Are the Grammys Racist?

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Liberty Nguyen, Staff Writer

Each year as millions of people await the Grammy nominations, music critics, artists, and fans begin to see an overwhelming pattern in the award selections. The pattern, in question, is the alleged racism in the Grammy Awards, whose nominations and award selections have been repeatedly the target of criticism for decades.

The Grammys have a lengthy history of controversial snubs. Many people have questioned and criticized the award selections as they notice a cycle in which white artists tend to win in major categories such as Album of the Year and Song of the Year in comparison to artists of color—specifically African American artists—despite having work that was less critically acclaimed and less culturally impactful. 

For example, there have been several best album wins that have been questioned such as Beyonce’s loss in 2014 to Beck for Album of the Year and her subsequent 2016 Album of the Year loss to Adele. 

Many people argue that Beyonce’s albums should have won Grammys as her albums earned much higher ratings and left a profound cultural imprint in America during a time marked by the Black Lives Matter movement and political unrest. 

When Adele went on the stage to accept her Album of the Year Award, she broke down and said she could not accept the award, stating that “the ‘Lemonade’ album was just so monumental,” highlighting Beyonce’s empowerment of the Black community. 

Furthermore, when Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly lost to Taylor Swift’s 1989 in Album of the Year for 2015, many people were confused and bothered, including John Vilanova, now a professor of journalism, communications, and Africana studies at Lehigh University. 

He argued Lamar should have won the Grammy since To Pimp A Butterfly was more critically acclaimed and had a much deeper cultural impact. 

He cited Rolling Stone’s review of Lamar’s album: “Thanks to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation’s pop mainstream.”

Vilanova argues, “I … want to make the case here that Lamar’s excellence was undercut by a system that was not built to recognize it. Reviewed on its own merits, Lamar’s work was seen as exceptional, but when it went up against a white artist, Swift, his work was no longer superlative. Now it was somehow inferior. 

“He had the Best Rap Album; she had the Best Album. He had the best Rap Song and the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration; Ed Sheeran had the Song of the Year.”

In his career of major award nominations at the Grammys, Lamar has lost all nine of his nominations to date. Similarly, Aretha Franklin, who won 18 Grammys, was never nominated for the top four. 

Another topic of criticism is the Grammys’ alleged segregation of white artists and non-white artists. While white artists tend to be nominated for the major four categories and the pop genre, artists of color are often confined to “racialized” categories such as rap, R&B, Latin, and urban. 

For example, since the inception of the Grammys in 1957, ten black artists have won the Album of the Year Award. And only one rap album, OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, has ever won the most coveted Grammy, Album of the Year, which was 16 years ago.

Tyler, the Creator addressed how Black artists are often segregated into separate categories after his album Igor won Best Rap Album for 2019.

“I’m half and half on it. On one side, I’m very grateful that what I make can be acknowledged in a world like this, but also it sucks that whenever we—and I mean guys that look like me—do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in the 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 added: “‘Why can’t we just be in pop, do you know what I mean?’ Half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backhanded compliment.”

Even the recent Grammy nominations were criticized. The Weeknd, despite having an immense impact in 2020 with his critically acclaimed and commercially successful album After Hours and his record-breaking single “Blinding Lights,” received zero nominations. He wrote in an Instagram post, “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans, and the industry transparency.”

Drake went on social media to show his disdain for the Grammys after The Weeknd’s lack of nominations as well. 

“I think we should stop allowing ourselves to be shocked every year by the disconnect between impactful music and these awards and just accept that what once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to the artists that exist now and the ones that come after,” Drake wrote. “It’s like a relative you keep expecting to fix up but they just can’t change their ways.”

Justin Bieber also falls victim to the Grammys’ supposed separation of white and non-white artists. His album Changes was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album despite it being of the R&B genre. Bieber addressed the recent nominations in an Instagram post: “For this not to be put into [the R&B] category feels weird considering … it is undeniably, unmistakably an R&B album!” 

The Grammys history of nominations and awards is problematic and ignorant at best and racist at worst. Oftentimes, legendary albums by African American artists are not nominated for Album of the Year, and when they are, they lose to mediocre albums by white artists (referring to Frank Ocean’s loss to Mumford & Sons and Janet Jackson’s loss to Paul Simon).

The Daily Beast noted, “It’s not merely that the Grammys diminish Black artists at the top of their game, they often diminish albums that are huge cultural moments for those that are not only barely relevant today, but were barely relevant when they were released.”

Even though rap and hip hop are arguably the most popular music of the time, when it comes to the major awards, non-white artists are rarely recognized, Vilanova argued.

“When renowned creations by racialized artists are only honored in the categories coded black and systematically passed over time and time again for ‘mainstream’ recognition, this belies an in-built bias that precludes nonwhite excellence from being considered on the same terms as white excellence.”