Academy head insists the Grammys don't have a race problem like the Oscars. He's wrong.
To the ears of so many fans, artists and writers, hearing Faith Hill call Adele back onstage to receive the Grammy for album of the year over Beyoncé's Lemonade, was a death rattle: the sound of the Grammys' credibility choking on its last sip of split pea soup before the life support machines kicked in.
"If we have any respect for albums, Lemonade is the album of the year," wrote Win Butler of Arcade Fire, a former album of the year winner. Even Adele found it unsettling, asking "What the fuck does [Beyoncé] have to do to win album of the year?" at her post-Grammys Q&A.
In trying to explain the decision, racism was one of the first places many artists and writers turned to. Indie artist Sufjan Stevens offered a "friendly reminder" to the Grammys not be racist. Solange and Top Dawg Entertainment president Punch both signal boosted Frank Ocean's decision to boycott the Grammys over their inability to recognize black excellence. "There have only been two black winners in the last 20 years for album of the year there have been over 200 black artist who have performed," Solance wrote, pointing out a very telling balance of power in the way the Grammys appreciate treat black artists in since-deleted tweet. However, Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, sees no issue here. He rejected the notion that the Grammys have a race problem in an interview with Pitchfork, published Tuesday.
"No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all," he said, citing Chance the Rapper's best new artist win as evidence. Portnow is not interested in scrutinizing the voting process or taking any new "steps" to diversify their voter base as their sister award show, the Oscars, did in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
"Well, they may have had a problem," he said of the Academy Awards. "We don't have that kind of an issue in that same fashion. But we are always working on increase diversity in membership, whether it's ethnicity, gender, genre or age."
His words ring with a similar sentiment to those of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs' initial dismissive response to the lack of nominees of color in 2015, a year before the Academy announced major changes. Like Boone then, Portnow too is incorrect: The Grammys do have an issue recognizing talent of color. They have for years, and unless steps are taken, there's no reason to believe their voting will get any more representative.
Let it be known: Chance the Rapper didn't fight his way up from DatPiff obscurity to be the Grammys' token. Only three other men of color have ever won the best new artist award; white artists have won 77% of the time since the award was first offered in 1959, according to Fusion. The spread for the other big awards is even worse. For album of the year, where the Grammys took the most flack Sunday, only 10 albums by black artists have ever won, according to the New York Times. In the past 10 years, the only album by an artist of color to win out of 17 nominations was Herbie Hancock's River, a collection of covers of songs by the white folk artist Joni Mitchell. On the whole, by Fusion's reckoning, white artists have won around 80% of the Grammys in the major categories.
Beyoncé can win in categories like best urban contemporary album and best R&B, areas where she's made her Grammys fortune. She may be the second most Grammy award-winning woman in history, but when her talents are judged against white artists for the night's top prizes awards, she's constantly told she's less than. It's happened with many black artists who have come in the critical favorite — as Beyoncé was according to Metacritic's aggregate rankings, outpacing Adele's 25 92 to 75 — only to face a white, apolitical singer-songwriter.
"Many well-meaning people often have a hard time understanding what systemic racism looks like," music scholar John Vilanova wrote in 2016, detailing the racial dynamics that led Taylor Swift to win over Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. "This is what systemic racism looks like."
Granted, the Grammys' problems are not nearly as bad as the Oscars', where closer to 99% of prizes awarded to white artists. However, film and music are different industries. One can't say with the same certainty that black artists pioneered every popular genre in film enjoyed currently and historically, as one can with music. The Grammys simply haven't been able to ignore black talent to the same degree. Still, given the opportunity, they've declined to honor artists like Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Tupac, Marvin Gaye, Notorious B.I.G., Nas and Prince in their major album or song of the year categories.
All these artist in various degrees, recorded music that challenged musical and political status quos, searching for new ways to assert the value of black life, as Beyoncé did with Lemonade. We don't know the demographics of the Grammys' voting body, as we did the Oscars' during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, however, Vox sees the Grammys' current voting patterns as proof that a voting block of "aging white baby boomers" a power structure similar to "every industry in America" dictates the award outcomes. They vote en masse for albums they can sing along to, effectively pushing far more vital and contemporary narratives into America's cultural background.
Someone like Adele is perfectly representative of this classic Grammys ideal — a "serious" white artist who doesn't dance or engage in theatrics and owes huge debts to R&B and soul but can repackage them in a less offensive way for radio audiences. She will win almost every time in the major categories over a black artist, even if that artist is Beyoncé.
This is why it's maddening that the highest levels of the Grammys refuse to acknowledge the unflattering, stereotyped history of American music they paint. Until the Academy actually starts to pay attention to the way their voting patterns consistently relegate black excellence to the urban categories, the current trajectory will continue. Young artists will continue to boycott, Beyoncé will continue to give the Grammys gold and they'll keep handing back lemons.