, and inclusive term,” according to the Recording Academy. Despite implementing diversity initiatives in the past year, including hiring a diversity and inclusion officer, the awards remain dogged by a history that refuses to give Black musicians their due.

It wasn’t until 1989, at the 31st Grammy Awards, that rap was given a category, for example. Artists like Beyoncé, Drake, and Kanye West – despite having crossover success, astronomical album sales, and groundbreaking artistry – are almost always relegated to R&B and rap categories. And legend Aretha Franklin won 18 Grammys throughout her career – but was never nominated in the top four categories. 

Today, we must pay attention to the current state of the institution as well as its origins. It was founded in 1957 – just three years after the start of the civil rights movement – and from its inception awarded white men its highest honors. Fast-forward six decades, and the most prestigious accolade in music has yet another chance to show just how the creativity of Black people fuels and molds the industry – but it probably won’t. There is currency in exclusion and outrage, and so far the Grammy Awards never miss the opportunity to seize it.

Candace McDuffie is the author of the recently released book “50 Rappers Who Changed the World.”

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