Examining the Grammys' race issue
No artist of color has scored an Album of the Year Grammy since 2008. With Adele’s triumph over Beyoncé, EW explores an issue that’s long dogged the ceremony.
The 59th Annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 12 represented another career peak for Adele, who took home three of the night’s four major awards — Song, Record, and Album of the Year — for 25 and its smash hit “Hello.” During her acceptance speech for Album, she dedicated her win to Beyoncé, and minutes after the telecast, the 28-year-old British pop star told reporters, “My album of the year is Lemonade. What the f— does she have to do to win Album of the Year?”
Beyoncé, who was nominated in an impressive nine categories, won in only two: Best Music Video and Best Urban Contemporary Album. But the 35-year-old’s Album of the Year loss—the third of her career—reignited a long-standing debate: Why don’t the Grammys recognize more artists of color? Since 2013, white artists (Mumford & Sons, Daft Punk, Beck, Taylor Swift) have beaten out black artists (Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean) widely believed to be more deserving of Album of the Year. The last nonwhite artist to receive that prize was Herbie Hancock, in 2008, for his album of Joni Mitchell covers. Given this track record, executive producer Ken Ehrlich had considered the possibility of an Adele sweep, which is partially why the Best Urban Contemporary Album category was aired. “We have no idea who the winners are…. [But] frankly yes, I wanted to have something that maybe Beyoncé had a better chance of winning. We put so few categories on air anymore, so they need to be carefully scrutinized.”
One senior-level record-company executive does think the Grammys have a race problem. “[The Recording Academy] is not in touch with culture, and music is culture,” the exec tells EW. “I was surprised, because [Lemonade] was so culturally relevant. I can’t name any album that was more impactful for women, for black women, for music lovers.” Pop culture expert and SiriusXM host Bevy Smith agrees: “[Lemonade] held up a mirror to America. It was a real movement. It’s sad America rejected it in that way.”
Compounding the issue of race and the Grammys even further: Artists of color are always called upon to perform. Beyoncé’s high-concept medley of “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” was, in fact, among this year’s buzziest moments. And while Latin music is recognized with its own Grammys event — in addition to having awards categories at the traditional ceremony — that genre is largely ignored during the telecast.
“If [artists of color are] not going to be given the respect from this organization, then why even show up and entertain?” Smith says. “If there’s no Beyoncé performance, that would drive down ratings.” (Ocean, who declined to submit his album Blonde for consideration, skipped the show, as did nominees Drake and Kanye West.) “It’s affected us over the years that artists who really enjoy doing the show have lost faith in what the awards structure is,” says Ehrlich.
Adele’s sweep of five out of five awards does make some sense: 25 is one of two diamond-certified albums this decade. (The other? Adele’s Grammy-winning sophomore album, 21.) And her latest LP is the sort of traditional-sounding pop album that resonates with older Grammy voters. “People are making a mountain out of a molehill,” one voting member tells EW. “ was the biggest success in our industry the last couple years, and that’s why it was acknowledged—not because Adele is white and Beyoncé is black.” (The Grammys website says the awards honor “technical proficiency and overall excellence…without regard to album sales or chart position.”) Gary Clark Jr., who presented Beyoncé with the Urban Contemporary award, also says he wasn’t shocked by the Album of the Year results: “Did it surprise me? No.”
Still, critics say the Recording Academy, which doesn’t release the demographic makeup of its 14,000 voters, can take steps to diversify its membership, which many speculate to be largely older and white. That’s especially important considering the Oscars have pledged to diversify their own voter base while adding restrictions to their existing member pool. “They should do a better job of encouraging people [to vote] from the urban and hip-hop fields—doing a better outreach to younger members [of the music community],” says the voter. “Perhaps I’m being naive, but I just don’t think there’s a conspiracy. The voters are music lovers, not prejudiced people.” Still, if the Recording Academy doesn’t make efforts to address the issue, it may find more artists boycotting the ceremony. In a pair of since-deleted tweets, Beyoncé’s sister, Solange Knowles, offered another path for artists of color: “Create your own communities, build your own institutions.”
Additional reporting by Kevin O’Donnell and Lynette Rice.