Black greatness and white apologies: from Beyoncé and beyond, awards shows have proved they are out of touch and racially biased, so why do artists of colour still validate them?
The 59th Grammy awards took place in LA on Sunday night. There were tributes to the late and great George Michael and political statements against President Agent Orange, while Rihanna got steadily more drunk while sipping from a diamond hip flask. Perhaps the biggest shock of the evening was watching a very pregnant Beyoncé get robbed blind in front of a room of her peers. After receiving nine nominations, she only won two of the awards, for best music video and best urban contemporary album. She lost to Adele, whose third studio album 25 won album of the year over Lemonade. Maybe Rihanna sensed that injustice was on the cards and needed a stiff drink to get through it.
The ever-outspoken Adele reluctantly accepted the award and as she held back tears she said: “I can’t possibly accept this award, and I’m very humbled and I’m very grateful and gracious but my artist of my life is Beyoncé. And this album to me, the Lemonade album, was just so monumental.” She announced this before adding that Beyoncé was adored by the other artists in the room, and by her black friends. She then snapped the award in half to share with the singer. It was all very touching – except Beyoncé doesn’t need to be told she is great and superior to most of the other musicians in that room. She knows it, we know it, even her unborn twins probably know it.
All of this occurred after the singer defied gravity and served up psychedelic visuals during her performances of “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles”. She wore her (three) hearts on her sleeve during her acceptance speech for Best Urban Contemporary Album to reiterate that Lemonade was created to give a voice for the pain, struggles, and history of those who deserve to see positive reflections of themselves in “news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys”. And while I am passionate about representation, the overwhelmingly disrespectful snubs year-on-year from out-of-touch panels show that in the quest for artistic validation, black artists need to stop relying on white endorsements from archaic and racially biased academies.
Adele’s statement was touching, humble, and a perfect demonstration of intersectional feminism at its best. She used her platform to call the industry out for blatantly overlooking a seminal body of work that pushed artistic boundaries and inspired a generation of young black women to be defiantly black. The situation echoes Macklemore’s very public apology to Kendrick in 2014 when he texted him after the show to say: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech.”
“The overwhelmingly disrespectful snubs year on year from out of touch panels show that in the quest for artistic validation, black artists need to stop relying on white endorsements from archaic and racially biased academies”
But, in a way, Adele and Macklemore, with all of their best intentions, are an extension of the problematic need for white affirmation of black talent. Adele shouldn’t have had to get up and say on behalf of her black friends that Lemonade was significant and deserves praise, and Macklemore needn’t have reminded Kendrick of his artistic integrity – they should have received the praise they deserved anyway. As of 2016, only 12 out of the 58 album of the year awards the Grammys had gone to black artists, while 69% of the song of the year nominees have been white men according to BET. In fact, since the beginning of Grammy history, people of color have won 20% of the major awards.
It’s confusing, therefore, that googling “awards show racist” brings up results of debating whether the BET awards and television channels are discriminatory (overlooking the fact that the BET awards and MOBOs still awards white acts). The majority of awards ceremonies are vehicles to cheer white excellence, they just aren’t explicitly denoted as such. Black talent is repeatedly overlooked in spaces that are lauded as the pinnacle of artistry and the top of the industry. When they lose there is the implication that their work just isn’t good enough – even when it’s clearly brilliant. So creating their own bodies to promote new acts and award black talent shouldn’t seem so outrageous.
2013 - mumford over frank— very festive tweets (@adam_lewis) February 13, 2017
2014 - daft punk over kendrick
2015 - beck over beyonce
2016 - taylor over kendrick
2017 - adele over beyonce
We had a similar debate on this side of the pond last year regarding the BRIT awards, when grime artists were noticeably absent from the nominations despite their impact on the UK charts. As a DIY genre led by mostly black working class males, grime had managed to bring itself back from the brink of death, yet hadn’t received any recognition for its artist’s contribution to UK music. But the BRIT awards tend to favour acts associated with major labels – the same ones that signed a lot of grime artists after Dizzee Rascal’s success, despite having no connection to the culture or ecosystem that the genre had developed. The mishandling of acts halted burgeoning careers to the detriment of the scene, stifling the genre’s momentum. Given grime had recovered on its own terms and without compromise, should it need to rely on plaudits from institutions like the BRITs? Why should black artists – who have amassed a huge following, overcoming industry racism and systemic oppression and daring to tell the tales of it – only be deemed successful once they’ve had their work applauded by people who know that their work isn’t as good, and by bodies who would rather give the award to Taylor Swift?
While it’s crucial to point out that the Oscars are so white, the BRITS overlook PoC talent, and that the Grammys consistently favour kind-of-enjoyable bodies of work over black excellence, we need to stop giving these award ceremonies any undeserved clout. Calling upon black artists for live performances and comedic interludes at awards shows to boost viewing figures and excluding them from the ceremonial backslapping is too routine. Beyoncé’s tour grossed $256 million, sold millions of copies worldwide, and convinced millions of people to reluctantly sign up to Tidal (perhaps the biggest accolade of her career). Televised award shows need her and her PoC peers to stay relevant, not the other way around.
This year Macklemore did not submit his work to be judged and Frank Ocean decided to boycott the event and not attend. Hopefully, more artists – regardless of race – will follow suit in the pursuit of accurately reflecting black people’s contribution to music and culture.