With the passing of the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, music producers and consumers alike continue to pressure The Recording Academy to address systemic issues that have plagued the award show for decades.
Artists in particular have been increasingly vocal with their grievances, with some using their platform as an award-winner to highlight the event as problematic.
Tyler Okonma, better known as Tyler, the Creator, criticized the categories of Best Rap Album and Best Urban Contemporary Album in a post-award show interview. He cited them as a way to pigeonhole black artists that are doing anything “genre-bending.” He poignantly stated, “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. That’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
His point exposes a glaring flaw of the Grammys and The Recording Academy at large: They do not know how to recognize and include black artists without categorically superfluous awards.
Since its inception in 2013, every single nominee for Best Urban Contemporary Album has been an artist of color. The title of the award has no genre signifier, so its racial implications are all the more clear. Conversely, the award for Best Alternative Music Album, while less racially exclusive, is still primarily a competition for white artists.
Arbitrary distinctions are the Grammys’ forte, as this racialized distinction replaced a genderized one. In 2011, The Recording Academy restructured the Grammys to eliminate a plethora of awards, including gender-based categories, such as the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and its male counterpart.
The Recording Academy also found it necessary to eliminate awards that were the primary forms of recognition for underrepresented artists and genres. This included Best Regional Mexican Album, Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, Best Tejano Album and Best Native American Music Album among many others. This effectively took away the only mainstream platform artists of those genres could occupy.
Couple this with its simultaneously political and unsound voting process, and it appears evident that The Recording Academy has little interest in painting a holistic picture of the music industry. Their mission to recognize “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position,” is drifting further from reality every year.
This trend is becoming more clear as more artists speak out against the structural inefficiencies and racial bias of the Grammys. In a pre-Grammys gala acceptance speech, hip-hop magnate Diddy spoke out against the Recording Academy’s resistance to creating an “even playing field” for black artists.
The four main categories at the Grammys (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist) are well-documented to be a whitewashed showcase of the music industry, and this past year illuminates this truth. Billie Eilish convincingly swept the field. I will not argue the merits of her accomplishments, but it’s worth noting that she may have fared differently if the nominations weren’t skewed to favor white artists.
As Tyler, the Creator pointed out, his newly awarded “Igor” (a very genre-fluid release) won in the category of Best Rap Album but didn’t receive any nominations in the general field. He perceived this as a “backhanded compliment,” and rightfully so. The Recording Academy, in their efforts to categorize musicians, create irrational chasms between artistry and identity.
It’s safe to say that the Grammys, a staple since 1959, is the byproduct of an antiquated institution that is deeply out of touch with the modern music landscape as much as the current social climate.