Goodbye, Grammys: Why Black artists think the awards show is irrelevant

Rap artist Tyler, The Creator discusses the stereotypes at award shows

As the Grammys once again snubbed several racialized artists, some wonder if music’s biggest night still matters.

Several artists of colour blasted The Recording Academy for being shut out of nominations for the 2021 ceremony, including Canadian R&B crooner The Weeknd, who took to Twitter after receiving zero nods for his highly successful record, After Hours.

“The Grammys remain corrupt,” he wrote on the social media platform. “You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…”

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After Hours was one of 2020’s biggest albums, topping the charts with the single Blinding Lights which broke the record for most weeks spent in the Billboard Hot 100’s top five.

Dalton Higgins, a music scholar, author and Ryerson University’s Music-Professional-In-Residence, says the Grammys snub is not surprising given the awards’ historical track record of being completely out of touch with Black music.

“When you look at the hard data, it’s telling us that hip-hop and R&B are the biggest selling and biggest streamed music [genres] in the U.S. and in North America. It has completely displaced rock music as the most popular,” he said.

READ MORE: The ‘whitewashing’ of Black music: A dark chapter in rock history

“What that tells us about the Grammy awards in itself, is that they are not acting on the zeitgeist, they’re not acting on what’s happening in contemporary music as far as that big shift that is taking place.”

For some independent musicians — artists who record and publish music without a label — the lack of Grammy recognition for racialized artists doesn’t come as a shock.

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Toronto R&B singer-songwriter A l l i e (born Allison Lee) says the Grammys don’t have the same prestige they once did due to the industry’s frequent sidelining of musicians of colour.

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“We’ve [seen] it over and over again, how the award system treats women and racialized individuals,” she said. “This year, there were no women nominated in the Best R&B (Album) category.”

Racialized musicians have a history of getting the short end of the stick when it comes to the Grammys. For example, Black artists tend to secure wins in traditionally Black categories, such as Rap or R&B, but often lose in the four main categories: Album Of The Year, Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best New Artist.

Only 10 Black artists have won Album Of The Year in the Grammys’ 62-year history, only one hip-hop song has won Song Of The Year, and only five Best New Artist winners in the last 20 years have been people of colour.

In part, it’s a result of the Recording Academy’s membership — the people responsible for voting on the awards — which is currently only 26 per cent women and 25 per cent underrepresented communities, according to their website.

Lee, an independent musician, says the explosion of streaming platforms has reduced the need for award shows.

Last year, Spotify racked up 286 million listeners a month, while viewership of the Grammys dwindled, falling from about 39 million in 2012 to around 16 million in 2020.

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So why do some artists still care about winning a Grammy?

According to the Grammy website, the organization considers itself to be the highest honour in music and are the only peer-recognized music award, meaning experts in the field ranging from songwriters, producers, audio engineers etc., vote in categories of their expertise.

Higgins says that despite the Grammys claiming they’re the most prestigious, the awards show has never been a gauge of what’s cool or trendy.

“Artists such as 2Pac have never won Grammys, so there’s some real credibility issues when most of the greatest R&B and hip-hoppers have never won a Grammy,” he said.

“The opinion shared by many, including Black music practitioners, is that the Grammy Awards is a bunch of suits that are disconnected from contemporary culture and youth culture.”

Although there is no cash prize for taking home an accolade, winners have benefitted from what NPR calls a financial “Grammy Bump.” Many winning albums quickly soar to the top of the charts, and artists who’ve snagged a golden gramophone have also seen a surge of 55 per cent in concert ticket sales and producer fees following their win, according to Forbes.

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While many artists don’t earn much from streams — Spotify doles out four cents per listen — Lee says the exposure they offer can open the door for more opportunities. After releasing songs on SoundCloud in 2013 and 2014, she pivoted to Apple Music and Spotify as the platforms’ popularity grew. She uploaded her music independently and by 2018 had a million streams in upwards of 60 countries.

“As I gained more momentum and more streams, I was able to sign a distribution deal with a bigger distribution company,” she said. “I’d attribute streaming services to a lot of my success.”

In 2017, #GrammysSoWhite emerged when Black artists lost in all the major categories. In response, the Grammys introduced measures to improve the voting process, including inviting new members from diverse backgrounds.

The Grammys did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the efficacy of the measures, but their website outlines their diversity and inclusion task force’s efforts, which include recommendations on gender parity, a diversity mission statement and more.

Higgins says that despite those changes, he doubts the voting membership will accurately reflect the diverse American demographic.

“I think what’s happening now is the gatekeeper culture that the Grammys represents will fade into irrelevance,” he said.

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This year, several Grammy categories failed to feature racialized artists, including Best Children’s Album. In an unprecedented move, three of the five acts up for the award — all independent artists —  refused their nominations to protest the all-white category.

Lee says this is one benefit to being independent, as doing things yourself allows artists to push for change and succeed on their own terms.

“I think it’s really important as an independent artist to define what success looks like for you because it looks different for everybody,” she said.

Natalie Harmsen is a Toronto-based journalist who often writes about arts and culture. You can find her on Twitter.

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