black music in 2018 is bigger than the grammys

December 7, 2018
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For many artists, being awarded for their work is a goal. For many Black musicians, it is important to be awarded with gold, the kind of gold only available when you are presented with a Grammy. The topic of representation beyond performance has been one that has consumed the mainstream: there has been a fight to properly nominate and award work done by Black artists throughout the creative industries. The fight for recognition has been the subject of many conversations amongst the artists and the general public. These conversations usually rest on discourse about power: who has the power to produce, be nominated, be awarded, and be represented. This morning, reading the Grammy nominations, I was washed over by a surprising sense of numbness. All of my favorite musicians and projects were awarded — yet I did not care.

Janelle Monáe was sitting on CBS This Morning where she found out about her two Grammy nominations — an Album of the Year nod for Dirty Computer, and Best Music Video for “Pynk.”  She began to cry, and my blanket of numbness was perforated by her visceral reaction to the honor. I was responding to the emotional moment by an artist that has given us so much in 2018. Moments after finding out, Monáe spoke to a CBS correspondent: “You know, as an artist I never do what I do to receive recognition and I’m so thankful and so humbled that my peers and the Grammy community of music lovers would think so much of the visuals that I put out and the album I put out to nominate it.”

This response took me to the exact location of my numbness: the recognition, even with the possibility of a project being awarded come Grammy night, feels too small to reflect what Black musicians were able to do this year. The alchemy that Black folks in art have created in the face of the misery, nihilism and political violence produced by America in 2018, has been astonishing to witness and experience. There is no award that can truly recognize what Black music has been able to do in 2018. So when in February, Black artists are thanking God on stage after collecting their awards, one must wonder if they are actually thanking themselves, because what Black music has managed is nothing short of miraculous.

Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe’s cosmic ode to the outcast and her queer Black self, has served as a type of national anthem that I do kneel for, cry for, dance for, and love for. The bubbling celebration happening in a dystopian world is exactly what made me find courage to cultivate light when children were being separated from their parents at the border, and members of my LGBTQIA+ family were getting their rights stripped away. Between moments of writing about wrong-doings and showing up to support the way I could, it was Dirty Computer that tethered me back to some type of elation and hope.

My personal life has also contained death and ending—the passing of my father and legends like Aretha Franklin, the mass-shootings and police brutality. 2018 held nothing precious, not even life. I could not have foreshadowed these events, especially paired with the bizarre nature of this year’s electoral politics. Childish Gambino’s “Feels Like Summer” was the only material I could find to escape the seasonal heat; and of course when the heat of political tyranny was too much to sleep through, Childish Gambino woke me up with “This is America.” It disturbed me. I hated and loved it. It moved me in an era I thought incapable of moving me through art because I’ve seen so many shocking things in reality. I doubted the power of Black fantasy, and soon after reaped.

Even more personally, I went through a romantic breakup this year, and The Carters’ Everything is Love filled the gap of despair made by heartbreak with the spirit of hope, love, and ambition. It has been difficult even for me, someone not particularly invested in the symbolism of the Obamas to witness The Trump family muddy one of the few representations of Black partnership and romance we have in 2018. But Everything is Love felt like a push-back to that. Jay-Z raps about President Trump, “I give a fuck what that man find vulgar. Just look in my eyes when you toast us.” It felt like a reclaiming of a Black excellence narrative stolen by white mediocrity. And if Black excellence, or exceptionalism, is to die, it should die by the hands of Black people looking to widen how we are seen and what we are able to do, not by an incompetent leader empowered by fear and hatred.

A still-visibly shaken Janelle Monáe continued to respond to her nomination: “I’m really just humbled and I’m just trying to take everything in. But I think I’m most thankful for these nominations because as much as the album and the visuals were with me and about, it was about a community of people I wanted to highlight and recognize—the dirty computers.”

This quote holds what was fantastic about Black music in 2018, and why the Grammys feel too small today: we took one of the most despicable and dangerous eras most of us have ever lived through, and created our own gold. Our own celebration. We went to the future. We danced in the Louvre. There is simply no Recording Academy powerful enough to truly measure or honor what Black people have done with art in 2018.