CultureMusicStrength in Struggle

diddy was right — they don’t care about us

January 30, 2020
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There was Diddy, right at home, in the midst of a glitzy party during Grammy weekend in Los Angeles, accepting an award from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for being an industry icon, being all nice and cordial. But Sean Combs wasn’t about to forget the elephant in the room. The people in power gave him one of those special awards that celebrate a career — but not one of the main ones, that the whole body votes on. (We’ll get back to that later.) Diddy was in the midst of a long acceptance speech when he shifted into a call to action. 

“I gotta talk about the elephant in the room.” The room fell silent. “Every year, y’all be killing us,” he said. “I’m talking about the pain, speaking for the artists, producers, executives….We just want an even playing field.” There were cheers then from some in the room, but many didn’t know what he was really talking about until he said, “Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys.”

The animosity between hip-hop and the Grammys goes back decades. The award show was slow to recognize that hip-hop was even worthy of getting a category, not handing out a Grammy for rap albums until 1996, well after hip-hop had become one of the dominant forces in American culture. For years the awards for hip-hop weren’t televised, and for a while Jay-Z boycotted the whole event because it seemed clear that the Grammys and the industry were looking down their nose at hip-hop. 

When we look at the overall history of the Grammys, we see a lack of respect for all modern Black music. It seems like many white people, — especially the older ones, with the real power — may have a deep reverence for historic expressions of Black music (blues, R&B, soul, jazz) but regard modern Black music innovations with disdain. It’s as if they prefer to see Black folks in a museum, behind a glass case, rather than in the real world, pushing art forward and stoking cultural revolutions. Perhaps they can’t see their genius until they’re gone.

Look at Grammy history over the past ten years and you’ll see that usually there’s a story of great Black artists losing to white ones — like we’re the Apollo Creed to their triumphant Rocky. In 2019, visionary soul sister Janelle Monae lost album of the year to a country star named Kacey Musgraves. In 2017 the Queen, Beyonce, riding high on Lemonade and “Formation,” lost record, album, and song of the year to the beloved white soul singer Adele. (Adele is a powerful singer but when this happens over and again, the larger pattern says it’s about more than individual victories, but about an institutional perspective.). In 2016 the genius Pulitzer Prize winning MC Kendrick Lamar put out his magnum opus, To Pimp A Butterfly, and lost Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989. Maybe he needed to rap slower. In 2013 Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange lost to something from Mumford and Sons. In 2010 Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce album lost to Fearless from that same Taylor Swift. 

This year, 2020, the normal Grammy script played out as Lizzo, a brilliantly talented cultural phenomenon, lost in the major categories to the teenage wunderkind Billie Eilish. I like Eilish’s music, I have no problem with her, but the historical pattern has repeated so many times that the Grammys are falling somewhere between boring and offensive. That pattern is as steady as the drum machine that Grammy voters often show contempt for.

Look at it another way: over the past 20 years, Black artists have won Album of the Year three times, although none in the past decade. Two of those who won are Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock, legendary artists albeit ones that represent jazz and blues, older styles of Black music. In the last two decades the only Black artists working in a modern idiom to win Album of the Year are Outkast (for 2003’s Speakerboxxx/Love Below). That’s crazy. No matter how great Black artists are, there’s always someone white who happens to be somehow greater. So the overall message of the big Grammy awards seems to be that white music is more important, while innovative Black music is barely worthy of discussion. 

In his speech Diddy referenced other institutions. “This current situation is not a revelation — it’s been going on around the world. For years we’ve allowed institutions that have never had our interests at heart, to judge us.” He was not just critiquing the Grammys — he’s saying the Oscars are telling the same story. This year it’s #Oscarssowhite all over again with 19 out of the top 20 acting nominations going to white artists except for the great Cynthia Erivo for Harriet Tubman. Bafflingly they left out Lupita Nyong’o’s extraordinary double performance in Us and Jamie Foxx’s powerful role in Just Mercy. Despite making significant changes to their voting body and to the leadership of the Academy, all meant to infuse diversity into the Oscars, the show remains as monochromatic as a can of white paint.

What does it matter? Artists need and want recognition — they are rightfully eager for the respect of their peers. The Grammys and the Oscars are important because they are voted on by members of the industry, and it’s normal to crave love and respect from the elite members of your tribe. But more importantly than that, the Grammys and the Oscars are a stepping stone, helping artists move up in their industry. And if Black artists are consistently overlooked, that means they’re constantly losing out on opportunities to advance in their field. 

Diddy and other purveyors of Black artistic excellence who’ve attacked the award show drought — people like April Reign, Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith — are right to call this out because it’s more than ego stroking. It’s part of what makes it harder for Black artists to reach elite status and the power to change industries that goes with it. It helps normalize the idea that white artists are successfully visionary, while Black artists are not. It’s part of perpetuating white supremacy — and, yes, we’re talking about racism among the one-percenters, but there’s racism in the upper class. Black artists matter! They are critical to shaping the culture that means too much, and they’re crucial to influencing how we are perceived in America — and what America is.

Diddy finished his speech by saying, “[It] stops right now. I’m officially starting a clock. Y’all got 365 days to get this shit together.” I’m glad my brother is throwing down a gauntlet, but unless most of the Black artists stand with him to such an extent that the industry feels the pain, it’s going to take a lot longer than a year “to get this shit together.” We’ve got to keep fighting because the battle matters, we’re too entrenched in these industries to turn back, and we’re too good to not get the recognition we deserve. 

We will keep fighting because eventually we will win. Keep making boundary-breaking art, keep agitating for it to be recognized, keep shaming them when they don’t, keep on getting in their face when they don’t give us the love we deserve — and, for God’s sake, keep on making work so great that they can’t ignore it. We won’t solve this in a year but we will break down these walls, and solve this in time for the artists who are now our babies. We’ve got to solve this for them.