The Grammys Diversity Triumph: No White Guys in Album of the Year!
With nominations dominated by Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, and Kendrick Lamar, the Grammys seem to have had a long overdue reckoning when it comes to diversity.
Sure, she only shows up twice on this year’s list of contenders—well behind pack leaders JAY-Z (8 nods), Kendrick Lamar (7), and Bruno Mars (6)—for her Fifty Shades Darker song with Zayn and for writing Little Big Town’s “Better Man.” That’s not even a slight to Swift, whose only track off Reputation eligible for this year’s awards was “Look What You Made Me Do.” (Though it is significant that the song was snubbed completely, given what a Grammy darling Swift typically is.)
For once this year’s list is full of surprises making music fans nod in approval instead of groan. In many ways, it reflects the exasperation over the dominance of white mainstream pop and rock artists like Swift in major categories in recent years over urban and hip-hop contenders that shake up the industry, galvanize culture, and, you know, produce the best music of the year.
That extends all the way to Adele’s sweeping of the major categories over Beyoncé’s work on Lemonade. Though Adele’s 25 was phenomenal, the snubs were egregious enough to prompt some critics to cry Grammy racism—and prompted Adele to apologize to Beyoncé at the Grammys microphone.
It arguably reflects a historic, institutionalized bias. Only 10 black artists have won Album of the Year in Grammys history, a statistic that is particularly stark when you look at the last five winners: Adele over Beyoncé (2017), Taylor Swift over Kendrick Lamar (2016), Beck over Beyoncé (2015), Daft Punk over Kendrick Lamar (2014), and Mumford and Sons over Frank Ocean (2013).
It extends to the rap categories as well. At the 2014 Grammys, Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album. Kanye West is the only rapper to have won Best Rap Album over a white artist.
This year, however, there seems to have been a reckoning.
For the first time in Grammy history, no white man appears in Album of the Year category.
(In 1999, all five nominees were female-fronted acts—Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain, and Garbage—though Garbage technically, while fronted by Shirley Manson, is a band featuring three white guys.)
Ed Sheeran had been considered a shoo-in for a slot, but instead the five contenders are Childish Gambino (for Awaken, My Love!), JAY-Z (4:44), Kendrick Lamar (DAMN.), Lorde (Melodrama), and Bruno Mars (24K Magic). In fact, Lorde is the only white artist on the list.
Only three times in Grammy history have two rap albums shown up in Album of the Year. In those years, no other urban or R&B album appeared on the list. This year, Childish Gambino’s surprise nomination for Awaken, My Love! alongside JAY-Z, Bruno Mars, and Kendrick Lamar means, for the first time, there are four urban, R&B, or hip-hop Album of the Year nominees.
Record of the Year is chockful of diversity as well.
Say what you want about “Despacito”—we certainly have strong feelings about it—but there’s no denying the Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber collaboration’s dominance and impact on the music scene this past year. It’s also a rare crossover Latin hit in the Record of the Year category, which hasn’t seen an inclusion on the list since Santana’s “Smooth” competed against Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” in 2000. (Unless you count Los Lonely Boys’ 2005 hit “Heaven.”)
“Despacito” will compete against Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” JAY-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” and Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic.” The Grammys classified Mars’ album in the R&B category, so, whether or not you agree with that classification, that means there isn’t a single pop song on the list.
There are other reasons to cheer when it comes to inclusion this year. New artist SZA, a R&B singer-songwriter, is this year’s most-nominated female artist, besting Grammy veterans Lady Gaga (two nods for Joanne), Lorde (whose only nod was in Album of the Year), and Katy Perry (zero nods for Witness).
Joining her in Best New Artist are Alessia Cara, Khalid, Lil Uzi Vert, and Julia Michaels, the latter of whom, along with Lorde, is one of only two contenders in the Top Four categories whose music isn’t immediately influenced by or characterized as hip-hop.
Elsewhere, Cardi B gets her first Grammy nomination for “Bodak Yellow.” Kehlani, one of the most promising R&B artists today, scores her second nod. Even the pop categories give us reasons to cheer, with Kesha’s triumphant comeback album, released after she was silenced while in litigation against her producer, Dr. Luke, scoring her two nods: Best Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Album.
There were snubs, of course. Many had crossed their fingers hoping that Kesha would break into the major categories. Similarly, Lady Gaga’s polarizing country-tinged album ignited enough conversation to maybe make its way into Album of the Year, or at least a Song of the Year nod for “Million Reasons.” As mentioned before, jaws probably dropped when Ed Sheeran failed to garner an Album of the Year nomination, after having the biggest year for any artist in any genre in 2017.
And steer clear of fuming tweens this morning, sure to be furious at Harry Styles’ total shut-out. (In fact, it wasn’t a great year for former teen idols releasing great pop music. Demi Lovato didn’t score a single nod for her critically hailed album Tell Me You Love Me, not even for its massive single, “Sorry Not Sorry.”)
The year was even worse for country fans, with not a single major nomination granted to a country artist. More confusingly, Miranda Lambert, who was predicted to dominate Tuesday’s nominations, only scored two nods, both in the country category.
Of course, there are two stages of harrumphing when it comes to the Grammy Awards. This is the first wave, the parsing of the nominees, which, honestly, typically warrants a far angrier airing of grievances than this year's set does. But the second comes when the votes come in and the trophies are handed out—that’s when the big outrage usually rushes in.
Will Lorde, for example, follow in the footsteps of Taylor Swift, Adele, and countless white men before her and innocently bear the brunt of an angry mob’s cries by triumphing over more deserving urban artists?
(We’re not in the business of diminishing anyone’s accomplishments here, and certainly don’t fault the likes of Swift and Adele for picking up trophies for excellent albums they worked hard on. It’s the Grammys voting body we take issue with, and their seeming institutionalized resistance to rewarding urban music and non-white artists.)
On the occasion of these refreshing, oddly great nominees, let’s revisit a portion of Beyoncé’s speech when she took home Best Urban Contemporary Album.
“It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty,” she said. “So that they can grow up in a world where they can look in the mirror, first at their own families as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House, and the Grammys, and see themselves, and have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent, and capable. This is something that I want for every child of every race, and I feel it’s vital we look at this past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.”
Let’s see how much of that last part, “our tendencies to repeat our mistakes,” the Grammys actually listens to.