One of the biggest surprises of the 2019 Grammys was Childish Gambino’s political rap song, “This is America,” taking home the awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. These achievements were historic — no rap song has ever won Song of the Year or Record of the Year in the show’s history. Yet, Gambino wasn’t there to accept his awards.
Earlier last week, it was reported that Gambino, along with fellow rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar, denied a coveted spot to perform at the Grammys due to the show’s long-rooted issues of diversity among nominees, performers, and the Academy itself. All three rappers refused to attend the ceremony despite being nominated for multiple awards, but they weren’t the only acclaimed artists to not make an appearance. Beyoncé and Jay-Z were missing on the red carpet, along with big celebrities like Rihanna and John Legend. Their absences beg the question: are the Grammys relevant anymore?
This isn’t the first controversy surrounding the Grammys’ diversity. In 2016, Billboard Magazine published an article in which an unnamed hip-hop producer reported that “the voting bloc is still too white, too old and too male." During the 2015 Grammys, all Best New Artist and Record of the Year nominations were white. Gambino was the ninth black songwriter to be awarded Song of the Year in the fifty-nine years of the award show. And no one can forget the president of the Academy Neil Portnow’s infamous comment that women in the music industry need to “step up” in order to fix the lack of women nominees.
When Ludwig Göransson, a frequent collaborator of Gambino, accepted the Record of the Year award in Gambino’s honor, he shouted out 21 Savage, an Atlanta-based rapper who was recently arrested by ICE, otherwise known as the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Göransson was the only person to mention the rapper, despite the fact that 21 Savage was supposed to perform “Rockstar” with Post Malone. When it came time for Post Malone’s performance, he skipped 21’s verse in the song. Post effectively erased him from the performance, yet that would’ve been the best time to acknowledge him. (Nevertheless, after the show Post Malone revealed he was wearing a 21 Savage shirt under his jacket, but that wasn’t seen on camera).
Another notable moment of the award show was Drake’s surprise appearance for Best Rap Song award for “God’s Plan.” Drake began his acceptance speech by alluding to the Grammys’ lack of diversity: "this is a business where sometimes it is up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say." Drake then commented on the Grammys skewed measure of success: "you've already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you are a hero in your hometown. If there are people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don't need this right here, I promise you, you already won.” While Drake was concluding his speech, the Grammys cut to commercial break, effectively cutting him short. A representative of the Grammys claimed the producers didn’t cut him short on purpose, but it’s easier to think otherwise. To silence an artist criticizing the flaws of the award show he’s attending is not only in poor taste, it’s a clear message that the show doesn’t care. Drake’s comments about the irrelevance of the Grammys are warranted.
In a time where the music scene is becoming increasingly diverse each day, the Grammys stay far behind. Currently, in Billboard’s Top 100 thirteen of the twenty top songs are by or feature a person of color, and seven out of twenty features or are by a woman. The music industry is in transition: hip-hop and rap are taking center stage, and people of color and women are gaining more traction as artists. The Grammys don’t reflect that, with an Academy and nominees that are still majority white and male, the famous award show is out of touch. The Grammys have improved from previous years, as the performance lineup this year previewed more female artists than that of previous years, but the inclusion felt forced. In the new streaming era, awards are no longer an accurate measure of success, and matter increasingly less to fans and artists alike. As this year showed, the Grammys are a deeply flawed pastime, and less artists are attending due to those flaws and the overall relevance of the ceremony. Is it even worth fixing the issues of this awards show?
That’s not a question with an easy answer. On one hand, the Grammys provided a platform for a number of iconic pop culture moments, and recognizes artists for their hard work. On the other hand, the Grammys are increasingly out of touch with the diversity of the industry that they don’t feel like a true reflection of the current culture. I’m not sure what the right course of action is, but all I can hope is the 2020 Grammys are the beginning of a new era; an era of diversity and relevance.
By Mackenzie Glaubitz