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Rihanna unimpressed
Rihanna: unimpressed

Surprise! Popular music is super, super white now

The number of black musicians on the charts and Grammy roll call has been in sharp decline since the 2000s

Colour us unimpressed. If the outpouring of rage against Kanye West for sort-of interrupting Beck at the Grammys hadn't alerted you to it, people go all kinds of crazy when they see a black guy trying to muscle in on a white guy's moment to shine. Others have criticised the Grammys for giving the Best Record prize to Beck and not Beyoncé (even Beck agreed, telling US Weekly: "I thought she was going to win. Come on, she's Beyoncé").

But it turns out that the triumph of Beck's Morning Phase album over Beyoncé's self-titled, record-breaking release isn't just a random stroke of luck. It's actually part of a long-running trend in popular music. Simply put, pop is getting whiter – and it's the whitest it has been in the past 35 years. 

Vocativ crunched data going back to 60s, taking note of the ethnicity of musicians who were nominated for Grammys over the last half a century. There have always been more white musicians than black artists nominated for Grammys, but the situation was improving up until the 2000s.

In 1984, Michael Jackson walked away with eight Grammys; in 1989, the number of black nominees outstripped the number of white artists by six Grammy nods. Then the mid-2000s hit, and the number of black Grammy nominees declined sharply.

The same trend is reflected in Billboard’s Hot 100 list, although there were significantly more black artists on the charts than those nominated for Grammys in the 90s. (I like to think this is because the Grammys committee failed to appreciate the genius of Jodeci.)

As Vocative puts it: "2013 was the first year there wasn’t a single black artist with a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, the only time that’s happened since Billboard started making the charts. Black artists represented less than a quarter of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2014, which puts last year on par with the late 1960s in terms of diversity. 2015 isn’t looking much better."

Sure, the Grammys and the pop charts aren't the best way to gauge success – there are plenty of black and white artists who choose to strike out on their own and bypass the traditional routes of stardom. But these music institutions are also institutions for a reason.

They might not be the gatekeepers of actual good taste (cough Macklemore winning best rap album cough), but they hold the keys to wider mainstream recognition, commercial funding and access. A Grammy win – or a number one record – can be a godsend to an under-recognised artist and/or album. After Beck won the Grammy, sales of Morning Phase soared by more than 1,000%.

Now, Beyoncé probably doesn't need those extra album sales. But for black artists producing great work, it probably is a little frustrating to see your albums consistently passed over for recognition by the so-called arbiters of popular music. Until things start changing, expect Yeezy to do a lot more interrupting.