The Grammys don’t think the Grammys have a race problem

With Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar leading this year's nominees, is change finally arriving for the show that snubbed Beyoncé?

CREDIT: Photos by GQ, Forbes, and AP / Art by Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: Photos by GQ, Forbes, and AP / Art by Diana Ofosu

It’s a Grammys tradition: A black artist and a white artist are the two frontrunners for album of the year. It really, really feels like the black artist’s album is the deserving choice — a musically superior, zeitgeist-capturing, culture-dominating force. And then the white person wins.

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange defeated by Mumford & Sons Babel. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City beat by Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Beyoncé‘s self-titled album bested by Beck’s Morning Phase. Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly loses to Taylor Swift’s 1989. When in 2016, Adele’s 25 wins over Beyoncé’s Lemonade, even Adele feels compelled to spend her acceptance speech thanking Beyoncé for making Lemonade. Backlash increases with each year, but condescending backlash to that backlash is loud, too, thick with dated notions about what makes music “real” (guitars) or “serious” (male) or “music” (not rap).

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If three makes a trend, what does five make? A habit? An inevitability? A reason to not bother submitting your music to the Grammys for consideration at all?

It appears that the Recording Academy’s 13,000 voting members were, at long last, mortified into change. This year’s nominees, announced Tuesday morning, are led by Jay-Z with eight nominations for 4:44, followed by Kendrick Lamar with seven for DAMN. Bruno Mars has six; Childish Gambino, Khalid, SZA, and No I.D. have five apiece. In other words, the seven most-nominated individuals are people of color. And all the lead nominees (i.e., not including featured artists) for record of the year, one of the night’s top three prizes, are also people of color. Only one nominee for the biggest prize of the show — album of the year — is white: Lorde, for Melodrama. She’s up against Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars.

This is obviously, indisputably, a reaction to back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back failures to recognize artists of color. It is also, practically speaking, a non-negotiable change, should the Grammys have any interest in staying relevant. You can only be wrong so many times before your opinion is functionally worthless.

And yet Neil Portnow, chairman and CEO of the Recording Academy, insists that these nominees are not the result of a concerted effort to course-correct. Asked by Variety if he thinks this year’s slate is “partially a reaction to the ‘Oscars So White’ movement of 2016,” Portnow claimed it was not:

“I honestly think that our community — musicians — really listens with their ears more than their eyes or anything else. So if you put our voters in a room with a blindfold, I think our community is very open-minded and thinks about music in a universal more holistic fashion, but our voters in particular are thinking about the craft. So I don’t know that there’s a movement here as a result of criticism and difficulties in the film or TV industry — I just think this is how our highest level of professionals feel about music today.”

Portnow returned to the blindfold analogy later in the interview. Asked why Jay-Z, with eight nominations, is “getting such a big look so late in his career,” Portnow said:

Again, I think maybe it’s down to the blindfold test. Listening to an album in its entirety is part of what our voters do for this category — considering it as a body of work, as a statement. And when you think about what went into the making of that record, the production elements and the stories being told and the vulnerability and how personal and open and vulnerable so much of it is, that’s rare for most artists.

This is a totally bizarre and illogical position to take. Either you know who Jay-Z is — which means you appreciate “how personal and open and vulnerable” 4:44 is and that Jay-Z is black — or you don’t. If you’re listening to the music “blindfolded,” as Portnow irrationally says true music experts should, then, I guess, you don’t know Jay-Z is black, but you also don’t know that the album is “personal and open and vulnerable.” So, which is it? Do we care about who Jay-Z is or not? And, were it even possible to extricate the man from the music, why would the latter be preferable to the former?

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“You don’t listen to music like that,” said Tirhakah Love, music critic at large and Mic columnist. “You simply do not. So let’s judge the music based on how we listen to it.”

Kendrick Lamar performs a medley at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif. CREDIT:  Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Kendrick Lamar performs a medley at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif. CREDIT: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

When I reached out to the Grammys to confirm the headline-worthy statistics on this year’s nominees — that this was the first year in Grammy history that all the lead nominees for record of the year are people of color, and that the seven most-nominated individuals were also all people of color — I was told, “The Academy doesn’t track awards nominations/wins by race, so I can’t really answer this question.” Race issues? What race issues? We don’t have a clique problem at this school.

When I told Love about that official party line, he laughed for at least a solid minute before saying, “The idea that they don’t keep track of all those things, it is mind-boggling. Especially this year, all these nominees of color, that is not on accident. You can’t convince me that that’s not on purpose. You don’t have the range.”

Clearly the Grammys producers understand that the optics of an all-white night are far from ideal: Love pointed out that, knowing that it was very possible Adele would sweep the awards last year, the producers aired Beyoncé winning an award for best urban contemporary album. “So we know what the issue is. We know why you’re airing that,” Love said. “It’s not a good look for the Grammys to have all these white artists winning over black artists every year. You have to have the image of black people winning.”

Love noted that this was a weak year for “white pop heavy hitters,” with lackluster albums by Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. (Swift’s Reputation was released after the eligibility period; the single that was eligible, “Look What You Made Me Do,” didn’t receive any nominations.) But this year’s slate isn’t just full of artists of color because white people sat this round out. “There’s a big blackening happening in media right now,” Love said, and the Grammys can’t ignore the reality: “So much of mainstream music is influenced by what black people are doing in hip-hop and R&B.”

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“I feel like they could do such a better job of saying, ‘We’re an industry just like any other, and just like any other industry, we have this problem, and we’re going to do our best to fix it,'” said Love. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re nominating all these black and brown artists, and it’s random!'”

Compare Portnow’s stance to that of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaac. In 2016, after a second year in a row of all-white acting nominees sparked the revival of #OscarsSoWhite outcry, she issued a statement saying she was “both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion…. Change is not coming as fast as we would like. We need to do more, and better and more quickly.”

Within a week, the Academy announced plans to “mak[e] its Oscar choices more diverse”; just days later, they rolled out major charges aimed at doubling the number of female and minority members by 2020. That spring, the Academy introduced its newest class of members: Of the 683 inductees, 46 percent were female, and 41 percent were people of color. At the next Oscars (after more than a little confusion) Moonlight won Best Picture.

This is not to suggest that the Academy cured racism within its ranks or in Hollywood at large. But here was, at least, an acknowledgment that prejudice — not “objective” determinations of quality — was responsible for the exclusion of people of color, and that a pointed effort to combat that prejudice was called for.

Portnow’s approach is to say, essentially, that the Grammys have been honoring excellence this whole time, and this year is no different. It’s just a coincidence that this year — and no other year prior — the most excellent music was produced by artists of color. It just so happens that, until this year of our Lord 2017, the best music was always produced by white people. It’s about quality now, as it always has been and always will be. Never mind that notions about what constitute excellence are of course infused with attitudes about gender, race, and class. Excellence is, in this mindset, some easily-discernible and agreed-upon condition, like chicken pox.

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“I don’t understand why he continues to cling to that, why that’s something that’s so important in their vision of what the Grammy awards are supposed to be,” said John Vilanova, a music journalist writing a Ph.D dissertation about the history of the Grammy Awards at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think it’s a good thing that you have voters saying, ‘Wow, white artists have won these awards a lot lately.’ I don’t think there’s any way to not to hear this conversation.”

Donald Glover who goes by the stage name Childish Gambino performs on day two of the Governors Ball Music Festival on Saturday, June 3, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Donald Glover who goes by the stage name Childish Gambino performs on day two of the Governors Ball Music Festival on Saturday, June 3, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Portnow’s notion of a blindfold, it’s familiar. It sounds suspiciously like “separate the artist from the art.” Listening to music with no regard for, or awareness of, the individuals and forces that produced it — who is actually capable of doing that? (Oh, wait: Grammy voters are.)

The Grammys want to be authoritative. That is their role: to impose a hierarchy more definitive than popularity alone. The awards validate excellence and, in doing so, invalidate what is less-than. Like an overbearing parent or condescending boyfriend, they say: You think you like this, but you’re wrong. You think Beyoncé is an artist, but real artists stand still, or play guitar, or both. This is, as Ann Powers writes, “systemic racism, buried so deeply within the structures of an institution that it can be read as inevitable.” So the overwhelming majority of Beyoncé’s golden gramophones (she has 20) came from her victories in R&B and “urban contemporary” genres. Three guesses on why, for instance, Taylor Swift — a contemporary artist who produced 1989 while residing in New York City, as urban a metropolis as they come — is never nominated in that category.

In a phenomenal Paris Review essay about Woody Allen and the art of monstrous men, Claire Dederer claws at this idea of authority as it pertains to art. She was writing, specifically, about movies — about trying to watch Manhattan with the awareness of Dylan Farrow’s sexual abuse allegations looming in her mind — but her insight applies here, too:

A great work of art brings us a feeling. And yet when I say Manhattan makes me feel urpy, a man says, No, not that feeling. Youre having the wrong feeling. He speaks with authority: Manhattan is a work of genius. But who gets to say? Authority says the work shall remain untouched by the life. Authority says biography is fallacy. Authority believes the work exists in an ideal state (ahistorical, alpine, snowy, pure). Authority ignores the natural feeling that arises from biographical knowledge of a subject. Authority gets snippy about stuff like that. Authority claims it is able to appreciate the work free of biography, of history. Authority sides with the (male) maker, against the audience.

So while it is strange to hear Portnow be so adamant that music is — or should be — consumed in a vacuum, the better to determine its worth, it also makes perfect sense. Pretend there’s no such thing as race or gender; pretend ours is a context-free universe. That’s the authoritative, objective thing to do.

Lorde performs on day one of the Governors Ball Music Festival on Friday, June 2, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Lorde performs on day one of the Governors Ball Music Festival on Friday, June 2, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

“The Grammys begin as a sort of policing. They want to make sure that people know what good music is,” Vilanova said. Since the Grammys began in 1959, when rock and roll was a “deep threat” and “youth music” a scourge on good taste the nation over, “The Grammys have clung to this idea that they’re experts, and they can articulate better than anybody else what good music is. What’s happening is we’re in this strange moment of cognitive dissonance: Part of what makes these albums good is their social context.”

That it’s a big year in the big three for artists of color is a cause for celebration, Love said, but he’ll believe a black artist can win album of the year when he sees it. 

“I would really love for DAMN to win… But Lorde is probably going to win. Let’s be real about it. The thing is, she has a case,” Love said, noting that he personally very much enjoyed Lorde’s album. “When a white artist has a case for their really great album, they are more likely to win.”