An average of 18.7 million sat down and watched the Grammys on Sunday, Jan. 26 with hopes that their favorite artists from the past year would receive accolades for their work. The 62nd annual Grammy Awards show was hosted by 14-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys, who opened the show by paying tribute to NBA star Kobe Bryant with Boyz II Men. As nominated artists like Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato performed and took home many awards, Billie Eilish was the biggest winner, winning five of her six Grammy nominations. She and her brother’s album “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” beat out “Thank You, Next” by Ariana Grande, “7” by Lil Nas X, and “Cuz I Love You” by Lizzo for Best Album of the Year.
Eilish’s wins come in the wake of the Grammys controversy, when the Recording Academy chief Deborah Dugan resigned. Ten days before the Grammys, Dugan exposed in a letter the corruption within the Grammy selection committee and the unfair, discriminatory policies that decide who wins and performs. This calls into question: What does winning a Grammy actually mean?
The Grammys are considered one of the most prestigious awards in American music. Though they are presented as a measure of true success, they masquerade as a performative act of entertainment reserved for a select few. There are four awards which are considered the most prestigious: Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. Song of the Year typically goes to the songwriters of a song, while Record of the Year goes to the producers and performers and is typically decided without taking into account charting and sales. Over 120 artists, writers, and producers have won Song of the Year and Record of the Year since their start in 1959. In 1968, The 5th Dimension won Record of the Year for “Up, Up and Away,” and in 1986, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie won Song of the Year for “We Are The World.” These were the first Black people to win these awards. Several songs which won before these artists were performed by Black people, yet the folks who won were white.
As Black people, we know the reality of exclusion all too well. The perfect example is the 2016 Grammys, when Adele took a moment of her final speech to give the credit and the win to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album. While other artists who win do so by co-opting forms of Black music such as jazz, hip hop and R&B, how do we, as creators of popular music, thrive in an industry that was not built for us?
The Grammys function within the hegemonic ideas of what music is and what good music means. Black people are the opposite of what the people in power feel is best. Black artists who might objectively deserve an award, don’t win them. The stereotypes of Blackness limit Black artists, forcing them to create inside a genre in order to receive rightful recognition. Yet, this does not stop Black artists from bending genres and continuing to create new forms of music from all over the Diaspora. The Grammys then present a difficult dilemma. It is normal for artists to crave the notoriety that the Grammys provide, but it is also difficult to balance being a Black artist plagued by exclusion and ridicule in the industry. Artists who want to bend Black music genres are cast aside.
When Tyler the Creator won his award for Best Rap Album last weekend, he commented on this dichotomy: “I’m half and half on it. 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, they always put it in a rap or urban category.” He continued, “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word; it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me. When I hear that, I’m just like why can’t we be in pop?”
Tyler the Creator also mentioned that the nomination almost felt like a “a back-handed compliment,” comparing himself to someone’s little cousin. Yet, he ended his speech repeating how “grateful” he was for his achievement. Tyler the Creator’s “Igor” is one of the most genre-bending albums to nominated for Best Rap Album of the Year, and it demonstrates a light at the end of the tunnel for Black music makers. Even though Black artists have to function within an industry not designed for them to succeed, they can still continue to win, not just the awards, but the hearts of the public.