It’s no great shock that the Grammys tend to skew racist, along with most other mainstream award shows. Oscars So White, right?! White mediocrity gets praised while some of the most creative, innovative, game-changing work by black women goes unrecognized. And I know it’s an honor just to be nominated, but nominations don’t always add up to much when the awards continue to be doled out to undeserving and under-talented musicians (and yes, I’m very much talking about Taylor Swift here). I also know awards don’t measure the quality of work or personal taste, but the social and cultural relevancy that come along with winning any of the major awards at the Grammys can’t be denied.
And black women win Grammys. Of course they do. But they win niche awards — those bestowed on contributions to R&B or Soul music. And even then, the awards tend to be given to black men over black women. Beyoncé happens to be the second most awarded and most nominated female artist in Grammy history, regardless of race, with 20 awards and 53 nominations. But she has never taken home Album of the Year or Record of the Year — the most coveted awards at the Grammys — and was never nominated for Best New Artist, with or without Destiny’s Child. The percentage of black women’s wins and nominations in these 3 categories is disproportionately low to the groundbreaking music they create.
Like I said, I’ve long known the Grammys skewed racist in their awards, but it wasn’t until last night that I realized with full-force that the Grammys actually hates black women. The epic snub of leaving Natalie Cole out of the stand-alone tribute portion of the show was glaring and unforgivable, not to mention unforgettable. Cole is a music legend and Grammy history maker on more than one front. In a 3 and 1/2 hour broadcast, the Grammys somehow found time to pay lengthy tribute to David Bowie, Maurice White, B.B. King, and Glenn Frey — as they should have. These men were all giants in the music industry. But Natalie Cole is arguably just as important if not more so, but she only received a few quick seconds in the “In Memoriam” list towards the end of the broadcast.
Natalie Cole won 9 Grammys over the course of her career — the 4 artists given tribute on the 58th annual Grammy Awards telecast won 30 split amongst them, with the majority (15) of those being awarded to B.B. King. The Grammys chose to ignore Cole’s important contributions to Black history as well — during Black History month — despite the fact they were the ones that gave her the awards that made history. She was the first black person, regardless of gender, to win the Best New Artist award in 1976. She was the first black woman to win Album of the Year in 1992 with Unforgettable. She also won Record of the Year the same year with the title track of that album. She is the only black woman to win all three of those majorly coveted awards. To not be given a tribute is not just an oversight — it’s a willful ignorance of the important black feminist history Natalie Cole made at the Grammys and in music. It’s unacceptable and inexcusable. To sleight Cole in this way shows just how little value the Grammys put on black women’s art and music. And just how much they fear powerful and talented black women.
Sadly, Cole’s sleight is only the latest in a long run of refusing to honor the important contributions of black women in music. Moreover, not only does the Grammys refuse to honor black women’s important work, they do so while also using the labor and celebrity of black women to garner ratings. Lead-up to last night’s Grammys boasted a performance by Ms. Lauryn Hill. However, Hill’s camp issued a statement that the invitation came too late and had not been confirmed when the Grammys announced her appearance. The broadcast also tempered a powerful performance by Andra Day by adding Ellie Goulding instead of letting her perform the moving (and political) “Rise Up” on her own.
Finally, halfway through the broadcast, they once again relied on Beyoncé’s name to keep viewers tuned in to the show as presenter of Record of the Year — an award she has never won despite being nominated for it more times than any other black woman. And this all comes on the heels of the ultimate snub over Album of the Year last year when Beyoncé lost to Beck with an album that literally “stopped the world,” but was still used to keep people tuned in to see her performance at the end of the night. Many thought Beyoncé might offer a surprise performance this year but instead she used her short presentation to offer a rebuttal, and classy fuck you, to those hating on her political new video and performance at the Super Bowl of “Formation.”
All this speaks to a serious dismissal and devaluation of the hard work and creative genius of black women for the benefit of those in power. The Grammys hates black women. It’s simple as that. And it’s ironic because there would be no Grammys — there would be no popular music as we know it today — without black women. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a black female (and queer) gospel crossover artist, is widely known as creating the rock and roll sound we know today, though she gets none of the credit. Solange Knowles recently tweeted “The music business was built brick by brick off the backs, shoulders, heart ache and pain, of black people, and everyone is just exhausted.” Knowles’ assessment is spot on. Every form of popular music today has black roots. And largely, those black people that influenced music were black women. The exhaustion can easily be applied to the Grammys this year, and in too many years past.
In the history of the Grammys, which began in 1959, only 3 black women have been awarded the prestigious Album of the Year Award, despite 22 nominations: Natalie Cole in 1992 for Unforgettable; Whitney Houston in 1994 for The Bodyguard Soundtrack; and Lauryn Hill in 1999 for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Black female artists have won Record of the Year only 5 times out of 33 nominations: Roberta Flack in 1973 for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and in 1974 for “Killing Me Softly With His Song;” Tina Turner in 1985 for “What’s Love Got To Do With It?;” Natalie Cole in 1992 for “Unforgettable;” and Whitney Houston in 1994 for “I Will Always Love You.” Black women have fared slightly better in the Best New Artist category, winning 8 times out of 31 nominations: Natalie Cole in 1976; Sade in 1986; Jody Watley in 1988; Tracy Chapman in 1989; Mariah Carey in 1991; Toni Braxton in 1994; Lauryn Hill in 1999; and Esperanza Spaulding in 2011.
Things didn’t have to be this way. Ella Fitzgerald was nominated for Album of the Year in 1959, the very first year the Grammys took place. She didn’t win though, and black women were quickly moved to the margins, to the niche categories, rather than giving them the credit they were and are due. These awards matter socially. They bestow a kind of meaning on music and art that might not reflect quality, but certainly reflects regard by mainstream society. Black women don’t need that recognition to thrive, clearly. But they deserve it. So when will the Grammys truly and honestly start acknowledging and celebrating the contributions, creativity, and careers of black women? And the question can alternately be asked: When will the Grammys stop hating black women?