Fri. Jul 3rd, 2020

Grammy Rewind: Reevaluating Historic Grammy Races

In this series, Grammy Rewind: Reevaluating Historic Grammy Races, I will be highlighting an artist, album, or song and break down the Grammy race of that year and the politics that led to their eventual loss and what those outcomes meant for the winners, losers, the Recording Academy as an institution, and for music itself, with a focus on the Grammys’ historical bias against rap/hip-hop/R&B and Black artists in the General Field and other genre categories.

For better or for worse, the Grammy Awards are the pinnacle of the music industry. This is the award that every artist dreams of receiving and the primary musical award that most of the general population is aware of. The MTV Video Music Awards offer controversial and groundbreaking pop culture moments, the American Music Awards center the focus on public opinion and the voice of fans, and the Billboard Music Awards commemorate commercial success and achievements on the Billboard charts. Nonetheless, since 1959, the Grammys have remained the premier music award and measure of acclaim for artists around the world.

According to the official Grammy website, “A GRAMMY is awarded by The Recording Academy’s voting membership to honor excellence in the recording arts and sciences. It is truly a peer honor, awarded by and to artists and technical professionals for artistic or technical achievement, not sales or chart positions.” If the Grammys claim to honor the quality of the work over commercial success, why has there been so much controversy surrounding the winners over the past couple of years? Recently, a troubling trend has emerged with the Grammys, a trend that does little to rectify the institution’s historical bias against Black artists, women, and those who exist at the intersection of both identities. When Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a cultural landmark, was passed over in favor of Adele’s 25 for the Academy’s highest honor, Album of the Year, the world was ablaze with debate and the general consensus that the wrong album was awarded. Adele herself denounced her win during her acceptance speech during the live telecast (see video above). Similar debates occurred when Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat out Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and when Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic was awarded the top honor over Jay-Z’s 4:44 and Lamar’s DAMN.

Historically, the Grammy Awards have had a bias against hip-hop and R&B music and by extension, the Black artists who dominate those genres of music. For those unfamiliar with the structure of the Grammy Awards, the institution currently hands out awards across 84 different categories. These categories cover myriad genres of music and components of the music creation process (production, songwriting, album artwork, directors of music videos and films, etc.). The main categories, also referred to as the General Field or “The Big 4,” are Album of the Year, Song of the Year (awarded to songwriters), Record of the Year (awarded to producers and artists), and Best New Artist. Every few years, the Academy reevaluates its rules and categories. Some notable examples are the allowance of samples in all songwriting categories, the merge of female and male vocal performance categories, the discontinuation of the Best Native American Music Album category, and, more recently, the increase of nominees in the General Field categories from five to eight.

In the 63-year history of the awards show just two hip-hop albums have been awarded Album of the Year: Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1999) and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2004). It should be noted that both of these album’s feature the artists singing just as much as they are rapping, if not more. Additionally, Lauryn Hill’s album was nominated in and won the Best R&B Album category. Rap has been a major musical genre for over four decades and despite landmark albums from the likes of Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Lil Wayne, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, and more, the Academy has yet to acknowledge any pure rap album as worthy of their highest honor. This isn’t all that surprising because the Academy didn’t start awarding rap music until 1989, when they awarded DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” the Best Rap Performance Grammy over Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali,” and Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West.” When rap categories were first added to the show, then-president of the Recording Academy, Mike Green, said that rap finally “matured into several kinds of music, with several kinds of artists doing it.” The coded language in that statement is palpable. From its very inception, rap music has been steeped in social justice, poetry, and diversity by way of its rise in the cultural melting pot of New York through Black, Latinx, and Afro-Latinx musicians and artists. To insinuate that the genre needed to “mature” before being able to be accepted by music’s leading institution is absolutely absurd. Even after the addition of rap categories, the Academy still chose to award the most family-friendly and mainstream option.

The Grammy process is one that is understandably confusing. The process slightly varies depending on the category in question. For the majority of the categories, the steps are as follows: 1) prospective nominees/labels submit their work for consideration 2) Grammy voting members vote on a first-round ballot 3) The Nominations Review Committees for each category determine the final nominees 4) the nominations are announced and the members vote on the final ballot. Who are the people voting on these awards? What are the requirements for Academy membership? What determines voting eligibility? These are the questions that have rightfully dominated conversations around this institution’s lack of care and respect towards rap, R&B, and Black artists — especially in the General Field categories.

To join the Recording Academy, one must first be considered for an invitation. This consideration is achieved by two recommendations from peers in the music industry and a career profile that must be completed by the candidate. According to the official Grammy website, “new member submissions are considered by the Recording Academy’s Peer Review Panel each spring” and “The Recording Academy approves membership at its sole discretion based on its assessment of the submission.” Furthermore, the Peer Review Committee looks for a primary career focus on music in each candidate and at least twelve commercially distributed, verifiable credits (songwriting, production, album notes, performing, etc.) with at least one of those credits being from the previous five years. Recording Academy membership dues are $100 annually. There are three types of Academy members, but only Voting Members have the privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards every year.

After Beyoncé’s controversial loss to Adele in 2017, the Recording Academy established a Diversity Task Force with the intent to identify and rectify places in the voting and nominations processes that lacked diversity. Their internal studies found that the 2019-2020 National Governance Committee for was 58% male, 61% white, and 93% at least 40 years old. As per the Academy’s final Diversity Task Force report, the Peer Review Committee is 53% male and 47% female, no other demographic statistics were given. These are the demographics that are evaluating and approving voter membership in the Recording Academy in 2020. This year, we’ve seen young Black hip-hop artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Roddy Ricch, and Doja Cat score chart-topping singles. We’ve seen how the Gen-Z dominated TikTok app has jump-started and intensified the success of countless singles since it lifted Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to record-obliterating heights last year. If the Peer Review committee is essentially the antithesis of the makeup of the artists and consumers shaping and leading the current music industry, how can these “peers” ensure an accurate reflection of the industry in the Academy’s voting body? Moreover, while there are screening committees for submissions to ensure albums and songs are placed into the right category, voting members are allowed to vote in up to 15 genre categories in addition to the four General Field categories. In theory, a given voting member would only vote in the categories with which they have the most experience and familiarity. Nevertheless, technically nothing is stopping a voter whose expertise lies solely in country and rock music to cast votes for rap and R&B categories. If this does happen, these voters will likely throw their vote at the most mainstream choice (which rarely aligns with the “best” choice).

How can the Grammys possibly be respectful of any undervalued or relatively younger genres if anyone can vote for anything? In an explosive piece by Complex, Rob Keener, a Grammy screener, wrote that he “soon learned another unwritten rule during private conversations with other committee members: be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy. Because famous people tend to get more votes from clueless Academy members, regardless of the quality of their work.” To make matters worse, there is the Nominations Review Committee. Established in 1999, the committee whittles down the Top 20 submissions in a given category to the final five nominees. This committee reviews votes and makes changes as they see fit; the members of this committee are completely anonymous to avoid lobbying. This committee can essentially shape the final nominees to their heart’s desire. It’s really their fault that a situation happens like the one in 2017 when Drake’s “Hotline Bling” (a pop song with no rapping) won Best Rap Song over Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Fat Joe & Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up,” and Kanye West’s “Famous” and “Ultralight Beam.” Even Drake himself said that his wins “felt weird” and that “Hotline Bling” was “not a rap song.”

Earlier this year, ex-CEO of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan, filed a lawsuit against the institution alleging sexual misconduct, gender discrimination, and corruption in the Grammy process. In her suit, she highlighted that “it is not unusual for artists who have relationships with Board members and who ranked at the bottom of the initial 20-artist list to end up receiving nominations.” She also alleged that the Academy “manipulates the nominations process to ensure that certain songs or albums are nominated when the producer of the Grammys [Ken Ehrlich] wants a particular song performed during the show.” Among artists impacted by these claims, Dugan specifically highlighted Beyoncé, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Frank Ocean, among others. These allegations of corruption that oppresses women and Black artists is evident in who is awarded during the live telecast. Obviously with over eighty categories, the Grammys can’t award every category during the live show, but in 2018, Alessia Cara (that year’s Best New Artist winner) was the only woman to receive a televised Grammy. In the previous year, Beyoncé and Chance the Rapper were the only Black artists to receive televised Grammys, albeit in the racialized categories of Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Rap Album, respectively.

The Grammys, and those skeptical of claims of racism and gender bias in the institution, often hide behind the fact that some of the most Grammy-nominated and awarded artists of all time are Black. Across all credits, Beyoncé is the seventh most Grammy-awarded artist of all time with 24 wins, Jay-Z ranks at #9 on the all-time list with 22 wins, and Kanye West at #12 with 21 wins. On paper, these numbers look outstanding. Nonetheless, of Beyoncé’s 24 wins, just one is from a General Field category; she won Song of the Year in 2010 for “Single Ladies.” Every other Grammy award Beyoncé has won is from an R&B category with the exception of Best Surround Sound Album (BEYONCÉ, 2015), Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (“Halo,” 2010), Best Music Video (“Formation,” 2017), and Best Music Film (HOMECOMING, 2020). Almost 80% of Beyoncé’s Grammy wins are from the R&B film despite her 70 nominations across the pop, rap, rock, and visual media fields. Of Jay-Z’s 22 wins, all of them are in the rap and R&B categories except for one Best Music Video win. He has never won a Grammy in the main four categories despite a total of nine nominations across those categories. Kanye West’s Grammys also all come from the rap field with the exception of a singular Best R&B Song win. Despite 12 nominations in the General Field, he has not won a Grammy in any of the main categories. Kendrick Lamar currently has 13 Grammys, all of which are in the rap categories except for two Best Music Video wins. He has scored ten General Field nominations and lost every time. Now, take artists like Taylor Swift and Adele for example. Of Taylor’s 10 Grammys, two of them are for Album of the Year and she has won them in pop, country, and visual media categories. Of Adele’s 15 Grammys, a staggering 7 of them are from the General Field.

Some more quick stats:

Hip-Hop Albums to win Album of the Year: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill, 1999); Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (OutKast, 2004)

Hip-Hop Songs to win Record of the Year: “This Is America” (Childish Gambino, 2019)

Hip-Hop Songs to win Song of the Year: “This Is America” (Childish Gambino, 2019)

Black Artists Who Have Won Album of the Year: Just 10. Stevie Wonder (Innervisions (1974), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1975), Songs in the Key of Life (1977)); Michael Jackson (Thriller, 1984); Lionel Richie (All Night Long, 1985); Quincy Jones (Back on the Block, 1991); Natalie Cole (Unforgettable… with Love, 1992); Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard, 1994); Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1999); OutKast, (The Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2004); Ray Charles (Genius Loves Company, 2005); Herbie Hancock (River: The Joni Letters, 2008). 

Hip-Hop Artists Who Have Won Best New Artist: Lauryn Hill* (1999), Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (2014), Chance the Rapper (2017).

*Considered an R&B artist by the Recording Academy

Between the secret committees, unrepresentative peer review process, historical bias against rap, R&B, and Black artists in the General Field, and more, why do we still hold the Grammys in such high regard? They are widely regarded as music’s equivalent to the Oscars (film), Tonys (stage), and Emmys (television), but with so much controversy and corruption, the Grammys diminish their own brand. The Recording Academy repeatedly shifts the goalposts for and spits in the face of the Black artists and music genres that are the leading forces of the music industry. Even with Stevie Wonder’s first Album of the Year win, the first by a Black artist ever, the narrative surrounding him was a transcendent genius that was held back by controlling record labels. Black artists have to release work that shapes history and shifts culture to win major Grammy awards, but even then, that may be enough. Lemonade won a Peabody Award and DAMN became the first non-classical or jazz work to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Both albums lost Album of the Year to the Grammys to less acclaimed albums by white artists. But with an almost 70-year lead, it’s hard to imagine a world where the Grammys stop being music’s premier award. Nonetheless, this pedestal does not mean that this institution is beyond critique. Their commitment to annual diversity and inclusion reports are a strong first step and we’ll see if the 2020 Grammy winners reflect the way that female rappers and R&B songstresses have owned the public consciousness and general critical acclaim this year.


Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, K.B. Denis is a current student at Duke University and an alumnus of Collegiate School. K.B. has nurtured his passion for music and music journalism through New York University’s Future Music Moguls program and by managing his own music and entertainment website, Black Boy Bulletin. K.B. is also a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Connect with him about music, politics, film, and culture on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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