Grammy’s or Scam-my’s
By Tziah McNair
What grinds your gears?
Last January, when Grammy voters bestowed on 18-year-old Billie Eilish the first total sweep of the four biggest award categories (Song, Record, Album of the Year, and Best New Artist) since 1981, it proved what many had long believed: the Grammy’s are corrupt.
This is not to undermine Eilish’s incredible talent - I myself enjoy her whispery, electro-saturated dark pop tunes. However, when you examine the other categorical nominees - the commercial breakthrough that is the singer-rapper-songwriter-flautist named Lizzo; and the one-of-kind rapper, Lil Nas X, who released the very definition of Record of the Year with “Old Town Road'' (the longest running Number 1 single in Billboard chart history) - the win generates some serious debate.
This award cycle was no different: the Academy was quick to applaud its cookie-cutter, white artists over the left-field, brash black innovators; such as The Weeknd and Nicki Minaj who received no nominations. “Never forget the Grammys didn’t give me my best new artist award when I had 7 songs simultaneously charting on billboard & bigger first week than any female rapper in the last decade- went on to inspire a generation. They gave it to the white man Bon Iver. #PinkFriday,” Minaj tweeted, reminding us that these seemingly racially biased snubs are nothing new.
Shockers like Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas’s “Smooth” beating the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”, TLC’s “Unpretty” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin la Vida Loca,” (2000) and Esperanza Spalding triumphing over Drake and Justin Bieber as Best New Artist (2011) argue that it isn’t exclusively a race issue more than an outright disgrace (much like Harry Styles being shut out of major categories this year). The pattern, nevertheless, is clear: Black artists are either ignored, pigeonholed into a specific category, or robbed.
Rapper GoldLink pointed out in 2020: "Burna Boy deserves more, Koffee deserves more. DaBaby couldn't 'qualify' for best new artist apparently because he had 'mixtapes' in the past. No nod to Solange for taking a risk pushing the boundaries when nobody else was brave enough to do so. There's not even a category for internationally black artists at all. [What] do you think these kids learn when you tell them their black art isn't good enough? Or isn't noticed at all?”
Other times, unquestionably legendary albums by black artists aren’t part of the nomination process either. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall wasn’t nominated, Prince’s 1999 wasn’t nominated and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation wasn’t nominated. When they are nominated, they lose to albums from Mumford & Sons (Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange”), The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” (Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and “Billie Jean”), and Taylor Swift’s “1989” (Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”). It’s not merely that the Grammys diminish black artists at the top of their game, they often trivialize albums that are huge cultural moments for those that are not only barely relevant today, but were hardly relevant when they were released.
In a bombshell interview, the recently-ousted head of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan, claimed on Good Morning America to have proof there are "conflicts of interest" that "taint the results" of the Grammy Awards. She further alleged members of the nomination committee "push forward artists with whom they have relationships" and it's "not unusual for artists who have relationships with board members and who ranked at the bottom of the initial 20-artist list to end up receiving nominations," Billboard reported.
In 2013, the virtually unknown artist Al Walser earned a nomination for Best Dance Single against Avicii, Calvin Harris, and Skrillex (all of whom had appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 that year) after marketing himself on "Grammy 365, a private social networking website for voting members of the Recording Academy," NPR writes. Campaigning for awards is nothing unusual, but "[Walser's] song's clunky rock/trance fusion and low-budget video make Rebecca Black's 'Friday' sound and look cutting-edge in comparison," wrote Spin. Walser's effort had basically revealed the Recording Academy could be hijacked by anyone with an understanding of social media optimization, regardless of their musical quality.
When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis beat out Kendrick Lamar for Best New Artist in 2014, the mistake was immediately obvious. As WBUR recounts, "it was the difference between a talented-but-blandly-agreeable emcee rapping over sugary earworms (Macklemore) and a virtuosic visionary precipitating the revival of story-oriented hip-hop with an ode to a childhood growing up tough in Compton (Lamar)." Even Macklemore knew it was wrong. He later texted Lamar: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech. Then the music started playing during my speech and I froze. Anyway, you know what it is. Congrats on this year and your music. Appreciate you as an artist and as a friend. Much love.”
The Grammys’ problem is so pernicious that some winners have chosen contrition over exuberance - Eilish said in her acceptance speech that she thought Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next should have taken the album prize. Before that award was announced, some observers even thought they caught her mouthing, “Please, don’t be me,” from her seat in the crowd. In 2017 when Beyonce’s groundbreaking album Lemonade was beat by Adele’s 25, the English singer made a point to acknowledge it in her speech, demonstrating a greater understanding of the fundamental imbalance of the Grammys system than the Grammys themselves. Categories like “Best Urban Contemporary Album award were “seemingly designed to compartmentalize black artists'” (The Establishment). The prime example being that in 2015, all of the nominees in this category were black, including Chris Brown, Pharrell Williams, and Beyonce, despite the fact that these artists were making pop music at the time. Unsurprisingly, the top nominees for Best Pop Vocal Album were all white. GoldLink and Tyler the Creator spoke out about “IGOR” (Tyler’s album) winning in a category it didn’t even fit into. “The awards themselves - which, long having been a joke, now feel more like an insult to the intelligence of fans and the hard work of the artists it supposedly honors,” said Jasmine Simpson (11). “The legitimacy and respectability is now being questioned, and I don’t blame the people that are questioning it. It feels almost like a charade.”
Hopefully soon the Grammys will turn it around before the constant disenfranchisement of some of its most iconic artists turns away its viewers for good.