Though the Grammys have definitely made an effort to be more “culturally relevant,” as Kanye West would put it, when it comes to the biggest awards of the night, their efforts still fall short in the way of the Academy recognizing Black superstars who’ve delivered not only their best works, but works that double as some of the most intricate, polarizing albums the world has seen to date.
According to Recording Academy chairman/CEO Neil Portnow, there’s not been much change due to the lack of participation in the voting process. While talking to Billboard, he downplayed any “racial bias” and says the winners are a reflection of “personal taste.” Hmm…
“You don’t get to this point without a diverse and relevant voting membership,” Portnow tells Billboard, citing a new requalification requirement (which comes with membership renewals) as one initiative designed to keep the constituency relevant: “Unless you’re currently making music as a full-time vocation, you may not requalify as a voting member.”
And while Portnow downplays any suggestion of racial bias in the academy’s one-vote-per-member constituency — “It’s more about personal taste, so it’s hard for me to criticize when we see no basis that [the results] are about anything other than music, and certainly not race” — he does concede that while “we’ve come a long way as an organization, we’re certainly not complacent or satisfied with where we are — but we also need the participation of the communities to do more. That’s how democracy works.”
Indeed, “most of the people complaining are motherf—ers who don’t vote!” says artist-producer Terrace Martin, a 2017 nominee (for best R&B album) and a Grammy voter. “When I go to Recording Academy events, I’m the only one there with tattoos on my neck. I’m trying to get my friends to vote. Everybody acts like they don’t give a f— about the Grammys — until the Grammys come around.” Martin says he became a voting member after Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, to which he contributed, lost album of the year — which is the kind of initiative the academy wants to encourage. “[Some of] the comments I’ve seen come from not understanding at all how this works,” says Portnow. “It’s one thing to be a critic, and another to join and vote and be part of the change that you want to see.”
As you’ll recall, Beck beat Beyoncé for Album of the Year in 2015 and then in 2016, Taylor Swift’s 1989 beat out Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly.
Billboard reports: The voters of The Recording Academy appear to have a problem with hip-hop, a situation that has created a widening racial gap between critical consensus and Grammy winners in the big four categories: best new artist, record of the year, song of the year and album of the year. In the lattermost category, only two rap-related albums (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) have won in the genre’s 40-year history. Since 2000, black artists have won album of the year just three times — OutKast in 2004, Ray Charles (posthumously) in 2005 and Herbie Hancock for his Joni Mitchell tribute in 2008 — even though a black artist or group with black members have been nominated every year except two. In The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll — a leading survey for music critics — the top albums in four of the last five years were made by black artists. (The exception, David Bowie’s Blackstar, beat Lemonade by the equivalent of about 10 votes.)
Portnow’s answer to it all? “I understand that people might feel left out. But it’s really simple: Participate and vote, and then you’re part of the conversation. Not only do we encourage and welcome that,” he concludes, “we need it,” Billboard writes.