Beyoncé broke the Internet—but she’s still a second-class citizen at the Grammys.
According to the Internet, Beyoncé is now the Grammys’ most-nominated woman in history, with outlets like Time, BuzzFeed, and Forbes lauding the singer’s history-making feat. Besting Dolly Parton’s 46, Beyoncé has racked up a staggering 47 nominations over her career, a figure that’s likely to get a lot higher over the years. But while that headline is certainly cause for celebration, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yet again, the singer was all but shut out of the major categories; while her eponymous surprise release received a nod in Album of the Year, she was snubbed in Record and Song, bested by the likes of Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor’s booty-shaking novelty jams. Beyoncé had to settle for lower category nods in R&B and Urban Contemporary, where she’s landed most of her wins and noms.
While Swift’s record-setting accomplishments this year deserve mention, it might be hard to believe that the Grammys didn’t think a single artist of color merited recognition in the evening’s top song categories. It might…if they didn’t pull this every year. In last year’s top categories, you could get recognized as a person of color in one of two ways: Either 1) you were a back-up performer on someone else’s song (Pharrell and T.I. on “Blurred Lines”), or 2) you reminded Grammy voters of white music they like (Bruno Mars doing his best Sting impression on “Locked Out of Heaven”). Kendrick Lamar’s masterful Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City got nominated for Album of the Year, but it didn’t stand a chance—fellow Album contender Macklemore beat it in the Rap category.
After beating Lamar last year, Macklemore sparked a wide discussion on the Internet about the state of race in music when the rapper (née Ben Haggerty) posted a self-serving Instagram photo apologizing to Lamar for beating him. It was a screenshot of the text Haggerty sent apologizing for the win, and the message read, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win.” Drake, another nominee in the category, rightly called out the mea culpa as “cheap” and “wack as f**k,” but what’s even more “wack” is that the Grammys get called out for this exact thing what feels like every year—and they still don’t change.
For instance, in the past decade, only three black artists have won in Song and Record, which (for those unclear of the distinction) recognize songwriting and overall production, respectively. One was Beyoncé. The other two? Luther Vandross (2004’s “Dance with My Father”) and Ray Charles (2005’s Norah Jones duet, “Here We Go Again”), neither of whom would offend your grandmother. Although twice nominated in the category before, Charles didn’t finally nab a win until he got in on the back of a onetime Grammy favorite. But even Jones, the half-Indian daughter of musician Ravi Shankar, has had a hard time competing as the Grammys get whiter and whiter. Jones hasn’t won a competitive category in nine years.
This year likewise has the Janelle Monáe problem: In 2010, Monae’s “Tightrope” was one of the most innovative, infectious, and acclaimed songs of the year, announcing Monáe as a true talent and a force to be reckoned with. (For the record, “Cold War” was also really damn good.) Monáe was nominated for “Best Urban Alternative Performance” while major category spots went to a surprisingly non-Mumford and Sons group of folks: Jay-Z, Cee-lo Green, and Rihanna. The winner was, of course, Lady Antebellum. Monáe would have to wait until 2013 for her award, when she guested on Fun.’s “We Are Young.” If you’re black and up for a competitive Grammy, it helps to join up with a lot of white people with whom the vanilla voting body can identify.
Similarly, this year’s Darkchild remix of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” (a likely winner) features Mary J. Blige on backup vocals, but Blige herself has only been nominated in Song and Record once; in 2007, Blige received a nomination in Song and Record for “Be Without You,” but the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” swept the major categories. Other than the uncredited Blige, there’s not a single person of color recognized this year, despite the fact that Pharrell’s impossible-to-avoid-even-if-you-wanted-to summer jam “Happy” was considered a lock for a nomination. Like Beyoncé, Pharrell got a mention in Album, a category that also looks favorable to Smith. Even though Smith’s In the Lonely Hour received so-so reviews, he’s favored in Song, Record, and Best New Artist. Who could resist a sweep?
Smith is establishing himself as an astonishing emerging talent—white dudes’ answer to Adele—but there’s almost no argument that he deserves to win over Beyoncé. “Drunk in Love” was equally successful on the Billboard charts—where, like “Stay With Me,” it went all the way to No. 2. The track also came from a more successful album: BEYONCE not only broke iTunes records when it was released last December, selling 617,000 copies in just three days, but it also broke the Internet. News of the record’s surprise release sparked 1.2 million tweets in just 12 hours with the Guardian’s Peter Robison calling the move “Beyoncégeddon.” According to Robison, the album was a “major triumph” and “a masterclass in both exerting and relinquishing control.”
With “Drunk in Love” recently topping Rolling Stone’s list of the year’s best songs, there’s no doubt that 2014 was the year of Beyoncé, establishing her reign as the biggest pop star on the planet and redefining the way we release music. So why didn’t that translate into Grammy love? It’s the same reason as always: When it comes to Grammy voters, black artists have a second-class status when compared to a bunch of nice white people they like right now. Sure, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” were big hits, but will anyone remember them 10 years from now? Slate’s Chris Molanphy was even puzzled as to why Trainor’s ubiquitous track remained so popular this year. The song kind of has an Adele thing going on, but in terms of quality, the tune isn’t even worthy of Duffy. It’s bargain bin retro at best.
But Azalea illustrates what it perhaps our most telling issue: The Grammys like it a whole lot more when white people perform black genres than when black folks do it themselves. While everyone on the planet loves them, for good reason, there’s no doubting that Sam Smith, Adele, and Amy Winehouse have fared better with the Grammys at singing soul than their black counterparts. A rap record has still never won Album of the Year, and Billboard’s Erika Ramirez is betting on Iggy Azalea to pull a Macklemore and win in the Rap Album category this year for The New Classic. If the Grammy nominations are always irritating and disappointing, Azalea’s likely win intensifies that. Ramirez writes, “In a genre born from black culture, the potential category winner is not only white, but has been accused of appropriating black culture since the start of her career.”
Much has already been written—and better—on the issue of Iggy Azalea and cultural appropriation, but the Grammys show why this issue continues to exist. White artists continue to be applauded and recognized for performing in black genres while their contemporaries have to sit on the sidelines and watch it happen all over again. Such is the saga of rock music, where a gangly heartthrob from Tupelo, Miss., with good pelvic thrusts became the “King of Rock and Roll”—because he was a better sales pitch to a white audience than the artists whose music he performed. And if the Grammys prove anything, it’s that even as black artists make history, white people will be doomed to repeat our own.
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