10 Reasons The Grammys Are As White As You Think They Are

It’s not great!

December 12, 2014

Update 12/13 7:29 p.m.: This article previously stated that Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200; while the album did debut on the chart at the #2 slot, it eventually took the top slot in its eleventh week on the chart. H/t to Nicki Minaj herself for pointing this out.

Back in October, long before awards season, Drake decided to liven up one weekend by hosting his own "Hood Grammys" on Instagram, handing out virtual gongs and the all-powerful Drake co-sign to the likes of Rae Sremmurd, Bobby Shmurda, and iLoveMakonnen. He prefaced his awards with a brief speech, in the form of a caption: "haaaaa Grammys need to have a rap year. Run it up." He's got a point: not that we need a gimmicky, one-off homage to hip-hop per se, but that the Grammys are still as out of touch as they've ever been—and just as white.

It's been 26 years since Chuck D rapped Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?, and those flickers of discontent have kept on simmering. Last week, the nominees for the 57th round of the awards were announced to a chorus of zzz. Sure, Drake and iLoveMakonnen bagged nominations for SoundCloud loosies "0 to 100" (Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song) and "Tuesday" (Best Rap/ Sung Collaboration). But elsewhere, the same old problems were glaringly obvious. Below, I've compiled what's essentially a list of factual observations about the Grammys' nominations: extrapolation is barely even necessary to see that these details add up to an annual event that's hopelessly out of date with both the music industry and the world. It's one glaring example of how hip-hop artists—and black artists in particular—are still excluded from an upper echelon of the industry, right there in front of you.


1. Fewer than 20 percent of Album of the Year awards have gone to black artists

Since the very first ceremony in 1959, only 10 of the 56 awards handed out for Album of the Year have gone black artists (and three of the 10 went to Stevie Wonder), a number that woefully under-represents the influence black artists have had on the music industry. While it might seem logical to assume that the rate would at least be increasing, the last of those was in 2008, for Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters.

2. It took them 10 years to recognize rap

The Best Rap Performance category was launched in 1989, 30 years after the ceremony first began and a decade after the genre first charted, and it's been missing the mark since the start. The first Rap Performance award was won by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, gaining criticism from fans who argued N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were both more formative and ultimately influential albums.

Things haven't gotten much better. Earlier this year, when Macklemore won Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar, he was embarrassingly embarrassed, to the point where he texted Lamar an apology and infamously posted it for the world to see. As Drake subsequently pointed out, that was a questionable and pretty cowardly move, but it also provided an awkward glimpse into how artists in the genre's inner circle feel about what it means to win a Grammy today. "This is how the world works," Drake said, tacitly acknowledging the politics at play. "Whether people wanna say it's racial, or whether it's just the fact that [Macklemore] tapped into something we can't tap into."

3. Only three Album of the Year awards have ever been given to hip-hop records

Hip-hop albums often get stuck in the rap categories, and don't have the same chances when it comes to competing for the big titles. The last hip-hop record to win Album of the Year was OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. In the years since, Kanye West's Late Registration lost out to U2; Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III lost out to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE lost out to Mumford and Sons, and Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city was skipped over for Daft Punk. This year, no hip-hop albums were nominated.

4. Kanye hasn't been up for Album of the Year since Graduation

Of all these snubs, Yeezy's feels the most prolonged. For a while, the Grammys treated West favorably: The College Dropout and Graduation were, like Late Registration, both nominated for Album of the Year, despite not winning. But 2008 marked West's last nomination for Album of the Year. 808s & Heartbreak didn't receive a nod for either Album of the Year or Best Rap Album; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne and Yeezus—according to Metacritic, the three most critically acclaimed albums he has ever made—were only nominated for the latter category, not the more prestigious former. Metacritic also determined that Yeezus, despite suffering diminishing sales figures after its release, was overall the most critically acclaimed album of 2013. But Album of the Year that year went to inoffensive English folk group Mumford and Sons, whose Babel was the highest-selling debut album in the US in 2012, despite having a much lower critical score.

West, who has never stopped short of saying what's on his mind when it comes to sacred American institutions and their gatekeepers, offered a salient critique during a Yeezus concert in 2013. "Fuck those nominations!" he told the crowd, speaking of the Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song tips he had just received. "I'm 36 years old and I have 21 Grammys. That's the most Grammys of any 36-year-old. Out of all of those 21 Grammys, I've never won a Grammy against a white artist… What are they trying to say? Do they think that I wouldn't notice?"

5. The people picking the winners are out of touch

Last year, the journalist Rob Kenner shed light on what it's like to be a Grammy voter, and why the system has such a skewed perspective. There are two rounds of voting, of which Kenner takes part in the first, and which sees every voter in the Recording Academy being given the ability to vote in most categories, whether or not they know anything about them. "Bottom line: the vast majority of the nominations are chosen by people who have little real expertise in a given field. I refrained from voting in heavy metal and classical because I know very little about those genres. But I could have if I wanted to, and that strikes me as a problem."

This leads to bigger names amassing more votes purely because of their visibility. "Famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work," Kenner explained. "This is especially true in specialized categories like reggae and, to a lesser extent, hip-hop, where many voting members of the Recording Academy (who tend to skew older than the demographic for rap music) may not be well acquainted with the best releases in any given year." The final nominees and winners are then determined by a secret committee, who have the power to override the votes in the big four categories as well as those for Gospel, Country, R&B, Latin, Jazz, and Music Video (notably not Rap). Critics over the years have observed that this committee's choices seem to be more concerned with TV ratings than they are with fair representation of artists.

IN 2014:

6. Every Best New Artist nominee is white

Glancing back up at Drake's "Hood Grammys" nominees—all of whom have had massive years—it seems impossible to grasp that all the nominations for Best New Artist have gone to white artists. To give the Grammys the benefit of the doubt, their list aligns neatly with the Billboard list of the top breakthrough artists of the year (based on sales, airplay and streaming)—Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith and Bastille all feature prominently on both. In this case, their choices seem to be purely about algorithms rather than cultural innovation or impact—which is not ideal, but reveals the logic behind the all-white choices.

Across past years, though, a bias has revealed itself towards white artists, for example with Nicki Minaj losing to Bon Iver in 2012, and Frank Ocean losing out in 2013 to fun. Interestingly, Minaj's debut album opened at number two on the Billboard 200 chart, which was the same as Bon Iver's sophomore album released the same year (though she sold 375,000 copies in the first week after release, in comparison to Bon Iver's 104,000). Ocean's debut, channel ORANGE, peaked at two, with fun.'s 2012 sophomore album peaking at three (their previous album peaked at 71). Bon Iver and fun. were both on their second albums, and—in a purely economic sense—performing as well as, or worse than, their black competitors' debuts. So the decision can't be seen as a purely chart-driven one.

7. Every Record of the Year and Song of the Year nominee is white

Combined with Best New Artist and Album of the Year, these two categories make up the "Big Four" at the Grammys, aka the categories everyone cares about. There's no love for rap or R&B hits like Kendrick Lamar's "i" (which is nominated for Best Rap Performance), Chris Brown's "New Flame" (nominated for Best R&B Performance), Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" (Best Rap Song), Jeremih's "Don't Tell 'Em," or Usher's "She Came To Give It To You."

8. It's not a case of black artists not selling as much as white artists

We could be cynical and assume that the Academy only picks the music with the highest sales for the "big four" categories, but even more explicitly "pop" songs from black artists, which moved more units than "Chandelier" or "Fancy," have been ignored. Pharrell's ubiquitous "Happy" outsold everything in 2014, yet he gets a nod for Album of the Year and not Record or Song (Sam Smith, on the other hand, has nabbed nominations for Album, Record and Song). John Legend's huge tearjerker "All of Me," third on Billboard's Hot 100 songs of 2014, got a Best Pop Solo Performance nomination, but somehow didn't cut it for the primary categories. Meanwhile Katy Perry's trap-absorbing "Dark Horse," which featured a verse from Juicy J, gets a miss despite being the second biggest single of the year (again according to Billboard) and the most-watched YouTube video.

9. The Grammys are still using "urban" to denote "black"

In 2013, the Grammys introduced the "Urban Contemporary" category, ostensibly as an intermediary between the Pop and R&B categories (the R&B one, meanwhile, in the words of Grantland's Rembert Browne, had morphed into "this middle ground between pop and rap"). So far, the winners of that award have been Frank Ocean and Rihanna, both of whom could have swept the Album of the Year and Pop Vocal Album categories if the world was good and fair. In that same Grantland article last year, Browne went on to declare the 2013 nominations "a mess," adding that the annual event would probably continue to be so "until the word 'urban' no longer is used as a safe conduit to describe 'black' things… Don't hold your breath."

Really, don't hold it. So far, in its short lifespan, every nominee in the Urban Contemporary category has been black, with nods going to Beyoncé, Pharrell, Jhene Aiko, Chris Brown and Mali Music this year. Apart from race, what distinguishes them from the nominees for Best Pop Vocal Album (Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Sam Smith, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus) is unclear. Even the people on the judging panel don't seem to know exactly what Urban Contemporary is, having placed Beyoncé's "Drunk in Love" in the categories for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Song, despite not labeling Beyoncé an R&B album.

10. White artists making music influenced by black culture get treated differently

It's especially interesting to see Miley—an artist who built her whole album campaign and new sonic direction last year around the grotesque appropriation of black culture—being labelled as Pop rather than Urban Contemporary.

Meanwhile, this year Iggy Azalea became the first ever rapper to be nominated for both Best Rap Album and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for her own song (as opposed to Best Rap/Sung Collaboration). Juicy J and Nicki Minaj also rear their heads in the Pop Duo category, but as featured artists on tracks by Katy Perry and Jessie J; Iggy is the first rapper whose own song, from her own album, is being treated as "Pop," while the album itself is "Rap." Apparently, if you're a white woman, you don't have to be confined to the Urban or Rap categories; and don't forget, Iggy is also the only rapper nominated this year in the Best New Artist and Record of the Year categories. Move over Macklemore. If our discomfort with this year's nominations could be personified in one performer, Iggy Azalea would be it.

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10 Reasons The Grammys Are As White As You Think They Are