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Are the Grammys Racist?

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Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 58 seconds

The Grammy Awards were this past Sunday night and in their wake there have been charges of racism and misogyny leveled at the awards. The reason for the cry of racism and misogyny is that according to some in the media, Rap music did not win a major award and women were under represented in award wins.

Last year I wrote an article about how declarations of Grammy racism were statistically unfounded, and that piece stands up well against the test of time especially with 4 of 5 nominees for Album of the Year, 5 of 6 nominees for Record of the Year, and 5 out of 5 nominees for Song of the Year being minorities (non-White). 

What is funny in reading that piece now is that last year the racism uproar was over Adele, a White woman, beating out Beyonce, a Black woman, for the Best Album award. The thing that is striking about the competition between those two artists is that…THEY ARE BOTH WOMEN. For those who do not suffer from historical amnesia, myopia or otherwise have the long term memory of a Tsetse fly, this would seem to prove the absurdity of the misogyny charge against the Grammys. Add in the fact that of the last ten Album of the Year awards, five went to men, four went to women and one went to a man and a woman (Robert Plant and Alison Krause). 

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The reason the pussy-hat brigade are up in arms this year is because that ginger lightning rod, Ed Sheeran, a male artist for the patriarchy, beat out four female artists for best pop solo performance. From what I have read, the real reason people are upset over Sheeran's victory is not because his work is comparatively sub-standard but rather because of the "message it sends" since at the moment we are in the midst of a cultural female renaissance (#MeToo, #TimesUp). I find this to be a short cut to thinking. Look, God knows I am no Ed Sheeran fan, but on the merits is it totally incomprehensible that his song was a better Pop Solo Performance than the songs from Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Kesha and Lady Gaga? Sheeran is obviously a viable candidate for the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance because he won that exact award in 2016 along with a Song of the Year Grammy. Claiming Sheeran is out of his depth or entirely unworthy compared to his female opponents or only won because of misogyny is a tenuous argument at best and a frivolous one at worst. 

The other big scandal is that people are screaming "racism!" because R&B singer Bruno Mars won Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Album and in so doing beat out two rappers, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar. The argument is that the Grammys are racist because they do not appreciate Rap music. 

Here is the thing about the Recording Academy, it is made up of musicians, producers and engineers. You know what musicians respect…musicianship. Musicians spend an inordinate amount of their time growing up sitting alone in their rooms learning their instrument and honing their craft. No matter how talented you are as a musician, you will not achieve greatness without committing a great deal of time and energy to master your instrument (voice included). You know who doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time learning and mastering their instrument…rappers. You know why? Because rappers do not play instruments, they do not sing, and most cannot read music. Could it be that rap does not win big Grammy awards because it is seen as a cheap shortcut to success, as opposed to rock and R&B which require years and years of working to hone ones craft and skill just to be proficient, never mind transcendent?

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Rap music is certainly popular (although not as popular as you think - more on that later), but that doesn't make it artistically worthwhile or notable. To put Rap music in context, it is like reality television. Reality television is very popular, for instance the Kardashians are enormously famous across the globe. But that doesn't mean that what they do is a result of skill or craft or is artistically noteworthy. You can turn on your television and see Kim Kardashian and then turn the channel and see Meryl Streep, but that doesn't mean that they are equal or that Kim Kardashian is even an "actress". The same is true of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, they sell a lot of albums but that still does not make them musicians, especially in the eyes of actual musicians. 

This is not to say that rap does not have cultural value or anything like that, it certainly does. What it is to say is that Rap is not deemed award worthy music by musicians because it is devoid of musicianship, and this is why the musicians, producers and engineers in the Recording Academy have been reticent to award Rap their top prizes. The point being that the alleged Grammy snubs of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar are not about racism, but about musicianship. Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z may be brilliant rappers, but that is entirely irrelevant, for neither of them can read music, play an instrument or sing, the three skills that musicians would respect because they worked so hard at them. 

The other thing that is kind of funny to me is that people were crying racism about the Grammys this year, and yet the guy who won the three big awards (Record, Song and Album of the Year) Bruno Mars, is a Filipino-Puerto Rican. If those awards went to some pasty white guy like Justin Beiber or someone equally awful and White, then the argument for racism would at least be coherent, but they didn't and it isn't. 

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In terms of Rap's popularity, there were a lot of headlines this year that Rap music was now the most popular genre of music in America, overtaking rock music for the first time. When you look at the statistics though, they are terribly, and in my opinion, intentionally, misleading. Billboard claims that Hip-Hop accounts for 24.5% of music consumed (measured by a combination of album sales, track equivalent album units and streaming equivalent album units -- including both on-demand audio and video streams) , and Rock for 20.8% of music consumed, which would be big news if true. But it isn't true because the reality is that Hip-Hop has not overtaken Rock in terms of popularity, the actual category that has overtaken Rock is Hip-Hop AND R&B combined. What these statistics are really saying is that when you combine two popular forms of music, Hip-Hop and R&B, they are slightly more popular than Rock music. Since I could not find the statistics for music consumption for Hip-Hop alone without R&B, the next best thing is to look at statistics of "Album Consumption", which shows that Hip-Hop/Rap is second on the overall list at 17.5% and R&B is fourth at 8.7%, with Rock atop the list at 22.2%. This shows that Hip-Hop on its own would be well behind Rock, and frankly, so would R&B.

Backing up this argument of Rock's superior popularity, is that Rock is still the genre with the most record sales (40% of all record sales are Rock), which is a pretty good indicator of its viability as a musical genre. There is also the peculiar statistic that the Grammy awards this year had no Rock acts nominated in any of the Big Four categories (New Artist, Album, Song, Record of the Year) and the television ratings were down a staggering 24%. The Grammy show also had a dearth of rock acts performing, and a plethora of Rap/R&B acts performing, which begs the question, did people not tune in because there was no rock? Or because Rap is atrociously bad in live performance? (That said, I am not arguing that because Rock is "more popular" or sells more albums than Rap or R&B, that it is more culturally relevant, because I do not think that it is, but that is a long discussion for another day.)

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It is also important to note, at least in terms of the Grammys and popularity argument, that R&B and Rap/Hip-Hop are two very, very different and distinct forms of music. One, R&B, demands a high level of musicianship, most notably the ability to sing, and the other, Rap/Hip-Hop, requires absolutely no musicianship whatsoever. A brief look at the list of top R&B performers in the last thirty years or so reveals a cornucopia of enormously skilled and talented musicians. Prince and Stevie Wonder are arguably two of the greatest musicians to have ever lived, and Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey two of the greatest singers. By the way, all of these performers are Black and all of them have won Grammys which is further proof against claims of Grammys racism. 

If you want to make the argument that the Grammys suck, are irrelevant or idiotic, you will get no pushback from me. But racist? Were the Grammys racist when they awarded Natalie Cole for the Frankenstein-ian sentimentality of Unforgettable over REM's vastly superior Out of Time? Or when they awarded Whitney Houston's Bodyguard soundtrack over REM's Automatic for the People? No, the Grammys weren't racist in making those decisions, they were just way behind the times. And for those who think Rap is an artistically worthwhile musical genre, don't take the Grammy slights personally because the Recording Academy has throughout its history consistently fucked over artistically superior music of the moment for less challenging and more mainstream fare and race has had nothing to do with it. 

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The proof that the Grammys are awful to cutting-edge artists of all colors is pretty easy to see. For instance, in 1993, U2's seminal album, and arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all-time, Achtung Baby, lost out to Eric Clapton's schmaltzy Unplugged album. Another example is that In 1992 when Natalie Cole was beating out REM for Album of the Year, the best, most consequential album of that year and of that generation, Nirvana's Nevermind, WASN'T EVEN NOMINATED. 

 

In 1997, Celine Dion beat out Smashing Pumpkin's alternative anthem Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness for Album of the Year. In 1998, Bob Dylan's Time out of Mind beat out Radiohead's brilliant masterpiece OK Computer. In 2001, Steely Dan's flaccid Two Against Nature beat out Radiohead's Kid A and Beck's Midnite Vultures, two extraordinary pieces of work.

The list goes on, in 2002 the mundane soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou beat U2's redefining renaissance album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. 2003 Norah Jones lush snooze-fest Come Away With Me beat out Springsteen's American epic The Rising. In 2005 Ray Charles nostalgic Genius Loves Company beat out Green Day's instant classic American Idiot. 

Obviously, none of these examples were the result of racism on the part of the Grammys, but were due to the Recording Academy skewing more towards the established acceptable music rather than anything that is pushing boundaries. When you add the Academy's inclination to look backwards with their memberships prejudice toward musicianship, then you get a scenario where Rap/Hip-Hop music is less appreciated than popular music fans may like and racism is not even remotely the reason. 

To me, the real scandal is not Grammy (or Oscar) "racism", it is the neutering of that word through continued overuse. Racism simply no longer has any force as a pejorative, and that is why we have seen recent attempts to up the ante on charges of racism by using the terms White supremacy, White privilege or institutional racism. The word "racism" has become like antibiotics, its overuse has made it less effective which is ultimately dangerous to us all. 

Crying racism over perceived awards slights is absurd and frankly, entirely counter-productive. Is the problem with race in America really the collection of artists in the Recording Academy or in the Motion Picture Academy? In industries where Blacks have thrived well beyond their demographic reality is that really the best place to point the finger of racism?

My advice to those crying racism over the Grammys awarding a Filipino-Puerto Rican singer over Black rappers…stop being emotional and irrational and get serious. Stop making "racism" your instinctual response to any failure on the part of Black people, especially when it comes to something so subjective as musical tastes. You are doing your noble cause no favors by tilting at such ridiculous and easily disprovable windmills. 

 

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