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Beating the Dead Horse of Grammy Award's Racism

Estimated reading Time: 4 minutes 48 seconds

It is that time of year again, awards season! And with the Grammy Awards tonight (quickly followed in two weeks by the Oscars) comes with them the oh-so-predictable and tired charges of racism.

Every year at this time, both pre and post the awards, there are a cavalcade of articles in the media bemoaning the blatant racist snubs of the Recording Academy and blaming every Black artist’s loss on the vicious racism of Academy members. These articles, like the New York Times piece post-2017 awards that declared the Grammy had a “pernicious” race problem, are grounded in baseless assumptions and often play fast and loose with the facts in order to bolster their case.

What frustrates me the most about these “Grammys are Racist” stories is that they actually undermine and distract from genuine racial issues in America. Like American’s overuse of antibiotics leads to a dangerous diminishing of their power, crying racism at every turn, such as with perceived awards show snubs, makes that charge much less powerful when applied to life and death issues like criminal justice, health care and voting rights.

The underlying assumption fueling these articles is the idea that Black artists are under-represented at the Grammys. As I wrote in 2017 and 2018, this assumption is not based on fact. The elite media who bemoan racism at the Grammys never mention one very important statistic, namely the demographic reality of African-Americans in the United States, or the Black population in the Anglosphere (English speaking world - U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, Australia).

The Black population in the U.S. is 12.6% which comes as a surprise to many people who only have a passing knowledge of demographics. The Black population in the Anglosphere is even smaller, coming in at 9%. When contrasting the 12.6% or 9% population figure against the percentage of Grammy nominees and winners who are Black, it becomes very obvious that Black performers aren’t under represented at all, but rather are over-represented.

For example, from 1987 to 2017, in the Best Album category 37% of the nominees and 13% of the winners were Black artists. In the Record of the Year category 36% of the nominees and 20% of the winners were Black artists. In the Song of the Year category 28% of the nominees and 23% of the winners were Black artists. In the Best New Artist category 32.6% of the nominees and 40% of the winners were Black artists. If you look closely at those numbers you will realize that all of them are larger than 12.6%, some more than twice as large.

The media never mentions Black over-representation when discussing Grammy racism, it is just accepted as fact that Black artists are being cheated out of awards because of race. A great example of this vacuous narrative in the media is found in the writing of John Vilanova, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Times among other places. To further Vilanova’s establishment bona fides, he is also in the process of getting his PhD from the prestigious Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a recent article for The AtlanticWhat it Takes for Black Artists to Win Big at the Grammys”, Vilanova makes the same case he made a year ago in the LA Times (“Beyonce’s Grammy Snub and the Glass Ceiling on Black Art”), namely that Black “musicians” run into a glass ceiling when it comes to the Grammy awards. Vilanova’s assertions are standard, mainstream thought among the media and academic class in America…namely that racism is such a “pernicious” problem that it is baked into the cake even in the allegedly liberal bastions of the music and film industries.

Not surprisingly, Vilanova never mentions the demographics and statistics which I lay out in my articles on the subject and which decimate his thesis. In fact, in order to fit the facts around his virtue signaling story line, he blatantly distorts and contorts statistical reality to such a degree as to be duplicitous. For example he ignores the Best new Artist category entirely and only looks back as far as 1999 in regards to the other major categories.

Another example is when Vilanova compares Beyonce, the most nominated women in Grammy history with 62, to White country artist Alison Krauss, who has 40 nominations. Vilanova claims that Beyonce’s Grammy win percentage (22 awards out of 62 nominations - 37%) in relation to Alison Krauss’s 27 wins in 42 nominations, is “markedly low”, but never mentions the uncomfortable fact that obliterates his thesis of racism at the Grammys, namely that of the top four popular music Grammy awards winners in history, only one, Krauss, is White (the other three are Beyonce, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder are Black). Vilanova also fails to mention another glaring difference between Krauss and Beyonce besides their race and Grammy win percentage, and that is that unlike Beyonce, Krauss, in addition to singing, plays an instrument (violin/piano).

Besides laying out a statistical argument in my previous articles, i also lay out a stylistic one, making the case that the Recording Academy is made up of musicians, engineers and producers, and that they appreciate musicianship above all else. This seems a rather self-evident claim to make, that musicians, who have dedicated their life to mastering their craft, would admire other musicians who have done the same. This is a major reason why rap gets short shrift at the Grammys, it isn’t because the Academy hates Blacks, it is because they love musicians, and rappers are not musicians.

Vilanova unintentionally makes my point for me in his Atlantic piece when he bemoans the only Black artists to have won major Grammy awards (Album of the Year, Song of the year and Record of the Year) this century are artists whose “auterist bonafides…carry them to the podium”. The list includes Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles, Luther Vandross, Outkast, Herbie Hancock and Beyonce. You know what else these artists have in common besides being auteurs, Black and Grammy winners? They are all remarkable musicians. Beyonce, Luther Vandross and Lauryn Hill are master vocalists, Herbie Hancock, Alicia Keys and Ray Charles master pianists, and Outkast are masters of all trades including playing instruments.

If you look at non-Black winners of major Grammys you find the same type of artists as the group above. Bruno Mars, Adele, Taylor Swift, Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, they all have mastered an instrument (voice is an instrument) and/or play an instrument and write their own songs.

Vilanova’s self-righteous obtuseness doesn’t stop there as he makes an even more vapid and flaccid argument that these Black artists (Beyonce, Herbie Hancock, Alicia Keys, Outkast etc.) have broken the glass ceiling only because they aren’t making “Black” music, which apparently according to Vilanova must only be rap. Vilanova even goes so far as to claim that the Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album is in itself a racist award. Vilanova is basically saying that if a Black artist wins a major Grammy then by definition the music they are making is not “Black music”. This is madness.

The reality is that Black artists are over-represented at the Grammys. And on top of that, the statistical reality is that Rock music, which is still the most popular music in America in terms of consumption, album sales and concert ticket sales, is horrendously under-represented. In fact, only one rock band, Greta Van Fleet, is nominated in any of the major Grammy categories this year, and that is in Best new Artist. But you won’t read that story in any major media outlets and certainly not from the desk of John Vilanova.

The question then becomes why do people like John Vilanova believe the things they do when it is very clear that they are factually incorrect? I cannot read minds, but maybe Vilanova is simply playing the game and telling his superiors and his audience what they want to hear. Or maybe he really does believe the things he writes and is simply an intellectual midget. Or maybe Vilanova is so ensconced in the elite media and academic universe that he inhabits that he is totally blind to his own establishment orthodoxy indoctrination and is inoculated against critical thinking. Who knows? But the truth is this, that it is obvious and provable through demographics, statistics and history, that John Vilanova’s thesis of a “ceiling for Black artists” is entirely fallacious. And yet, despite being so obtuse, intentionally or otherwise, Vilanova gets paid to write for the hallowed Atlantic magazine and the LA Times, and I write for RT, and he is getting a PhD from Penn and I have a sixth grade education. Maybe I should blame racism for my failings…it would be just as credible an excuse as it as for Black artists’ failures at the Grammys.

Besides watering down the power of the charge of racism, the Grammy awards have watered themselves down due to these scurrilous charges of racism. To combat this non-existent problem, the Grammys have made dramatic moves to alter their voting population in an effort to “diversify” their nominees and winners. The Grammys have also expanded their nominee numbers from 5 to 8, in order to appease calls for diversity and inclusivity. What these changes have really done though, is diminish the prestige and cache of being nominated for, or winning, a Grammy. In a sense, these Grammy elections are now rigged in order to give a “leg up” to Black artists who are already well outperforming their demographic reality.

In conclusion, as proven by Mr. Vilanova and the rest of the media’s relentlessly vacuous articles on the subject, no matter who wins at the Grammy Awards tonight, racism will be the excuse for why someone lost…which means Truth, as always, will be big loser once again.


Oscars and Grammys Racism : Perception or Reality?

Estimated Reading Time : 5 minutes 17 seconds

It is understandable, with the ugly history of discrimination against them, that Black artists would feel awards shows disregard them solely because of their race…but is that perception accurate?

On Sunday February 9th, 2017, Adele won the Grammy for Best Album over Beyonce, and ever since there have been cries of racism in the media against the Recording Academy. The next morning both the New York Times and the Washington Post had articles decrying the award's racism and making claims of #GrammysSoWhite.  

The New York Times opined, "The Grammys’ race problem is so pernicious that some white winners have chosen contrition over exuberance". 

The Washington Post wrote of the Grammys dispute, "Somehow, lots of listeners are fine with shrugging this off. Some balk at taking a nice Sunday evening television show and making it about race. (Counterpoint: It would be irresponsible not to.)" 

This Grammy controversy, combined with the #OscarsSoWhite uproar last year over the absence of Black actors nominated for Oscars, certainly gives the impression that both the music and film industries have serious racial issues. But do the Grammys and Oscars actually have a "pernicious" race problem? A closer look at the relationship between the Grammys, Oscars and race, is warranted to find out whether these charges are factual and substantial, or emotional and scurrilous.

A good place to start the investigation is to see if Black artists are under-represented in awards in relation to their population percentage. According to the U.S. Census, African-Americans make up 12.6% of the U.S. population. A review of the amount of Grammy and Oscar nominations and wins for Black artists over the last thirty years (1988 – 2017) will indicate whether they are under-represented or not. 

The four most prestigious categories for the Grammys are Best Album, Record of the year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Over the last thirty years in the Best Album category, 37% (56) of nominees were Black artists and they won 23% of the awards. 

In the Record of the Year category, Black artists scored 36% (54) of the nominations and won 20% (6) of the awards. 

In the Song of the Year category, Black artists have 28% (42) of the nominations and prevailed for 23% (7) of the awards. 

And the in the Best New Artist category, there have been Black nominees 32.6% (49) of the time, who triumphed for 40% (12) of the Best New Artist awards. 

It is obvious upon review of the data that over the last 30 years Black artists are, in fact, substantially over-represented at the Grammys in relation to their percentage of the U.S. population.

In regards to this years supposed racial controversy, Beyonce has won a total of 22 Grammys (one in the big four categories) throughout her stellar career, which is 8th most all-time. Of the top four popular music Grammy winners in history, three are Black artists, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and Beyonce, with Alyson Krause being the only White artist on that list. It seems to me, that if the Grammys have a “pernicious” race problem, they sure have a funny way of showing it. 

The statistics regarding the Academy Awards for Black artists over the last 30 years (1988 – 2017) are quite illuminating as well. In the Best Actor category, Black actors have received 10.6%(16) of the nominations and won 10% (3) of the awards.

The Best Supporting Actor award has had 8% (12) of its nominees be Black actors and they have taken home the golden statue 10% (3) of the time.

Black actresses have been nominated for 9.3% (14) of the Best Supporting Actress awards and have won 16.6% (5) of the time.

Lastly, the Best Actress category has had Black nominees 4% (6) of the time and only Halle Berry has won the award, which amounts to 3.3% of the awards.

At first glance it would seem that, unlike the Grammys, the Oscars definitely have a race problem as in all but one category, Best Supporting Actress wins (16.6%), do Black artists equal or surpass their U.S. population percentage. But looking more deeply at the numbers reveals that this alleged race issue is more illusion than reality.

If you expand the parameters of the debate beyond the borders of the U.S., and I think it is fair to do so since Hollywood draws the overwhelming majority of their acting talent from the U.S, U.K., Canada, Ireland and Australia, also known as the Anglosphere - all the major countries that speak English as their first language, then the supposed inequality among nominations and wins for Black actors all but disappears.  If you combine the populations of the Anglosphere nations, their Black citizens make up 9% of that general population.

According to the 9% Black population percentage in the Anglosphere, Black actors are over-represented in Best Actor nominations (10.6%) and wins (10%), Best Supporting Actress nominations (9.3%) and wins (16.6%), and in wins for Best Supporting Actor (10%). It does still show slight under-representation in the Best Supporting Actor nominations (8%) and massive under-representation in the Best Actress category in both wins (3.3%) and nominations (4%).

In addition, if the Black actors nominated this year win, then the data is even more compelling against the Oscars alleged race problem. If Denzel Washington wins Best Actor, and as expected, Marshehala Ali wins Best Supporting Actor, then the Black actor win rate over the last thirty years in those two categories becomes 13.3%, which is not only higher than the Black population percentage of the Anglosphere (9%), but also of the U.S. (12.6%). If the heavy favorite Viola Davis wins Best Supporting Actress, the win rate for Black actresses in that category will swell to 20%, more than double the Anglosphere’s Black population percentage (9%) and considerably more than the U.S. percentage (12.6%). If Ruth Negga wins Best Actress, which would be a huge upset, then the win rate for Black Actresses in that category would grow to a still lackluster 6.6%.

The #OscarsSoWhite argument also makes claims of racial inequality against Black artists in casting, but those charges ring just as hollow when you look at the data. According to the Screen Actors Guild, Black actors make up 12% of their members, just below the African-American population percentage (12.6%). A study by the Annenberg Center shows that from 2007 to 2013 (the last year of the study) Black actors were cast in films at a rate of 12.6%, identical to their U.S. population rate. A Screen Actors Guild study from 2008 (most recent year available), reports that Black actors are cast in 14.8% of all film and television roles, including 13.2% of lead roles and 16% of supporting roles.

What these studies and the historical data prove is that Black artists are not under-represented at the Grammys and Oscars, or on film and tv, but in many cases over-represented in relation to their population percentage. So why does the perception of racism in these entertainment fields persist? I believe the biggest reason is a failure to put aside emotional arguments and to put the statistical data into the proper demographic context.

A case in point was when The Economist magazine did a study last year and found that Black actors were cast in 9% of “top roles” in films since 2000. The Economist used this evidence to conclude that Black actors are under-represented due to the 9% “top role” number being below the 12.6% U.S. population percentage of African-Americans. What The Economist failed to take into account was the broader population of the Anglosphere, which would put this 9% “top role” number right in line with the Black population percentage in major English speaking countries.

Another example of this sort of analytical blindness was on display this week in The Guardian where a writer was horrified to learn that Black artists had only won 10 Best Album Grammys since 1959. When you put the fact of “only” 10 Black artists winning Best Album over 58 years into demographic context, you discover that means that Black artists won 17.2% of the Best Album awards over that time, which is considerably more than their percentage of the population in the U.S.

Simply put, Black artists are thriving in show business. As an example, the Forbes 2014 list of the ten most powerful people in entertainment had Beyonce in the number one spot and African-Americans in seven of the top ten positions.

These knee-jerk cries of racism after awards snubs are emotionally-driven, and undermine more substantial claims of discrimination in regards to significant topics like police brutality, incarceration rates, economic opportunity and healthcare quality. These scurrilous accusations of award show prejudice make a mockery of the struggle against the scourge of racial inequality and injustice. There’s no accounting for taste, but to chalk up awards losses by Black artists to racial animus is a cheap way to avoid artistic responsibility and ignore demographic reality.

Previously published on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at RT.