It is telling that the most culturally impactful moment of the 2023 Grammys ceremony revolved not around who won its most prestigious Album of the Year award, but who didn’t. As Harry Styles walked up to the stage to accept the award for his 2022 album, Harry’s House, you could already hear the click-clack of keys pressed in anger as music fans and critics raged online about yet another perceived snub to Beyoncé.
Styles could see the backlash coming too. “It’s obviously so important for us to remember that there is no such thing as best in music,” said the former X Factor contestant in half-hearted mitigation, emulating the recent tradition of milquetoast white artists acting apologetic for their wins over visionary black counterparts (Adele in 2017, Macklemore in 2014).
Unfortunately for him, Styles then went on to put his foot in it in grand fashion, saying that “this doesn’t happen to people like me very often”. A charitable interpretation of the comment might be that he was referring to his origins as a small-town English boy from working-class Cheshire. The problem though, for both Styles and the Grammys, is that “this” actually happens to “people like him”, making music like his, far too often.
Almost every year, we see well-produced, rock/pop fluff—and Harry’s House is absolutely all style, no substance—win the major honours over visionary records by black and brown artists working in musical idioms that have never been given their due by The Recording Academy. We see rap and dance music artists—the beating heart of contemporary popular music—relegated to genre categories, their culture-defining releases snubbed in favour of music that seems to have “inoffensiveness” as its main redeeming quality.
A rapper hasn’t won Album of the Year for 19 years. You have to go even further back, to 1999, for the last time a black woman took the award home: Lauryn Hill for The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. The few times a black artist has won in recent years, it has gone to undeniable legends in their twilight years (Herbie Hancock in 2008) or an artist doing tasteful updates on safe older sounds (Jon Batiste last year).
None of this really comes as a surprise. We all know that the Grammys are little more than a popularity contest, further distorted by the demographics of The Recording Academy voter base—still mostly white, and mostly older. We know that the Grammys are inherently conservative, both in the herd safety of their choices and their long tradition of ignoring ground-breaking music from the margins. And black artists have been critiquing the awards show for its mistreatment of hip hop and other African-American forms of music since at least 1989, when Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen of Def Jam Recordings led a rap boycott of the awards show, along with The Fresh Prince, Jazzy Jeff, Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy and Ice-T.
It would be tempting to dismiss the Grammys as glammed-up pageantry and ignore it altogether, as many underground artists from more subversive counter-cultures often do. But the problem is that despite their declining viewership numbers (this year’s 12.4 million was a 31% jump from last year but still a far cry from 2020’s 18.9 million), the Grammys are still an institution that carries a lot of weight. A Grammy win opens new doors, creates massive marketing opportunities and helps settle any lingering questions about one’s legacy or cultural impact.
More importantly, it’s something many artists have aspired to since they were children. Especially for those coming from marginalised communities, a marquee Grammy win is about more than just individual accolades, it’s also about representing your people and your traditions on the global stage. Which is perhaps what keeps many artists of colour from boycotting it altogether, though the numbers of that contingent are increasing steadily too, with Drake, The Weeknd and Soul Sonic not even submitting critically acclaimed releases for consideration this year.
Sean “P.Diddy” Combs laid out that central conflict succinctly during a fiery speech at a pre-Grammy gala in 2020, in the wake of ousted Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan’s claims that the organisation was rife with sexual harassment, rigged voting and rampant conflicts of interest. “So I say this with love to the Grammys, because you really need to know this, every year y’all be killing us man,” he said. “Man, I’m talking about the pain (…) The amount of time it takes to make these records, to pour your heart into it, and you just want an even playing field.”
Despite the call-outs and the Grammys’ efforts to address these issues—the controversial select nomination committees were disbanded, many more voters from under-represented communities are being inducted—that even playing field remains elusive. Even the Academy’s anaemic efforts at inclusivity often serve to highlight that injustice. Sure, it was nice to see 50 years of hip hop being celebrated with an all-star tribute that featured dozens of artists but it also reminded us that many of these pioneering legends never earned a Grammy, or, in some cases, even a nomination. Sure, it was great to see Kim Petras become the first ever out trans woman to win a Grammy but then Grimes revealed that she wasn’t allowed to nominate the late trans woman producer SOPHIE for producer of the year in 2019, even though she was a member of the nomination board.
And sure, it was great to see Bad Bunny open the awards in a huge win for Latin music, but then CBS decided to close-caption his Spanish vocals as “(non-English singing)” and then snubbed him, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, giving the top honours to a record of fun, slick, entertaining Grammy-bait. Beyoncé, a music industry juggernaut who made history by winning a record-breaking 32nd Grammy, has not won Album of the Year despite four strong nominations. Of that tally of 32 awards, only one (Song of the Year for Single Ladies) is from the four marquee non-genre categories. Renaissance, a brilliant record that channelled the rich history of black queer music and pushed it forward, offered the Grammys a golden opportunity to correct a monumental wrong. It’s too bad, though entirely predictable, that the Academy’s voters fluffed it once again.
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.