Black Artists Are Fed Up With Grammy Snubs, But Don’t Always Respect the Alternatives
Smokey Robinson and Charlie Wilson perform during the 2020 Soul Train Awards presented by BET. Photo: Leon Bennett/STA 2020/Getty Images

Black Artists Are Fed Up With Grammy Snubs, But Don’t Always Respect the Alternatives

Black awards shows exist, yet artists never seem to hold them in the same regard

The Weeknd’s never been known for seizing the spotlight. Even dating back to his mysterious early mixtapes, the R&B artist has chosen to let his music do the talking. But last November, after his Billboard-busting, Super Bowl-sized album After Hours received zero Grammy nominations, the normally reclusive artist let it fly. “The Grammys remain corrupt,” he said on Twitter. “You owe me, my fans, and the industry transparency…” His countryman Drake echoed the sentiment later that day on Instagram, comparing the Recording Academy to “a relative you keep expecting to fix up but they just can’t change their ways.”

Corruption allegations and drunk uncle allusions from arguably the two biggest artists in the world about the most coveted award in all of music may be sensational, but they’re not shocking. In recent years, artists like Frank Ocean have boycotted the Grammys due to similar concerns; by now the outrage over nominations is all but an annual tradition. And indeed, it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many of this year’s most notable omissions — Pop Smoke, Lil Baby, Popcaan, PartyNextDoor — are Black artists. There’s a reason Drake ended his November diatribe by pointing out that now “is a great time for somebody to start something new that we can build up over time and pass on to the generations to come.”

Yet, this is where a solution highlights a very different problem. If a new award show is needed to properly celebrate Black music, why aren’t artists supporting the alternatives that already exist?

In a January interview with Billboard, The Weeknd insinuated that his snub had been racially motivated, pointing out that in 61 years of the Grammys, only 10 Black artists have won album of the year. Yet, he’s never attended the Soul Train Music Awards — even though he’s been nominated eight times and won an album of the year award in 2015 for Beauty Behind the Madness. Drake hasn’t attended a BET Hip Hop Award show since 2011, even though he’s led all artists in nominations in numerous years.

If a new award show is needed to properly celebrate Black music, why aren’t artists supporting the alternatives that already exist?

When Cardi B’s “Money” won a “Rhythm & Bars” award at the 2019 Soul Train Music Awards over respected lyricists like Meek Mill and J. Cole, there was no uproar. No one said a word about 11-year-old Willow Smith winning outstanding new artist over Nicki Minaj at the 42nd NAACP Image Awards. Rick Ross’s critically panned Mastermind was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2014 BET Hip Hop Awards, while Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s masterful collaboration Piñata wasn’t — and it was as if it never happened.

“People want to say, ‘The Grammys are broken because it doesn’t celebrate us.’ But, truth be told, it would be on us to celebrate ourselves,” says Adrian Miller, Anderson .Paak’s former manager. “If we have a problem with us not being celebrated in the right way, then we should be responsible for putting it together.”

The Grammys were created in 1959 by record executives; the ceremony wasn’t televised live until 1971. Still, that means decades before Black people saw the NAACP Image Awards (created in 1967, first televised in 1994), Soul Train Music Awards (founded in 1987), or any other major award show focused on primarily celebrating Black artists, they saw the Grammys. The awards were a celebration of music as much as a competition. The Grammys were where Michael Jackson won eight awards while dressed like a sequined army general, where before Prince closed out the night with seven splits during his performance of “Baby I’m a Star.” Black artists care about the Grammys because they were raised to do so by those they idolized.

“There’s this thing that goes along with hearing ‘Grammy Award-winning artist Michael Jackson,’ ‘Grammy Award-winning artist Prince,’” says Yaasiel “Success” Davis, VP of A&R at Atlantic Records. “It’s instilled in us from growing up. No disrespect to the BET Awards, Soul Train Music Awards, or The Source Awards back in the day, but the Grammys, Oscars, and Golden Globes are supposed to be the highly coveted awards.”

Davis has helped with two Grammy-nominated projects, Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy and YBN Cordae’s The Lost Boy, and fully believes a Grammy is a “groundbreaking accomplishment” for an artist. Having attended these events himself — as well as the BET Awards and MTV’s VMAs — he suspects part of the reason artists value the Grammys over other award shows is the big-budget grandeur the Grammys is known for every year. More than validation for artistry, the Grammys brings out the biggest names from across all genres, attracts every major media outlet, and places anyone nominated for an award in the mix of the music elite. “There’s clearly a difference when you watch a Grammy show on TV,” he says. “It’s typically very organized and you can tell there are big budgets being spent to bring this annually.”

The Grammy Awards ceremony may routinely surpass the combined viewership of the BET Awards, BET Hip Hop Awards, Soul Train Music Awards, and NAACP Image Awards, but these Black award shows are far from second-rate. One of the handful of times Michael Jackson and James Brown shared the same stage on TV was at the 2003 BET Awards; the last time the world saw the Notorious B.I.G was at the 1997 Soul Train Music Awards. Prince skipped the 2005 Grammys, but tore the house down at the NAACP Awards that same year.

Media strategist Karen Civil worked with BET for the 2019 BET Hip Hop Awards and remembers the rehearsals, organization, and effort that went into the show. For her, perception overtakes reality when it comes to artists valuing the Grammys over Blacker award shows like the BET Awards. “I don’t want to hear that,” she says. “BET Awards give you the same production. BET Awards give you the same love and budget. You don’t just go on stage like it’s a regular performance with your homies. You really put thought and effort into it. It’s just that mentality of thinking, ‘this is better than others so I have to put more effort into it.’”

Civil also worked closely with Nipsey Hussle up until the rapper’s untimely passing, and points to the two posthumous NAACP Image Award nominations Hussle received this year as a closer reflection of the proud Eritrean artist/entrepreneur. “He has two Grammys now. That’s super amazing,” she says. “But to know he has those NAACP nominations is amazing within itself because that is Black excellence — and he was Black excellence.”

Grammy nominations and winners are selected by the 12,000 eligible voting members of the Recording Academy, with submitted music going through multiple rounds of review before the nominees and winners are democratically chosen by the popular vote. Yet, between the time Grammy voters vote on the first 20 contenders for each category and when they vote to select the final nominees and eventual winner of each category, a “nomination review committee” of unknown music industry professionals can choose which of those 20 make it on to the final round of voting.

A year before The Weeknd’s angry accusations, former Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan accused the Recording Academy’s voting of being “ripe with corruption.” In a discrimination claim filed with the EEOC, Dugan alleged that members of the board of trustees and the nomination review committee “chose artists with whom they have personal or business relationships.” These sorts of relationships may be responsible for one of the Grammys’ most tainted decision: awarding Macklemore Best Rap Album in 2014 over Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, and Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. (Every single person that I spoke to while reporting this piece mentioned that incident — unprompted.)

They also may be a large part of why The Weeknd has chosen to boycott the Grammys outright; as he announced this week, he has instructed his label not to submit his music for Grammy consideration.

Was Tyler, the Creator’s Igor, which won Rap Album of the Year, one of the best albums of 2019? Yes. Did it have a larger cultural impact in hip-hop than Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers III? That’s a harder thing to agree to. Tyler, himself, called the Grammys’ “rap” designation “a backhanded compliment” to his iconoclastic opus, considering it further proof the Recording Academy categorizes Black artists by slightly racist notions of “urban” rather than on their actual merits.

If a new award show is to be built, Black culture needs to be what it’s built around, not what it factors in — and Rostrum Records Senior Director of A&R Jhared “Jae” Brown has an idea of how to do that. “While there is a board of people who focus on what’s happening in music, level of a record, musicianship behind it, and all the things that go into making great music,” he says, “there should also be people who look at the cultural impact, trends set, and change an artist effects in the broader spectrum of culture.”

Unlike the Grammy’s nomination review committee, the members of Brown’s imagined culture board would be known to the public in order to add credibility to the new award show. “The culture board has to come from the Black elite in our industry,” he says. “People like Clarence Avant, Quincy Jones, or even senior-level Black executives like President of RCA Records Mark Pitts, Chairman/CEO of Motown Records Ethiopia Habtemariam, people like that. It has to come from the top.”

There’s also the question of who will create this new award show. The Grammy Awards was created during a time when many Black artists were effectively being erased by White artists covering their music; the first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance went to the mostly White band The Champs for their hit song “Tequila.” The Grammys is emblematic of a time when Black artists couldn’t have meaningful success without the financial and infrastructural support of a major label — which made the record executives behind the Grammys both gatekeepers and barometers of what constituted “good” music.

A new award show that properly reflects a music industry where hip-hop is the most popular genre, more than half of the most streamed songs come from hip-hop/rap, and artists like Chance the Rapper can become one of the biggest artists in the world independently would invariably celebrate Black artists overlooked. Streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, and Tidal are already the new age gatekeepers, with playlists credited with breaking artists like 6LACK and helping Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” single debut at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. If record executives created the Grammys because the current system of recognition was leaving too many deserving people unheralded, the new gatekeepers of the music industry creating their own award show would simply be a natural evolution of a precedent already set.

“We’re not going to see NBA YoungBoy at the Grammys,” Civil says. “But I bet we’ll see him at the YouTube Awards. We’ll see him at the Spotify awards. The culture sees him.”