Grammys have a history of racism

Photo courtesy of Sudhith Xavier, via Unsplash

By Isabel Hicks

The Annual Grammy Awards are the most prestigious music award ceremony, but they have a history of underrepresenting and excluding artists of color. This prejudice has affected the Grammys legitimacy and spurred conversations on institutionalized racism within the voting process.   

The Grammys have consistently underrepresented artists of color in the four big categories: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist and most importantly, Album of the Year. 

The last black woman to win Album of the Year was Lauryn Hill in 1999, for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” which isn’t even in this century. Even though this album was one of the greatest of our time, that doesn’t mean that other albums by talented black women haven’t been made since then. Black artists are continuously underrepresented in both nominations and wins, which leads to a continued cycle of systemic racism in the music industry. 

A pattern of Grammy snubs has followed artists of color for as long as the award show has been running, but is especially prevalent in our new evolving society that considers itself more inclusive than ever before. 

John Mayer beat Alicia Keys for Song of the Year in 2005, Bon Iver beat Nicki Minaj for Best New Artist in 2012, Mumford and Sons beat Frank Ocean for Album of the Year in 2013, Billie Eilish won against Megan Thee Stallion for Record of the Year in 2021, and so on and so forth. 

In 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” lost to Taylor Swift’s “1989” for Album of the Year. “To Pimp a Butterfly” was a versatile album which told the story of Lamar’s rise to fame and wealth, his rejection of Compton (the city he was raised in), the system that oppresses him, and his eventual return to his city of origin. His poetic storytelling of his life used the metaphor of the butterfly, and the album follows his transformation through metamorphosis. Throughout the album, Lamar is tempted by a force named “Lucy” (short for Lucifer) in which he must fight, while overcoming other life obstacles and trying to free himself from oppression. His relationship with God is tested many times, and God tells him that if he continues his cycle of arrogance and apathy for the city he was raised in, he’ll only become a pimped out butterfly who, while a butterfly, is still oppressed and not truly free. 

One of the greatest snubs by far was when Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” lost Album of the Year in 2016. “Lemonade” was one of the most powerful albums of the decade, and it beautifully told the process of grief and reconciliation. Through each song, Beyoncé took us through the stages of grief as she processed her emotions regarding betrayal from the love of her life (everyone knows the story). The album theoretically ends with “All Night,” a perfect closure for the album ending on a note of forgiveness and love. At the end of the first track Beyoncé whispers “what are you doing my love?” which comes full circle in the last track where she whispers “how I’ve missed you my love,” creatively illustrating her evolution of her emotions and finding her lost love through forgiveness and reconciliation. The entire album highlighted her skills not just as a song-writer, but as a visionary artist. Her visual album that accompanied “Lemonade” was charged with allusions to African folklore, including an allusion to the Igbo Landing in her music video for “Love Drought.”

Adele won that year against Beyoncé for her album “25,” and even she seemed to recognize the award belonged to Beyoncé. “I can’t possibly accept this award, I’m very humbled, and I’m very grateful and gracious, but the artist of my life is Beyoncé, and this album for me, the Lemonade album, was just so monumental,” she said during her acceptance speech. 

And it happened once again, in 2019 Janelle Monáe was snubbed for Album of the Year to country singer Kacey Muskgraves for her album “Golden Hour.” Her album “Dirty Computer” was a revolutionary album highlighting the beauty and pride of being a black queer woman. The visual album (or as Monáe called it, her “emotion picture”) depicted a futuristic world in which people of color and queer people are hunted down for not being compliant with society’s rules, serving as a hyperbole of the way society treats people who are different. Monáe’s album was greater than just her passionate and intimate lyrics though, her album proudly told her story of accepting her sexuality and loving herself for who she is, and worked to inspire other people to be authentically themselves. 

“I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you,” Monáe said in her Rolling Stone Interview. “This album is for you. Be proud.”

The trend of snubbing POC artists has continued even into the 2020s. Chloe x Halle, one of the best up and coming R&B artists, were snubbed at the 2021 Grammys, in which they were nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Traditional R&B Performance, but not in any of the four big categories which they deserved. Their album “Ungodly Hour” provided us with some of the best vocals and catchy songs of quarantine, yet when push came to shove, they didn’t get the recognition they deserved for their work.

Due to its history of racism, some artists have even boycotted the award ceremony altogether, refusing to submit their music for awards. Jay-Z dropped out in 1999, over rapper DMX’s snub for not receiving any nominations that year despite having two #1 charting albums that year, but later returned to the award show in 2004. He’s even called out the Grammys in his song “APESH*T” with Beyoncé in which he says, “Tell the Grammys f*ck that 0 for 8 sh*t” in regard to his eight nominations but zero wins in 2018. Frank Ocean also deliberately didn’t submit his album “Blonde” due to the lack of representation in Grammy nominations, calling the award show “dated.” In 2021, The Weeknd  announced that he wouldn’t be submitting any work in the future, after not receiving any nominations for his top charting album “After Hours.”

“I remain uninterested in being a part of the Grammys, especially with their own admission of corruption for all these decades. I will not be submitting in the future.” The Weeknd explained in his Variety interview. 

Many have questioned the integrity and legitimacy of the recording academy voting process. Committees are represented by experts, made up of producers and other people in the industry, who must meet one of four criteria regarding their level of expertise in the music industry. 

This year, five Grammy voters anonymously explained their reasoning behind their vote for Album of the Year, which unveiled the implicit bias they held towards artists of color in a Variety article. One voter, a music manager that had been on the Recording Academy voting committee for 15 years, said he didn’t vote for Bad Bunny because he thought that “a lot of people have no idea who Bad Bunny is” despite his album “Un Verano sin Ti” being one of the most commercially successful albums of the year. Another voter said they didn’t vote for Beyoncé because her album and act was too “portentous,” which in addition to being untrue, is an unfair way to judge an artist’s album and dismiss their work. 

Then, this year even though the nominations seemed more diverse and there was more push towards inclusion in the Recording Academy, another white man took home the Album of the Year award. Harry Styles won for his album “Harry’s House,” a win which many criticized because they believed it should have gone to Beyoncé for her album “Renaissance” or Bad Bunny for “Un Verano Sin Ti”. During his speech, Styles said “this doesn’t happen to people like me often” which spurred further backlash with people criticizing him for a tone-deaf statement that didn’t acknowledge his own privilege as a white man winning an award that historically only goes to white men. 

The debate of who deserved the award has sparked immense debate on the internet, but regardless of who won this year, the Recording Academy shows a horrible pattern of underrepresenting artists of color and stealing much deserved wins from them. Many have compared this phenomenon to black women in the workplace who get constantly applauded for their great work, but when it comes time for a promotion, they watch their less competent white counterpart receive it.  

Artists of color should not have to boycott the ceremony altogether to get their voices heard. Their art and talent should stand on its own. We don’t want artists of color to just be nominated for tokenism, but for the true recognition of their talent and appreciation of the story they have to tell. 

And to the Recording Academy, please for the love of God give Beyoncé her Album of the Year award.