Once again, we saw that America loves Black art and hungers for our culture, but ultimately despises Black artists (and people)
As angry and as disappointed as so many were that Adele’s 25 beat out Beyoncé’s Lemonade for Album of the Year (and every other major category) during Sunday’s Grammy Awards, perhaps what truly stands out is that Adele seemed to be the only one who was genuinely shocked by the result. The primary sentiment on social media — after people finished shouting expletives — was that such a horrid result was expected. Frank Ocean, Drake, and Kanye West skipped the show altogether because of their grievances with how NARAS (the recording academy that produces and votes for the Grammys) regards Black artists in general and Black hip-hop artists in particular, with Ocean taking the extra step to make his point by refusing to submit his acclaimed album Blonde for consideration. For so many, what happened on Sunday night is a painfully familiar story as old as Rock and Roll itself (at the very least).
In April 1951 Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats released the single “Rocket 88,” which many consider to be the first Rock and Roll record. Brentson got songwriting credit, but it was actually written by Ike Turner and the Delta Cats were really Turner’s Kings of Rhythm band; Brenston was their sax player and sang lead on the record.
There is debate about whether or not “Rocket 88” is the first rock and roll record, although both The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum have backed up its claim. But it’s an indisputable fact that Rock and Roll music was pioneered by Black American artists such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley, with blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe serving as vital influencers in shaping it.
We know that Elvis Presley became the first big rock star because White America refused to allow it’s teenage youth to display such widespread enthusiasm for Black artists and were particularly terrified of seeing white teenage girls and women idolize Black men. We know that raucous early rock songs like “Tutti Frutti” were stripped of its urgency and energy when covered by wholesome white artists like Pat Boone in order to make it “safe” for mainstream consumption. We know that the artists at the forefront of what became known as The British Invasion — The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Animals, and Dusty Springfield — were heavily influenced by Black American musicians to the point where they often flat out stole from them. And they certainly weren’t shy about letting Americans know it. We know that in most cases, the rapid success of these British rock and pop artists in the States inspired their young White audiences to discover veteran blues and R&B musicians who were previously ignored or rejected by American radio and practically erased from existence. We know that even as these British artists openly revered and even fetishized Black music, they became much more successful and exponentially wealthier than the very artists who influenced them, who invariably became periphery to the legend and mythology that quickly grew around these white artists. We know that it took less than two decades for rock and roll to go from a music genre that embodied the Black American experience to one viewed as virtually the exclusive domain of white musicians.
We know that while Black people have greatly impacted and influenced every aspect of this country’s art and culture, American popular music — rock and roll, R&B, funk, soul, hip-hop, electronica, pop, et al — has become the lingua franca of the world. And we know that it has particularly been shaped, influenced, and defined by Black people and our experience in America more than any other medium or art form, to the point where our presence has long ago become dominant. Nothing else has given Americans more pride in ourselves than the music our artists have originated, created, created and spread throughout every corner of this earth.
Everyone knows all of this and yet the gatekeepers of culture — who are overwhelmingly white and male — continue to insist on awarding their most prestigious accolades and honors to white artists whose overall product is often mediocre compared to the Black artists they compete with and in most cases have half the cultural cachet at best. While the Grammys are far from alone in doing this, their standing as music’s most prestigious annual award makes such transgressions sting more than any other, because they’re going out of their way to deny Black excellence and essentially spit in our faces, while expecting us just to be happy that they even invited our beloved artists to their party and to be overjoyed when they are given crumbs in the form of awards in the Negro categories of R&B, Hip-Hop, and Urban Contemporary (and far too often, the Grammys can’t even get them right).
All of this makes Beyoncé’s Lemonade being snubbed for Album of the Year particularly galling and inexcusable. It becomes even more insulting and offensive when you consider that Lemonade is just the newest entry in a long line of landmark albums from Black artists that have been robbed of winning the Grammy’s most prestigious award, which include:
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly
Kanye West’s Late Registration (one could also make a very strong case for The College Dropout, but no one was beating Ray Charles in a year when the entire ceremony was dedicated to his memory)
Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III
Prince’s Purple Rain
Beyoncé’s self titled album
Those are works that actually received a nomination for Album of the Year. Some of the greatest and even legendary albums from Black musicians such as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The Blueprint, Voodoo, Butterfly, Baduizm, My Life, Rhythm Nation 1814, 1999, Off The Wall, and What’s Going On — weren’t even nominated in that category.
We know now that only 10 Black artists in history have ever won the Grammy for Album of the Year. We also know that the last to win was Herbie Hancock in 2008 for a Joni Mitchell tribute album (River: the Joni Letters). Amongst them, only Stevie Wonder has won AOTY more than once and four of these artists have died within the last 13 years. In fact, since 2000 only six Black artists have won Grammys in ANY of the three major all-genre categories (Album, Record, and Song of the Year) as headliners — Hancock, Alicia Keys, Outkast, Luther Vandross, Charles, and Beyoncé herself. Vandross was unable to accept his Grammy in person because he was battling the effects of a severe stroke which would lead to his death a year later. Charles is the only Black artist in that span to win more than one major Grammy in the same year, and his were won posthumously. Bey’s Song of the Year award in 2010 as one of the co-writers of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” is both the most recent in that group and her only major Grammy.
In that same time period Adele has now twice swept the big three categories. Santana, Norah Jones, and The Dixie Chicks have also accomplished that feat in a single year. Artists who have taken two out of three in the same year include Amy Winehouse, Alison Krauss with Robert Plant, Lady Antebellum, Daft Punk, and Sam Smith. U2 has also managed to do that on two separate occasions. But the only Black artist to ever sweep the top three Grammy awards in a single year was the late Natalie Cole in 1992, and that was for an album where she covered standards her father Nat King Cole once sang in Unforgettable….with Love (that’s right, not even Michael Jackson swept the top three Grammys for Thriller). The last Black artist to win two major Grammys in the same year while still living is Seal, who won Record and Song of the Year in 1996 for “Kiss From a Rose.”
(NOTE: I am aware that Song of the Year actually goes to the songwriter instead of the artist, as well as the fact that Cole, Santana, and Jones did not have a writing credit on the songs which won that particular Grammy. For the sake of simplicity I included them because each of their performances were a big reason those songs reached a wide audience).
West has railed about how these gatekeepers consistently undervalue Black artists (particularly himself) for his entire career, and that — combined with a self-confidence and boldness that rivals Muhammad Ali’s — has brought upon widespread scorn and outright hatred against him long before he ever uttered his support for Agent Orange, especially from white people. It should be noted that the most bitterly hostile backlash against Kanye came for him recognizing Beyoncé’s value in the 2015 Grammys as well as the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards after she lost to inferior efforts from Beck and Taylor Swift respectively. Ocean himself was the target of scorn recently when longtime Grammy producer Keith Ehrlich and writer David Wild slammed his decision to boycott the ceremony by citing his “faulty” performance during the 2013 Grammys. Ocean responded by calling them out via his Tumblr page.
In this decade alone we’ve seen R&B/soul music (traditional and otherwise) receive a disproportionate amount of commercial success, critical acclaim, and accolades when performed by white artists. We’ve seen Macklemore & Ryan Lewis garner more Grammys — and perhaps greater mainstream critical plaudits — for The Heist than most hip-hop legends have received for their entire body of work. We’ve seen Miley Cyrus make twerking so popular that most grandmothers learned what it was while facing just a fraction of the scorn and slut shaming directed at Black women who do it much better, yet are treated as commodities or props when dancing alongside Cyrus. We’ve seen Iggy Azalea become a pop sensation by adopting a “minstrel-like caricature.” Even the Harlem Shake, a dance move that had become mainstream by 2001 thanks to music videos from rappers G. Dep and Eve, became the title of a wildly popular internet meme and a #1 hit song in 2013 while bearing ZERO resemblance to the actual dance move and NO reference to either the neighborhood it’s named after or the culture that inspired it.
Adele deserves all of the praise she’s getting for not only acknowledging Beyoncé’s groundbreaking work, but it’s specific impact on and importance for Black people. But even that is just one more example of White America’s longstanding content to allow their European counterparts be tremendously honest and outspoken in recognizing the greatness and significance of Black art and the people who make it — only to respond by giving these Euro artists the biggest rewards and accolades for emulating them and for their candor in doing so. Adele is the biggest star of the current wave of British artists who have gained massive commercial success and/or critical acclaim for their take on Black American soul music, which include Winehouse, Smith, Joss Stone, and Duffy. The Second British Invasion of the early 80s — particularly the synthpop and New Romantic artists like Duran Duran, The Human League, Eurythmics, and Culture Club — made it safer for White Americans to enjoy rhythm-based dance music again after the “Disco Sucks” backlash severely punished Black artists to such an extent that they were effectively banished from both mainstream radio and the Billboard pop charts by 1982. These artists made MTV worth watching in its first two years of existence even as the network shut out Black artists from its rotation — a situation that David Bowie famously challenged them for on camera in 1983. And the French duo Daft Punk achieved their greatest commercial and critical success by showcasing Nile Rodgers, who co-founded the most successful and influential band of the disco era in Chic (and went on to become a legendary songwriter/producer himself), on their 2013 album Random Access Memories, which won Grammys for Album of Year and Record of the Year for its Rodgers and Pharrell Williams — assisted single “Get Lucky.”
Perhaps no Black artist encapsulated this better than Prince when he told Rolling Stone in 1990, “I don’t go to awards shows anymore. I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else. But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too. I played La Crosse (Wisconsin) growing up, I know how to do that, you dig? But you will not do ‘Housequake.’ ” Sign ‘O’ the Times is still considered by many as Prince’s masterpiece and the most complete realization of his prodigious talent, experimentation, songwriting craft and musicianship, and “Housequake” became a standout song for taking its James Brown/P-Funk influences and making it sound very original and entirely his own. Yet it lost Album of the Year honors in 1988 to U2’s The Joshua Tree, an album which, among other things, was widely hailed for the Irish rock band’s exploration into American roots music and inspiring mainstream pop audiences to rediscover it. Even if much of what could be plausibly considered roots music was created and pioneered by a lot of Black Americans. The social commentary that many lauded The Joshua Tree for having was certainly present in Sign ‘O’ the Times, most notably on the latter’s title track. And no one else from that era, and particularly no other male artist, could write and record a song that redefines a relationship so imaginatively like Prince did with “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Sign was Prince’s second and last LP to garner an Album of the Year nomination. The only other Grammy nomination he received in a major category was in 1991 for Song of the Year as the composer of “Nothing Compares 2 U” — a song that another Irish artist, Sinead O’Connor, made into a worldwide smash five years after it originally appeared on the self-titled album from one of Prince’s protege acts, The Family, to little fanfare. However, Prince would once again leave the Grammys empty handed.
The intimacy and connectivity between Black music and our experience in America should be obvious to everyone by now. Aside from Lemonade, Lamar’s “Alright” has become the anthem for Black people in this era the way “We Shall Overcome,” “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and “Fight The Power” were in their time. Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” Migos “Bad and Boujee,” Rihanna’s “Work,” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “We The People” were all standout singles that encapsulated the rich diversity of being Black in 2016. Ocean’s Blonde, Solange’s A Seat At The Table, and Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book were revelations for Black audiences eager to see such unique and relatable perspectives become commercially viable and solidify wide cultural currency within Black communities. While the commercial landscape is much different now, 2016 clearly showed that on an artistic, cultural, and societal level, popular music is as great and as vital as it has ever been. And that’s in due in large part to Black American art and the artists who create it — which include artists like Adele, Justin Bieber, and Ariana Grande. There has never really been a problem with white and other non-Black artists adoring and performing Black music. What exasperates and angers so many is that the gatekeepers of art and culture still insists — despite everything we know today — upon having a major problem with recognizing and valuing the Black artists who create it while having no problem with continuing to insult and belittle the Black audiences for whom these musical statements resonate so personally and profoundly.