Racism, Hip-Hop, And The Grammys
As last night’s Grammy ceremony unfolded, it seemed poised to be a watershed night for hip-hop. For the first time, the award for Best Rap Album was handed out at the televised special instead of during the cursory pre-ceremony live stream. This was a victory for the genre, which had previously been painfully underrepresented at the live ceremony. Kendrick Lamar won the award for his masterful album To Pimp A Butterfly, and dedicated his award to grammy-less hip-hop pioneers and the classic albums they made before the Grammys began to acknowledge the genre. “This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle,” he said. “This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas.”
And that was just the start of a big night for rap. Later, Stephen Colbert introduced a performance from the cast of the critically acclaimed hip-hop Broadway show Hamilton. While nothing to write home about, it was a strong performance; however, the cast stole the show when it was announced that they won the award for Best Musical Theater Album. Hamilton’s star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda delivered the night’s most exciting acceptance speech when he recited his thank you’s in a rapid-fire spoken word rap. His speech was yet another special moment for hip-hop, paying respects to musical theater giant Jeanine Tesori but also rap icons like Big Pun, The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, “King Kendrick,” and “Quest and Tariq, the whole Roots crew.”
But hip-hop’s biggest moment of the night—and perhaps of any Grammys ceremony ever—was Kendrick Lamar’s show stopping medley of songs from To Pimp A Butterfly. To put it bluntly, this was one of the most powerful performances to grace the Grammys stage. Lamar tackled racism head on, both within the music industry and at large throughout the country. He began by limping to the mic in a blue prison uniform chained to four other black inmates, while his band played from inside jail cells. After rapping a verse from his song “The Blacker the Berry,” he and his comrades broke free of their shackles and burst into an electrifying dance as the crowd roared. From there he delved deeper into the roots of African music, performing a new arrangement of the reassuring black pride anthem “Alright.” Lamar ended with an emotional freestyle that addressed Trayvon Martin’s death (“on February 26th I lost my life too”), the disturbing lack of racial progress in the United States (“for our community do you know what this does? Add to a trail of hatred…set us back another four hundred years”), and ending with a call for a wider dialogue about racial injustices (“conversation for the entire nation, this is bigger than us.”) It was one for the books, and was summed up with a single word: during the applause the cameras caught a wide-eyed Rev. Run of Run DMC mouthing “incredible.”
So how was last night such a devastating blow to hip-hop, despite all these triumphs? The answer lies in the big three Grammy categories: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year. Two decades ago the Grammys did hip-hop the belated justice of providing a separate awards category for the genre. But as has been proven time and time again, separate is not equal. The true indication of how well hip-hop has been assimilated into the awards show lies in these three genre-spanning awards, the highest honors at the ceremony. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly made a clean sweep in the rap categories, but was shut out entirely from the major categories. Normally this wouldn’t automatically be an indication of racial adversity, but Butterfly isn’t a normal album. It combines top shelf lyricism with creative genre-bending arrangements and an invigorating racial message. It isn’t preoccupied with material wealth and doesn’t promote violence—its message is socially progressive, optimistic, and empathetic. The album received universal acclaim from critics. According to Metacritic, an objective aggregator of virtually all major entertainment reviews, it’s the third most critically acclaimed album to receive a major release since the site began collecting data seventeen years ago**, surpassed in renown only by Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose and Brian Wilson’s Smile. If the Grammys truly represent the critical consensus on music as they claim to, then there’s no question who should’ve won.
The stars finally seemed aligned for a hip-hop album to receive the award for Album of the Year, but at the last minute it was snatched from beneath Lamar’s nose and handed to Taylor Swift. Now, while it’s painful for many to see this happen, it’s important to remember that none of this is Swift’s fault. She created a monolithic pop album, and just like every other nominee, she deserved to win (although a close look at her face as she bee-lined to Lamar after she was announced the winner suggests even she feels uncomfortable that he didn’t get the award). Her acceptance speech was a poignant attempt to remind women—who are also vastly discriminated against in the music industry—that they can still succeed in the face of male privilege. But this moment unfortunately might’ve drawn attention away from another factor that allowed her to stand on that stage: white privilege.
Black artists have been historically overshadowed in these three major categories during all 58 years of the Grammys. In the Album of the Year category, only ten black artists have beaten white nominees without sharing the award with a white artist. The same goes for Record of the Year. An all black nomination for Song of the Year has only won five times. This is a problem. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. And it only gets worse when the lens is narrowed further to examine hip-hop specifically.
The Washington Post released some frightening statistics in the wake of last night’s Grammy results. Ever since hip-hop’s overdue inclusion in the award process in 1989, only 1.2% of the 81 major-category awards handed out has gone to hip-hop—or to put it another way, one single award, for Outkast’s 2004 double album. A mere 34 nominations in these major categories have gone to hip-hop. That’s just 8.1% of the 421 major nominations since 1989.
To Pimp A Butterfly would have been the first front-to-back rap album to win a major award. Those trying to downplay the gross oversight against hip-hop in these key categories will tell you that rap albums have previously won Album of the Year twice, but that’s simply not true. Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won in 1999, but even though it contained some rapped verses it was definitively a neo-soul album, and predominantly featured singing. And the one rap album that did win an award did so on a pseudo-technicality. In 2004 Outkast won for their double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below; however, it’s clear that the award was won not by the album’s disc of rap songs (sorry Big Boi), but by Andre 3000’s ambitious second disc—which again, was largely a departure from Outkast’s hip-hop roots and centered around singing, with only a few sparse rap verses. What’s more, these two albums won during years with relatively weak competition from white nominees.
None of this is to say that the Grammys have an intentional vendetta against hip-hop or black artists. In fact, if last night’s ceremony proves anything, it’s that they’re trying to provide a bigger platform for hip-hop moving forward. What’s scary is that there’s a huge disconnect between the diverse ceremony that you see on your TV and the consensus of Grammy voters. White men have an undeniable advantage walking into the Grammys. With a voting body rooted in an older generation, and compromised voting rules that allow every single voter to vote in the major categories without even listening to all of the nominations, it’s no wonder awards tend to go to white musicians with broad name recognition.
Last night was supposed to be the night the Grammys got it right. Instead, they perpetuated their heartbreaking disregard for hip-hop, and by extension talented black musicians in general. The implications of this snub ring heavy with many music fans who are having a hard time staying optimistic moving forward. If To Pimp A Butterfly couldn’t change the tides, it’s hard to imagine a hip-hop album that can. At this rate, we likely won’t see the vindication we want until an entire generation of voters is phased out and replaced by a new one. And while it might feel cathartic to say “forget the Grammys, it’s time to stop taking them seriously,” that won’t solve the problem. A large portion of the population relies on the Grammys to inform them of what music is and isn’t good, whether they realize it or not. Many of those people are young black boys and girls. By shutting out hip-hop, the Grammys are communicating to them that the genre is something lesser, undeserving of music’s highest honors. That’s a big issue. Many people hoped last night could be the revolution that would start to correct the award show’s course. Instead, it looks like talented hip-hop artists will have to continue to wait impatiently in the wings for the foreseeable future.
**Based on Metacritic's own advice, only albums that have ten or more reviews available for aggregation have been considered, so as to maintain the data's accuracy. Therefor the album from Wadada Leo Smith and the rerelease of Serge Gainsbourg's 1971 album have been disregarded for the purposes of this article.