Home Media Music The GRAMMYs’ Ever-Elusive Reckoning With Black Female Artists

The GRAMMYs’ Ever-Elusive Reckoning With Black Female Artists

Janelle Monae, Victoria Monét, Beyoncé, and SZA pictured on the left side while an illustrated blonde-haired princess holding an Album of the Year GRAMMY award is pictured on the right

SZA and Victoria Monét more or less dominated the 2024 GRAMMY Awards, but their triumphs served as mere footnotes in media coverage for the so-called Music’s Biggest Night. What gives?

When racism and misogyny continue to plague even the ultimate paragon of Black excellence, where does that leave the rest of them?

Full disclosure: I practically owe my music journalism career to Beyoncé — more specifically, the discourse around her constantly losing Album of the Year at the GRAMMY Awards. 

Things were, objectively speaking, a lot different in 2017. Although there had been glimpses of it, we were not yet living in the sickeningly Swiftian age, Beyoncé was that bitch who caused all that conversation, Adele was running the industry, albeit in a more down-to-earth, bearably White way, and I was not yet cognizant of the systemic racism permeating American society and its psyche either. 

The premise of my debut write-up was simple-minded at best: I did not want Beyoncé to be the biggest GRAMMY winner — not in the Album of the Year category, nor ever. In short, I was essentially demonizing her for being the sole Black female pop star to be exalted to unprecedented cultural heights, going, “Here’s a list of 10 other Black female artists, past and present, equally worthy of your adulation!”

Seven years on, I stand by my argument that I wish the media, and by extension, the general public, had the same penchant for virtue-signaling when it comes to Black female artists other than Beyoncé (ten-time nominee Janelle Monáe, for instance, has been up for Album of the Year in three separate occasions without a single win). Based on how the 2024 GRAMMY Awards unfolded, there was nary a public outcry over SZA or Victoria Monét, two of this year’s most nominated acts, not turning out to be the most triumphant of the night. 

Of course, personal bias does not equal universal truth. But the truth is, most music-consuming public is primed to venerate only one idol at a time. Whether I’m down with it or not, Beyoncé’s cultural impact and relevance are palpable and resonant; yes I wish there were more than one Black female pop star of her stature in our times, but as we keep pushing for that to happen, she remains … well, that bitch. 

This is where it gets funky. The GRAMMYs have always prided themselves on rewarding artistic excellence, commercial success be damned, and yet Swift’s and Adele’s Album of the Year wins were for their most commercially successful releases, both by personal and the industry’s overall standards; it’s frankly eerie to see the list of best-selling albums in the United States by year strictly dominated by these two acts within the past 15 years or so. 

The media might have us believe that we are living in the golden age of visibility and representation, but the stats suggest quite the contrary: the last best-selling album by a Black artist in the United States was Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III back in 2008 and Lauryn Hill’s monumental The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the last time a Black female artist won Album of the Year — that was over 25 years ago. If anything, I find it troubling that things have fared slightly better in the UK.

More troubling is that only three Black female artists — Hill, Whitney Houston, and Natalie Cole — have won the coveted category in the GRAMMYs’ 66-year history. As a Beyoncé non-fan, this leaves me perplexed that even now as the biggest GRAMMY awardee in history, the category is ever so elusive for the Alien Superstar. When racism and misogyny continue to plague even the ultimate paragon of Black excellence, where does that leave the rest of them?

A voting member at the GRAMMYs even went on record as saying that Beyoncé’s so-called bombast led him to opt for ABBA’s less acclaimed Voyage over Renaissance for Album of the Year: “The fact that every time she does something new, it’s a big event and everyone’s supposed to quake in their shoes — it’s a little too portentous,” remarked the “music business veteran in his 70s.”

Surely if She-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless managed to nab the award four times (and Adele twice), they could have given it to Beyoncé at least once? What’s another GRAMMY for her at this point? As it turns out, presenting her with the Best Dance/Electronic Music Album award for Renaissance at last year’s main telecast – a category usually presented without much fanfare at the non-televised, “premiere” ceremony — was somehow supposed to make up for her lack of Album of the Year designation.

Granted, it’s difficult to feel bad about a multimillionaire not getting more when she already has everything. But her billionaire husband’s right, it truly doesn’t add up that she has the most GRAMMYs out of everyone in the industry and is somehow still deprived of the institution’s so-called biggest prize. By the GRAMMYs’ typically middle-of-the-road metrics, she should have already bagged Album of the Year for I Am… Sasha Fierce, her schlockiest, most overt bid at pandering to White people a pop crossover.

White mediocrity at its most beige, bland, and solipsistic is more celebrated than ever

For this year’s ceremony, I perked up at SZA notching the most nominations, followed closely by Victoria Monét and Phoebe Bridgers. Adding to my excitement was the fact the past few years have seen the GRAMMYs skewing towards less obvious choices — in 2023, all winners of the General categories (Lizzo, Bonnie Raitt, Harry Styles, and Samara Joy) weren’t hotly tipped to win … and yet, they did. 

For a hot minute, I harbored the blind faith that Monét would pull an upset win for Record of the Year à la Coldplay in 2004 (coincidentally besting, among others, “Crazy in Love”) with the impossibly sleek, bass-heavy “On My Mama,” whose music video got me all teary-eyed realizing how utterly dope Black artists and arts are.

If not, I was almost entirely sure that SZA had a major shot at surpassing Beyoncé’s winning streak in a single night and being fêted with what would have been a richly deserved Album of the Year win, hot on the heels of SOSblockbuster success, an unimaginably worthwhile feat for an R&B album in the streaming era. Personally, it would have been far more interesting to bear witness to a Céline Dion-SZA on-stage interaction, which certainly would not have been a faulty TV moment.

But let’s face it, although SZA and Monét won more awards than whatsherface, their triumphs served as mere footnotes to the mass-scale news coverage on the most prestigious category’s eventual winner, systemically protected without fail in her perpetual Cinderella complex. 

“Even now, 15 years later, when Swift is arguably the most famous person on the planet and a literal billionaire, she’s still talked about within this framework of ‘girl’, not the 34-year-old business tycoon that she is,” observes B.A. Parker in an utterly brilliant Code Switch episode. The podcast’s senior editor Leah Donnella drives the point further home: “So often when people in the U.S. talk about girlhood, they’re using it as a shorthand for this sliver of an experience that really only exists for a minority of girls, usually upper-middle-class, thin, pretty white girls.”

It should have been obvious to me all along, but it did take me seven years to realize that even if the excellence of your craft is acknowledged, when you’re Black, even more so a Black woman, you will most probably still be sidelined for your White and/or male counterparts. Worse yet, it seems that White mediocrity at its most beige, bland, and solipsistic is more celebrated than ever. 

In the past, it felt possible to take refuge in the GRAMMYs’ self-congratulatory, NPR-approved taste, away from the exasperating humdrum of mainstream music or the too-cool-for-school headiness of indie and alternative music. At the very least, it enabled viewers to discover artists and works that we would have otherwise not been exposed to, as was the case with Jon Batiste’s unexpected Album of the Year win only two years ago over young’uns like Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, and Lil Nas X

But this becomes a catch-22 in the poptimist era; now it’s cool, even expected, to root for and reward who’s and what’s the most mainstream (and if you triumph over the starlet du jour, they will troll your Wikipedia page). From the GRAMMYs’ perspective, they would understandably want to rake in as much viewership as possible — it’s a TV show on a broadcast network after all — and maintain whatever’s left of its relevance as an awarding body.

Except that the GRAMMYs are still relevant to a lot of people, artists and viewers alike; I, for one, have been religiously tuning in every year since 2001 for the very reason that I love music and any celebration of it. But I’m not one to hurl “Scammys!” just because my faves did not get nominated or win an award either — although, yes, Troye Sivan should have won his Best Music Video nomination. Did The Beatles really have to notch another GRAMMY? Was Sivan’s gobsmackingly genius “Rush” video too gay for a gramophone trophy?

If anything, now I look at the GRAMMYs as a cultural battlefield that represents and reflects a microcosm of modern society, particularly its music-making and music-loving populace. It’s the thrill of betting on the nominees and winners, waxing poetic on why so-and-so wins or loses, or whether the GRAMMYs have a problem with hip-hop that keeps me — and millions of others — coming back year in, year out. 

It’s fun. It’s icky. It gets me going. It turns me off. More importantly, as an outsider, it allows me to understand why in the American context, it is difficult not to be “obsessed” with race when race relations have been the very basis of the American psyche and its social exchange. All of it can’t help but be magnified and highlighted when aired to the world over. 

However, I’m no longer interested in calling out the GRAMMYs – instead, it’s time to call them in. To put it in practical terms, I would love to see Black female artists — Beyoncé or otherwise, and especially those operating outside of R&B and rap — be bestowed with Album of the Year or any of the other major awards even if they are not necessarily the cream of the crop. Are 1989 and 25 undisputed masterpieces? Exactly.

It’s high time for Black mediocrity — or Asian mediocrity or Hispanic/Latino mediocrity, for that matter — to win for a change and not for political correctness or tokenist reasons but rather because it’s good, known, and appealing enough. But I guess we’ll just have to endure the GRAMMYs course-correct with Cowboy Carter shooin’ in its yeehaw agenda come the 2025 ceremony. You best bet I’ll tune in.

UPDATE 3/27/2024: Edited for formatting (addition of block quotes)



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