The Grammys Got Black Music Wrong Again. Why Give Them Power?

Once again, it’s clear how little the Grammys have paid attention to Black music. Why do we keep giving them power?

The Weeknd

Image via Getty/Kevin Mazur

The Weeknd

Another Grammy nomination day, another deluge of confusion and disappointment. It’s been three decades since a who’s who of rap boycotted the Grammys for not respecting rap, and as a whole, they still don’t get it when it comes to Black music. Or maybe we just don’t get it. Perhaps expecting a historically anti-Black industry to properly credit Black music is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. 

Significant others who don’t listen get dumped. Sports coaches and general managers who continuously get it wrong are fired. The police system is inherently brutal, so many people want to defund it. It seems like a simple enough fact of life that getting it wrong over and over means you lose people’s patience for you to get it right. Unless, like the Grammys, you’re a prestigious institution with industry might and the funds to project your decision-making as somehow more important than that of other award committees. 

This year, the Grammy voting committees snubbed chart-topping Black artists like LIl Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Roddy Ricch, and the Weeknd (who is claiming “corruption”). Megan Thee Stallion and CHIKA were the sole women rappers who received nominations. The Academy made dubious history by not nominating a single Black woman for the Best R&B Album award. Additionally, their overly-broad Reggae and Global Music categories are too archaic to properly celebrate the full scope of Black music internationally. 

The Grammys keep a stranglehold on our cultural purview, social media timelines, and (now) Clubhouse conversations, despite racist categorizing and snubs that make it evident how little they’ve paid attention to Black music. Outside of the need for white validation, it’s unclear why so many Black people relent to their authority when, as Little Richard noted in 1988, they’ve never respected Black musicians. We give them their power, but their continual disrespect for Black music demonstrates that they don’t actually deserve it. 

Wale reflected the frustration of many by tweeting, “Never been about the actual prize.. it’s the principle of it all. Never been about the committee either.. It’s the acknowledgment of the effort and dedication put in.” In a vacuum, he’s right. Many people just want the Grammys, an award body that feigns itself the purveyor of “the biggest night in music,” to create categories and nominations that reflect a thorough consideration of the scope of Black music. But is there any industry that fully considers the scope of Black identity? Anti-Black politics permeate every decision-making process, even those of Black people. It’s tenuous to expect proper artistic validation from an establishment still being prodded to validate our equality. 

The Grammys keep a stranglehold on our cultural purview, social media timelines, and (now) Clubhouse conversations, despite racist categorizing and snubs that make it evident how little they’ve paid attention to Black music.

All year, Black people have urged institutions to stop conflating rebranding with reform, because merely changing the name or face of something doesn’t change its harm. As tonedeaf as ever, the Grammy committee attempted to appease us by changing their World Music category to “Global Music,” and changing Alternative R&B to “Progressive R&B.” “Progressive” is a term as ambiguous and racially loaded as “pop.” The Progressive R&B category is filled with Black acts, but there are none in line for a “Best Pop Vocal Album” Grammy, despite the music defined as “pop” being Black music. Apparently, Chloe & Halle are progressive, but not “pop.”

There’s an inherent anti-Blackness in Black singers being cordoned off to R&B, while white singers are deemed pop(ular). The dynamic reflects the inception of the American music industry, where the rhythm and blues artists were categorized as “race music.” Today’s categorization isn’t that bold, but the division rests on the same laurels of race. The Weeknd got squeezed between the sides of this dynamic, getting zero nominations for his chart-topping, mostly-lauded After Hours album. His snub typifies the foolish ambiguity of both “R&B” and “pop.” And if the Weeknd’s claims of “corruption” have merit after accusations that he was snubbed for choosing the Super Bowl Halftime show over a Grammy performance, there’s an entirely different discussion to be had. 

Judging by the history of pop and R&B nominations, there appears to be reductive qualifiers placed on categories. An artist that doesn’t fit a cookie-cutter formula can find themselves placed alongside the wrong peers—or not nominated at all. Apparently, the Weeknd is not white enough for “Best Pop Vocal Album,” not “soulful” enough for “Best R&B,” and not “left of center” enough for whatever the “Progressive R&B” category is trying to be. And for many, the Weeknd’s shutout isn’t even the committee’s biggest blunder. 

For the first time in history, there were no Black women nominated in the Best R&B Album categories. Summer Walker’s Over It, Kehlani’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, and Teyana Taylor’s The Album are a trio of vulnerable, empowered projects that earned critical acclaim. Brandy released B7, which was also loved by fans and critics alike. It would seem like Brandy was enough of an icon to be snub-proof, but that wasn’t the case. Kehlani was also seen as a snub. Teyana Taylor’s summation that “all I see is dick in this category” rightfully called out the tone deafness of leaving Black women out of both the R&B Album and Pop Vocal Album categories. 

Likewise, there were no women nominated for the Best Rap Album category. There wasn’t a consensus album snub for women in rap this year, but given the committee’s poor decision making process in other categories (and snub of Rapsody’s Eve last year), they don’t get the benefit of the doubt that they’d know that. Megan Thee Stallion was a big winner among women in rap, as her song “Savage” with Beyoncé’s got 3 nominations, and she also received a Best New Artists nomination. With the moment that women in rap are having, it would seem like more could have been nominated, and it wouldn’t take a verse from a powerhouse like Beyoncé for three of the nominations. But the lack of representation isn’t all that surprising in a misogynist, colorist industry. 

It feels like the committee at least sought to look out for rap purists with a best Rap Album category full of purist favorites, which left out artists who had some of the highest-selling, well regarded albums in all of music this year: Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, and Roddy Ricch. The nominations may appease #hiphopheads, but it seems insulting for the committee to not offer much variety despite there being so many different kinds of rap prospering at the moment. Uzi released two strong albums this year and couldn’t even get a song nominated. Ditto Pop Smoke and Juice WRLD, who had a pair of posthumous albums released this year. The predicament reflects that there’s no way for a five-person album category to reflect the versatility of hip-hop.

That restriction is also reflected in the Global Music and Reggae categories. It’s not lost on fans that while the Pop Music category accommodates white artists who borrow from a slew of other genres, they cram artists from outside the states into just a couple categories that don’t reflect the vast variety of music being made worldwide. There were some who reflected dismay that Dancehall artists like Popcaan, Protoje, and Lila Iké couldn’t receive a Best Reggae Album nomination. Instead, the category was full of traditionalist Reggae artists.

Similarly, there are fans of the so-called afrobeats scene who want a category to reflect the popularity of genre-bending African artists in lieu of being lumped into a catch-all “Global Music” category. “K-Pop” fans are clamoring for better representation for their artists as well. It’s not just domestic artists of color who feel the pain of the Grammys’ lethargy when it comes to recognizing rising scenes. 

The Recording Academy has made some commendable strides to add people of color to the decision-making processes. But, as we see in so many other entities, adding Black faces does not change the praxis of an institution. Society has major de-racializing work to do before we can expect the music industry (and their award bodies) to properly reflect the dynamism of Black music. And solving the problem isn’t as simple as Black award shows. Lizzo and Ari Lennox’s Soul Train Awards fiasco was defined by arguments over who’s album was “more soul.” In October, detractors put Lil Baby over Megan Thee Stallion for BET Hip-Hop Awards Artist of the Year with a voracity that hinted at misogyny. So much of our perception of musical value is also informed by whiteness and patriarchy.

This may sound like pessimistic party-pooping, but the representational failures of award bodies reflect larger societal issues that have to be mended before any of them can be respected as an authority. At the root of the Academy consistent whiffing is the reality that the people making the decisions have a lot to relearn and unlearn about how racism and misogyny affects the way we value Black expression. Across the board, better decision-making starts with a better worldview. We clamor for award shows to “get it right,” but so much of their stratagem is based on ideas that serve whiteness. The Grammys, like everyone else, have to eliminate anti-Blackness from the equation before we can know what “getting it right” even is. 

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