Art is inherently political. Now, of all times, the very existence of music that goes against the grain, or is created by communities that continue to be suppressed, is a truly political statement. However, the distribution of music as such is structured like a business – and like most businesses – it attempts to play things safe so as to retain large sections of its consumer base.
The Grammys are one such institution whose facade is of the promotion of the arts, but whose racial bias shows its true colours, of which there is only one – white. This discriminatory tint to the most prestigious awards show in the Western music industry is a little more complex than pointed racism.
The Grammys’ organizers recognize that their viewership is logically dominated by the largest homogeneous group in America – white people. And in the Age of Trump, it makes good business sense to appease this group of people, even those casually prejudiced. When Ken Ehrlich and David Wild say Frank Ocean’s 2013 Grammy performance didn’t make for “good TV” in the context of Frank not submitting Blonde for Grammy consideration the subtext is that a coloured musician performing is a gamble, and a favour bestowed on Frank by the Grammy producers, implying a flawed set diminishes the musician’s talent. And while Frank’s response addressed many of these issues well – in rightful anger – there was a mistake. Taylor Swift winning Album of the Year over Kendrick did make for good TV – an attractive white woman making inoffensive pop music while taking a swipe at the strawman Angry Black Man, Kanye West, had white feminists rejoicing, while the general viewing public was appeased.
Appeasement politics like this forms the backbone of the Grammys’ decision-making process, including when it comes to awards. While Kendrick had created a a powerful body of personal and political music that was – and continues to be – a reflection of the times; it was far too unapologetically black to appeal to the average white viewer, especially when compared to the all-smiles postergirl of saccharine that is Taylor.
Adele, for all her musical gifts, is an inoffensive musician – its safe music based on universal emotions. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when compared to its prime competitor – Beyonce’s Lemonade and Formation, it becomes clear why she was the obvious Grammy pick. Bey was fierce and explicit – the music she made drew on decades of the African American experience, combined with a tale of personal ire, to create a tour-de-force of intersectional feminism. Given Lemonade’s controversies from the very start – lead single Formation’s Super Bowl performance was attacked by predominantly white conservatives for its ‘aggression’ and emulation of Black Panther attire – handing the record a Grammy would piss off a lot of the same people the Grammys wanted to appease.
People of Colour have historically been restricted to ‘their’ categories at the Grammys – rap, jazz, etc are the ones where they’re appeased (not always either, word to Macklemore.) The big nominee/winner in rap, Drake, is quite simply one of, if not the biggest recording artist on the planet with a foundation in hip-hop, and he won for possibly the most bubblegum-pop song he’s ever put out, Hotline Bling. In categories that feature incredible music that celebrates the intricacies of the genre, whether it be the gospel-infused beauty Ultralight Beam, or the hardcore rap of All the Way Up, or the West-Coast gangsta of Blank Face LP, handing the award to the least ‘rap’ of the nominees implicitly indicates the unwillingness of the Grammy committee to acknowledge the truest traditions of the genre.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of award shows like the Grammys’ tendency to take the path-of-least-offense is offered by a parodying vocal sample in (the never-inoffensive) Kanye’s All Day, where a clearly-white woman bemoans the “bunch of young men, all dressed in black, dancing extremely aggressively on-stage” – award shows are not known to offer a platform for this sort of rebelliousness. It’s artists like Kanye, Kendrick, Beyonce and Frank Ocean, then, who can take up the mantle of pushing past the racial barriers set in place by the music powers-that-be despite their immovable position of mediocrity. The Grammys might not be the last bastion of white cultural bias, but it’s a damn good place to start.