Elena Scotti/TrackRecord/GMG, photos via Getty Images, Shutterstock 

Who Do the Grammys Serve?

Elena Scotti/TrackRecord/GMG, photos via Getty Images, Shutterstock 

The evening the 2018 Grammy Award nominations were announced, rapper Q-Tip was in his kitchen, listening to jazz, filming himself. In a series of Instagram videos posted on his personal account, Tip is seen clearly irate, speaking to the camera with frustration over the fact that his group, A Tribe Called Quest, and their 2016 album, We Got It from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service, was shut out of consideration entirely. When the noms were announced earlier that day, I also considered the album to be an interesting omission. It was critically acclaimed, but beyond that, it came with a narrative: A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg died during the making of the album, it was released during the week of the 2016 election, and many of its songs spoke to the current political moment—elements ripe for Grammy attention.


The Grammys, and most award shows, provide a few days of critical discourse, usually around race, or gender, or social inequalities–all things that are valid without an awards show peg. The Grammys simply offer a wider platform with more angles of entry, particularly in 2018, when the entertainment industry has been flipped on its side: Hollywood’s reeling from a seemingly endless wave of sexual assault allegations, some that have had actual consequence, ending in firings and resignations, with more to come. (An actor like James Franco—who has a history of harassing and abusive behavior—was awarded at the Golden Globes just a few weeks ago, now, has been removed from the cover of Vanity Fair.) But who is served by the function of awards, and a culture of tying awards to art? When the concrete awards themselves lose credibility, then the shows lose credibility, and any kind of movement or political lens attached to the shows become easier to dismiss.

I don’t know why I thought Q-Tip wouldn’t care about being shut out at the Grammy awards. I imagined he’d know the jig by now. We’ve seen for years how the Grammys have treated rap as a genre lucky to be there at all, from the first rap categories in 1989 not being broadcast, leading to a boycott by a portion of the rap artists nominated. But Q-Tip cared, of course. The videos of his anti-Grammy rant are heartbreaking. “Y’all had us come out there and perform last year!” he shouted into the camera. “You think I wanted to come out there and perform for y’all after my man died?”

In 2017, Tribe closed out the Grammys, delivering a powerful, memorable, and–most of all–political performance for an institution that usually doesn’t offer space for such performances. Busta Rhymes stormed on stage and called newly inaugurated president Donald Trump “agent orange.” And at the end of the set, all band members stood with their fists raised. It wasn’t the most revolutionary act of the year, but in the space of the Grammy awards, it echoed.

Beyoncé’s stunning performance during that same awards show, a nearly 10-minute, fully immersive experience of songs from the album Lemonade, also pushed back against the traditional Grammy structure (in length, in visual aspects, in how it centered concepts over performer.) Afterwards, Beyoncé, up for album of the year, had to watch, tearfully, as Adele gracefully but awkwardly accepted the album of the year award for 25. Adele’s album is good, but Lemonade is widely seen as the more superior project. Tribe’s album is good, and probably deserved at least one nomination, if not more. But almost none of that is the point.

I don’t want to fully strip away the joy that comes for an artist who triumphs during an awards nomination cycle. Someone like SZA, for example, who has had a run with her 2017 LP Ctrl, taking her from underdog to superstar. But SZA’s greatness and the greatness of her album were cemented well before her five 2018 Grammy nominations. SZA is the clearest example, but rarely has there been an artist in music that was made more compelling or interesting due to their proximity to the award.

This is the trick of the Grammy awards, and something the Recording Academy been cashing in on for years: They appear to get things “right,” but when the awards roll out, they end up being similar to how they’ve often been–overwhelmingly white and male, despite what the nominations teased. An artist you love being nominated for a bushel of Grammy awards doesn’t mean the establishment is doing something just; it means they’re trying to keep a core audience hooked.

The urgency for recognition doubles for artists of marginalized identities. The idea of creating your own table and your own seats at it is layered, but it exists in part to take power away from the Grammys, or at least to find other means through which acceptance is granted on your own terms. Ideally, these artists find newer and more unique ways to celebrate themselves without the need to be validated by the Grammys, a system that doesn’t seem to hold their best interests in mind. The joy of nomination can work in concert with this, if the nominations and potential wins aren’t considered as (or even more!) important than the celebration of the communities you made the work for.

The awards establishment isn’t going to go anywhere soon. And while I appreciate that it deserved a coronation, given how much that Beyonce gave of herself to put into it, when I woke up the morning after last year’s Grammy awards, Lemonade still looked and sounded as transcendent as it did when I first heard it. Even though it didn’t win. Beyond that, the mass of work Lemonade inspired written by black women still existed and held true. It’s work I revisited then, and still revisit today. I am most interested in how art lives in the world, and how it echoes even after the release of it passes. I have yet to see an award show push that echo further.

In the middle of his Grammy rant, Q-Tip frustratingly listed other artists snubbed by the Grammys throughout their careers. Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin never won one, he exclaimed. Bob Marley never got one. Marvin Gaye has a single one to his name. Many people were shocked at these revelations, not knowing about these awards omissions. It’s almost like, in the face of a legendary resume, a Grammy award is a whisper.

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