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Racial Bias in the Grammys

By Sally Kearins

Since the beginning of the Grammy’s in 1957 only 10 Black artists have won album of the year. This ratio of award winners (54 non-black artists to 10 POC) is enough to create speculations of the Grammys institutionalised racial bias.

This discriminative experience for POC at the Grammy’s is slowly being uncovered as more celebrities, like Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Jay-z and Sean Combs, refuse to attend until equality is brought to the structural core.

When trying to read up about it, I noticed that sometimes in the media it becomes easy to convolute an artist's experience of ‘snubbing’ – when an artist is robbed of an award they clearly deserve – to an experience of racial bias, so, to clear this up;

17 times Brian McKnight, a Black artist, has been nominated for an award, yet never won. 16 times Snoop Dog, a Black artist, has been nominated for an award, yet never won. And, 14 times Nas, a Black artist, has been nominated for an award, yet never won.

Is it a coincidence that the top 3 most ‘snubbed’ artists are all POC?

Many celebrities began to notice this in the mid-2000’s, and in 2012, Nicky Minaj took to twitter stating “Never forget when the Grammys didn’t give me my best new artist award when I had 7 songs simultaneously charting on billboard & bigger first week than any female rapper in the last decade…but they gave it to the white man Bon Iver.”

The Grammys complex award system is congested with hidden discriminative processes when selecting artists for nominations and when deciding their award winners. They gather POC in the room, yet hardly award them. Even worse, some have accused the Grammy’s that even if they do award POC and provide them with publicity, it is always in a categories classified as a smaller ‘racial’ category. Dodai states that “basically, the Academy is lumping together these ‘ethnic’ artists into a ghetto of ‘otherness.”

An example of this is the famous Beyonce. She broke the record in the 2021 Grammys for being the woman to own the most Grammys, however, 23 of her 28 awards are in small categories such as “best traditional R&B vocal performance” with only 5 being constituted as major awards such as “Album of the Year”. It may be a small difference, yet it is these specifics that hide the Grammy’s racial bias towards black artists and prevents POC to gain popularity.

“When artists of colour only win awards that are not included in the telecast — the only artist other than Beyoncé to get behind the podium on Sunday was Chance the Rapper — that's systemic racism, buried so deeply within the structures of an institution that it can be read as inevitable.” (John Vilanova)

Further, Chance the Rapper exposed his attitudes towards the Grammy’s when winning Album of the Year yet declaring “[when] guys that look like me — do anything that's genre-bending, or anything, they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don't like that urban word, it's just a politically correct way to say the N-word to me”.

A significant statement that holds true.

It is important to understand why the Grammy’s are actually a big deal for the artists. Despite receiving a trophy and getting to make an acceptance speech, winning a Grammy provides the artist with exposure and thus more publicity on radio stations and TV. Any performer who wins a major Grammy can expect to see at least a 55% increase in concert ticket sales compared to moments before they won, with Taylor swift being a prime example of this after her ticket sales jumped from $125,000 to $600,000 (+380%) in one night. This is why Black artist Diddy called out the recording academy and said “I’m officially starting the clock: you’ve got 365 days to get this sh— together. We need the artists to take back control, we need transparency, we need diversity. This is the room that has the power to [force] the change that needs to be made.”

All this anger, animosity and recklessly transparent racial bias made me think, who makes the calls?

Within the academy, there is a voting committee of 10,000 important musical professionals. They decide who gets nominated, who wins, who wins what award and basically the entire running’s of the night. And after the previous manager of the Grammy’s (Dugan) came out and shared that a black voting member was immediately fired after raising concerns of diversity, it seems clear that the structures of the Grammys are weak in multiculturalism, and strong in racial bias.

However, the Grammys are trying to fix this. Publicly, the Academy Chairman Harvey Mason Jr invited over 2,300 multicultural members to join its voting ranks to increase its diverse populous. This led to the altering of some of the smaller category names and ‘racial groupings’, for example, World-Music category has been renamed as ‘global music’ to avoid connotations of colonialism and urban contemporary was altered to ‘progressive r&b’.

With music being a medium of connection and unification of the globe, the Grammy’s need to play a role in bringing further equality, rather than division. And if they don’t do this quickly, I suspect that the collapse of the Academy wont be far off.


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