If you bothered to watch the Grammys last weekend, you probably experienced a mixture of pleasant surprises and expected disappointments; the most publicized one being that Beyoncé ’s Lemonade lost in the Album of the Year category to Adele. Adele herself was so disappointed with the decision that she asked onstage, “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” and even broke her award in half and gave part of it to Beyoncé . Despite being a nice moment where everybody could unanimously agree that the Grammys screwed up again, it was also a weird moment of privilege, not just because Adele is white, but because she already won the award in 2012 and probably figured she could afford to give Beyoncé 25% of her Album of the Year Grammys.
The Grammys have become increasingly tone deaf to the mounting criticism that the awards show skews toward white artists, especially in the major field categories. In every year since 2012, a black artist widely considered to be deserving of the Album of the Year award has been snubbed in favor of a white artist. Here’s a quick timeline of the events:
image credit: radiobread
2016: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly loses in a stunning upset to Taylor Swift’s 1989 (it’s worth noting that, like Adele, this is Swift’s second win). Taylor Swift throws shade at Kanye West in her acceptance speech and is later exposed by journalist Kim Kardashian for lying to get sympathy.
2014: French disco spacemen Daft Punk beat out Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City for the award – Kendrick also loses the Best Rap Album award to Macklemore, who also feels that Kendrick should have won. Drake gets angry that he isn’t apologized to.
2013: Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange loses to Mumford & Sons’ Babel. Frank Ocean goes onto release the acclaimed album Blonde in 2016, refuses to submit it for Grammy consideration citing the Grammys’ failure to represent, and later attacks the Grammys for not giving Kendrick Lamar the 2016 award. Mumford & Sons continues to release Starbucks-friendly music to this day.
2012: Adele wins for 21. None of the other nominees really deserves to win; Kanye West’s magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn’t even nominated despite being one of the most-critically acclaimed albums of all time.
But, since this is supposed to be a blog about hip hop, you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering with Beyoncé . I’ll get to that in a second.
Now, let’s talk about Chance the Rapper, who won three awards, including Best Rap Album, a category Drake was overwhelmingly favored to win in because of his commercial success, and Best New Artist. In the latter category Chance seemed like an obvious winner, but the Grammys have a history of choosing lesser-known artists over breakthrough ones (Drake himself was famously snubbed back in 2011). Chance’s nominations alone were hard fought victories in themselves, as the Grammys only consider commercial music for awards, and Chance, who released Coloring Book for free, only got in through the loophole of using streaming services, which the Grammys only decided to allow this year.
In other words, the Grammys, which are generally horrible regarding hip hop artists, actually did pretty well this year, even though Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” probably should have beaten out “Hotline Bling” (which technically should have been nominated last year). Even Drake feels that “Hotline Bling” shouldn’t have won Grammys in the rap category, stating that he thought of it as a pop song and that it was nominated for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap/Sung Performance “because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m black.” But anyway, Chance did well, and we can all be happy about that, right?
Nope. It’s the Grammys, so if something went right with the Best Rap Album, you know some shit is about to go down.
The outrage over Beyoncé ’s loss to Adele was so widespread that the Grammy president Neil Portnow was asked to respond about it in an interview with Pitchfork. He basically shrugged it off, reaffirming that he doesn’t “think there is a race problem at all”.
In a later question, when asked about Chance the Rapper’s historic nominations and his notable success at the awards show, Portnow brought back the “racial problem” again, despite having previously claimed it didn’t exist, and said, “You don’t get Chance the Rapper as the Best New Artist of the year if you have a membership that isn’t diverse and isn’t open-minded and isn’t really listening to the music, and not really considering other elements beyond how great the music is.”
Uh… isn’t the point of the Grammys to represent the best in music? And did he just admit that the voting committee is “considering other elements beyond how great the music is”?
In other words, Portnow basically just suggested that Chance won because he’s black, for a category he was unanimously considered the frontrunner in. He just made Chance the Rapper the token black guy, to cover the Grammys’ asses for snubbing Beyoncé .
Beyond the fact that Portnow just broke the unspoken Grammy rule of enforcing racism without talking about it, it’s a bad deal for Chance, whose Coloring Book album touched on racial issues but was largely centered on Chance’s Christian faith. Even Republicans have written praise pieces for the album. And despite the transcendent quality his music brings, is Chance going to be dragged back into the argument as a counterpoint every time the Grammys have to dodge the hard questions?
Portnow’s comment, which retroactively turns Chance’s well-earned victory into a backhanded compliment, just adds more evidence to the fact that the Grammys are still failing to represent black artists and any non-white artists in general. And if Portnow really thinks there’s no problem… well, Chance has a rap for that.
image credit: NRK P3