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Put an end to Grammys’ history of bias

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Put an end to Grammys’ history of bias

Beyonce performs during the Grammy Awards on Feb.12. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Beyonce performs during the Grammy Awards on Feb.12. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

TNS

Beyonce performs during the Grammy Awards on Feb.12. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

TNS

TNS

Beyonce performs during the Grammy Awards on Feb.12. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By Christian Snyder | Columnist

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Who is “Becky with the good hair?”

If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the past year, you’ve probably encountered her at one time or another in Instagram posts, music videos or selfie captions. Becky is a fictional character, one among many of countless elements in Beyoncé’s 2016 album “Lemonade,” to capture the imagination of American popular culture at large.

Across the country, the album’s themes of infidelity, faithfulness, forgiveness and, above all, blackness took strong hold, selling more than 1 million copies. Yet none of this support seemed to register with the Recording Academy — the Grammys, for short. Instead, they chose Adele’s “25” as winner of the award for Album of The Year, which sold a comparable 1.3 million copies in 2016.

The Academy’s passing over Beyoncé’s album for the prestigious award isn’t just an isolated incident — it’s part of a long tradition of racial problems at the Grammys. This year’s awards show was the fourth in a row where a black crowd favorite lost out to a surprise white winner, and a black artist has won Album of the Year only 12 times since the award’s origin in 1959. Black artists are consistently passed over for all-important, non-genre awards, like Album of the Year, while relatively new categories, like Best Urban Contemporary Album, are created out of thin air in an effort to hide the problem.

Of course, there was backlash over Adele’s success at the Grammys. Even Adele herself questioned whether she was more deserving than Beyoncé to win the award. “I can’t possibly accept this award,” she said during her acceptance speech. “I’m very grateful and gracious, but my artist of my life is Beyoncé, and this album for me, the ‘Lemonade’ album, was just so monumental.” Going even further than words, Adele broke the golden gramophone in half while still on-stage.

“The way you make my black friends feel — is empowering,” the British singer emphasized in an acknowledgement of the racial issues behind the award choice.

Grammy President Neil Portnow defended the decision, saying in a phone interview with Marc Hogan of Pitchfork, “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all.” To support this claim, he cited Chance the Rapper’s win for Best New Artist.

But the claim that the Grammys couldn’t possibly have a race problem because a black artist won the Best New Artist award is akin to the ludicrous belief that anyone with a black friend can’t be a racist. Correcting racism is not about gestures superficially supporting diversity or token awards, but something far more basic than that — equal consideration regardless of race.

The Grammys are awarded on a simple majority, democratic voting process. To those dissatisfied with the results of the vote, Portnow says they should “just become members [of the Academy], join and vote. Then you have the say if you want it.”

A potential voting member of the Grammys needs to have released either six physical tracks, 12 digital tracks or been nominated for an award within the last five years. In short, the average music listener and Grammys viewer is disenfranchised from the process and left to trust that eligible voters will represent them.

And, while the voters included in the Grammys’ award process might not be overtly racist themselves, they remain incredibly out of touch with most of the music they’re meant to evaluate. The voting body as a whole skews considerably older than the average listener for predominantly black categories like hip-hop and rhythm and blues. And the effect is to make some black artists despair of ever being good enough to merit equal consideration for an award.

Artists like Frank Ocean have boycotted the Grammys for race-related issues. In an interview last November with the New York Times, Ocean said the institution of the Grammys as a whole “doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from and hold down what I hold down.”

Ocean’s decision to remove himself from the Academy comes at the price of a vote for black music, for people like him and for those who speak to the black experience in America. But given the Grammys’ historical pattern of ignoring black artists, it’s understandable that Ocean and others choose not to participate in the awards.

While some of the black artists who do decide to remain in attendance at the awards are rewarded with relatively new subgenre awards, such as Best Urban Contemporary Album — which was first awarded in 2013 and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” won this year — this approach does little to solve the problem. The subgenre awards are “where the white man puts the incomparable pregnant black woman, because he is so threatened by her talent, power, persuasion and potential,” white artist Sufjan Stevens said in an interview following Beyoncé’s snub.

Ask nearly any millennial and they’ll tell you that Beyoncé is one of the most important artists worth listening to, who has the power to inspire change. But, as big an injustice as this year’s Grammys might have been, the issue of race in the awards stretches back much further than Beyoncé and will continue on after her, unless the process becomes more open. Whether it’s Taylor Swift’s controversial win over Kendrick Lamar at last year’s ceremony, Beck’s surprise victory over Beyoncé in 2015 or Frank Ocean’s loss to Mumford and Sons in 2013, it’s clear there’s a pattern in how the Academy bestows the award.

Maybe instead of relying on out-of-touch members of the Academy, Portnow should begin to listen more — listen to what the artists of one of the most important genres in music right now are saying. The Grammys have a race problem, and merely awarding the title of Best New Artist to a black man doesn’t solve it.

 

Christian primarily writes on social justice and campus issues for The Pitt News.

Write to him at cjs197@pitt.edu.

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Put an end to Grammys’ history of bias