When Reflection Excludes: A History of Discrimination in the Grammys
By Ava Roche
What Does “Urban” Even Mean?
In a post-award show press conference, Tyler, the Creator – who had just won his first Grammy for the genre-defying album IGOR – explained his mixed feelings about his achievement. “On one side, I’m very grateful that what I made could 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 or that’s anything, they always put it in a rap or urban category…I don’t like that urban word. That’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.” He continued, asking a very important question: “why can’t we just be in pop?”
Tyler is not the first to express this sentiment. At a 2015 Grammys after-party, Kanye West explained that “if they [the Recording Academy] want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us…when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after delivering monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.”
A Rocky History
In 2011, the Recording Academy removed 29 award categories including Best Latin Jazz Album, Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Best Cajun and Zydeco Album, Best Native American Album, and Best Hawaiian Music Album. The Academy also combined three separate R&B vocal performance awards into a single award and removed two other Latin music categories. As the categories removed have historically included musicians of color, the decision led to heated backlash. In an interview with The Province, a Canadian newspaper, Carlos Santana said, “I think they’re racist. Period.” He went on to ask, “why do they cut only this music? Why not other music?”
Many musicians echoed Santana’s feelings, forming a coalition that protested the Recording Academy’s decision to remove these categories. In a letter to the then-president and CEO of the Grammy’s, Neil Portnow, Paul Simon wrote, “I believe the Grammys have done a disservice to many talented musicians by combining previously distinct and separate types of music into a catch-all of blurry larger categories. They deserve the separate Grammy acknowledgments that they’ve been afforded until this change eliminated them.” The following year, the Academy reinstated the Best Latin Jazz Album category and added two new categories: Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Classical Compendium.
In the 60 year history of the Grammys, only 10 black artists have won the coveted award for Album of the Year: Stevie Wonder (1974, 75, 77), Michael Jackson (1984), Lionel Richie (1985), Quincy Jones (1991), Natalie Cole (1992), Whitney Houston (1994), Lauryn Hill (1999), Outkast (2004), Ray Charles (2005), and Herbie Hancock (2008). For over a decade, not a single black artist has won the award, despite numerous nominations. What’s more, a hip-hop artist hasn’t won the award in over 15 years, despite the genre’s immense popularity.
Music scholar John Villanova explains, “In the last 10 years, there have been 17 nonwhite artists nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year…Of those 17, the only winner was Herbie Hancock in 2008. His album was a collection of covers of songs by white folk artist Joni Mitchell.” He goes on to explain various years in which black artists have been nominated in what he defines as “racially marked categories,” such as R&B and Urban categories, and “non-marked categories,” such as Album or Record of the Year. Villanova cites the 2006 Grammys as an example: “In 2006, [Mariah] Carey won Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Song, and Best Contemporary R&B Album, losing Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal. That’s three wins in the racially marked categories and four losses in the non-marked ones.” As alluded to by Tyler, the Creator, most black artists are relegated to awards in “Urban Music” categories, while white musicians dominate in the “big four” categories: Best New Artist, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year.
Consider Beyoncé’s lack of recognition over the years. The artist boasts 70 nominations and 24 wins, but most have been in R&B or “Urban” categories. In 2016, Beyoncé’s magnum opus, Lemonade was nominated for Album of the Year and Best Urban Contemporary Album; she won the latter, while Adele received the award for Album of the Year. In her acceptance speech, she said, “I can’t accept this award…The Lemonade album was so monumental.” In a post-award ceremony interview, Adele asked, “what the f— does she have to do to win album of the year?” Adele is right: why has the most popular artist of a generation gone unrecognized in pop categories?
Qualifying to be a voting member of the Recording Academy is relatively simple; to be a voting member, one must either be an active music creator, a Grammy winner or be endorsed by a voting member.
In recent years, the Recording Academy has come under fire for the lack of diversity of voting members; a task force was created to combat this, and the organization invited 900 people to join as voting members. According to the Recording Academy, all those invited were women, people of color, and/or under the age of 39. This took place the same year that then Grammy president said that “women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… [need to] step up because I think they would be welcome.” This comment amplified existing frustrations about the 2018 Grammys, in which only one woman was presented a televised award.
Issues in the Voting Process
Many of the issues discussed begin in the Grammy nomination process. Of the over 20,000 entries submitted each year, a handful of entries are selected by a board of experts in various music industry fields. This process is quite private, and many claim that members of the nominating committees often favor entries to which they are related. In 2017, producer 9th Wonder was on the nomination board for the rap category; that same year, he produced on Rapsody’s album, Laila’s Wisdom. That album was nominated for best rap album, and “Sassy,” a song on the album, was nominated for best rap song. Many question whether she would’ve been nominated without her producer’s influence.
The Recording Academy has created committees to review nominations in various genre categories, though some do not have that oversight. For example, there was no such board for the rap category until 2018, allowing for countless snubs and bizarre nominations. Consider the 2014 Grammys when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist won best rap album over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Without such boards, nominees can be chosen on name recognition or personal relation, rather than societal, musical, or cultural impact.
While these nomination review committees can help ensure that nominees accurately reflect the genre and the industry as a whole, they present other issues. The Recording Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force reported that, between 2015 and 2017, the nomination review committees were 74% male. With the task force’s involvement, nomination committees (as well as other important voting committees) have become more evenly split between men and women.
The lack of diversity on nomination review committees coupled with the lack of transparency regarding those committees’ practices leads many to question the accuracy of the nominees which they push forward. With a more diverse nomination review committee, maybe Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR would have been nominated for Album of the Year, rather than being relegated to the urban category.
While the Recording Academy has made steps towards becoming more inclusive in all processes, there is more to be done. Days before the 2020 Grammy Awards ceremony, Neil Portnow’s successor, Deborah Dugan, was removed from her position amidst claims of harassment in the workplace. Dugan has publicly claimed that she was fired, in part, because she raised concerns about nomination review committees which “bypass a democratic voting structure.”
While case proceedings are ongoing, there is hope that Dugan’s complaints will lead to changes in the Grammy voting process, and that further efforts will be made to make the voting process more transparent. Tyler, the Creator’s comments have sparked a lively, important discussion about diversity and inclusion in the award ceremony. Hopefully, artists will continue to speak out about a lack of representation in the Recording Academy. One would hope those organizations will listen.
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