Days before the 58th annual Grammy Awards aired, executive producer Ken Ehrlich argued that the Grammys do not have the same diversity issue as the Oscars. Ehrlich touted that popular music as we know it today is rooted in cities like Memphis, New Orleans, Kansas City and parts of the world like the Caribbean and the continent of Africa. Speaking to the Associated Press, Ehrlich said, “There wouldn’t be a Grammys show today if it weren’t for the great African-American artists who built the culture and wrote the music, and we try to reflect that every year. I don’t think it’s fair to level…the same kind of criticism against us that the Oscars are experiencing.”
Following the opening performance of the night’s winner of the biggest honor, Album of the Year, Taylor Swift, Grammy show host LL Cool J claimed, “Our shared love of music unites us.” This sentiment would fit better on Sesame Street, where the world is actually more balanced and fairer. Music may unite us, but the politics of this awards show only remind us of the biases and divisions that remain.
To wit, Ehrlich’s comments are particularly interesting, because they were in response to questions as to whether or not some viewers would be upset that White acts like David Bowie received full-fledged posthumous tributes, whereas Natalie Cole and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire were not. Cole got a nod by way of homage, and White, a short but sweet send-off featuring Stevie Wonder. Still, Natalie Cole has won more Grammys than David Bowie has—but only David Bowie got the big send-off, from one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.
Ehrlich and the “Accidental Racist” rapper are talking about race and inclusion the way many in the media do: superficially and sophomoric at the core. But the bias is more sophisticated. As in, yes, the Grammys show more Black faces than the Oscars, but much of that has to do with them having more categories readily available to marginalize us. That’s why Kendrick Lamar received a rap award on air; he wasn’t going to win any of the major categories. They’ve done this to Beyoncé in the past. They will do it to some other Black artist next year.
Meanwhile, Taylor Swift gets to tout being the first woman to win Album of the Year twice. Congratulations to her and salute to her for rightfully challenging Kanye West’s sexist, reality-deficient claim that he made her famous. Still, delivery aside, West was correct that Beyoncé deserved Album of the Year last year for her eponymous fifth album. I’ll also say it for him here: it’s absurd that Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and Kanye West have never won Album of the Year, but Taylor Swift has won twice.
Swift used her speech to encourage women to do anything. But the sad fact is, a White woman has more leverage to that claim in that sort of setting than Beyoncé has. Lauryn Hill won Album of the Year in 1999. No other Black woman has, ever. Whitney Houston is the last woman to win Record of the Year, though acts like Beyoncé and Rihanna have been nominated, and more or less robbed. Beyoncé did win Song of the Year in 2010, but it doesn’t negate just how striking it is to see how often Black people are excluded from winning major categories, especially when they’re Black and female.
That doesn’t mean our sound doesn’t win though. I was actually quite happy for Puerto Rican Frankie Lymon, Bruno Mars, for winning Record of the Year for “Uptown Funk!,” but I do wonder if Morris Day threw his shoe at the TV in disgust.
In any event, the show itself was what it typically is: a bore and in desperate need of cayenne, Lawry’s, garlic powder, and a lil’ Slap Ya Mama seasoning.
The highlight was Kendrick Lamar, whose stunning imagery for his performance of “Alright” and “The Blacker the Berry” spoke to a modern Black experience I imagine very few in that room knew anything about.
In hindsight, The Weeknd’s disappointing performance may be rooted in a last minute ditch by Ms. Lauryn Hill, who was supposed to duet with the star and attended rehearsal, but reportedly showed up too late for the showtime. By contrast, Miguel offered a beautiful cover of Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life” that only lasted about the length of this sentence. Adele, not so much, but she shared the mic issues on Twitter and treated herself to some In-n-Out. Good for her, but that leaves the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard as the undisputed vocal champ of the night.
Rihanna had to cancel her performance due to bronchitis, making this show even more painful. I honestly don’t remember anything else, and I purposely skipped Pitbull, so there you have it. We came. (Well, some of us did anyway.) We saw (the show for what it is, once more). We won (most of our awards off air).
Until next year’s segregation celebration, y’all.
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