Protesting From the Podium Isn’t Enough to Change the Grammys
In his acceptance speech, Tyler the Creator decried the Grammys’ reluctance to recognize artists of color. But isn’t participating at all a validation of the system it represents?
As I watched Tyler the Creator discuss his ambivalence about his Grammy win for Best Rap Album—he felt his album is actually pop, and though he was happy to win, lamented that the Grammys only recognize “guys who look like me” in the Rap and Urban Contemporary categories—I wondered if black and brown artists ought to be lining up for their trophies as they denounce the awards’ institutional racism. Merely bringing up the topic of integrity amongst marginalized groups in the entertainment industry opens one up to accusations of hypocrisy: Who are you to judge? We need this representation! You can’t eat integrity. But to have integrity in the first place means to risk hypocrisy, even for artists who have been historically excluded from prestigious accolades. It means contradicting your own desires to be noticed, liked, and showered in cash—desires you may have, up to this moment, indulged with quieted skepticism.
From Lil Nas X to Lizzo to John Legend to Billie Eilish, the artists who nabbed Grammy awards in the popular categories this year are already widely-played and well-off. For Tyler specifically, it’s unlikely that there would have been much to lose from both an economic and brand perspective by not showing up. In 2017, his former Odd Future collaborator Frank Ocean boycotted the ceremony in solidarity with the black artists continuously unacknowledged by the membership; Ocean didn’t even submit his albums Blonde or Endless to the awards, calling it his “Colin Kaepernick moment.” Like Frank, Tyler’s popularity has already been cemented in the mainstream—winning the Grammy simply meant validation from an increasingly obsolete institution.
Unsurprisingly, even when the trophies are merely symbolic, independent artist backbone isn’t the north star for many of the music industry’s biggest talents. The Roc Nation Grammy brunch, a gathering of the richest, mostly black stars in the entertainment industry, provided a nearly-blinding view into the mixed-up priorities of some of the Grammy’s most vocal critics from within. It’s clear that, no matter the critiques about categories and winners, every year, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Diddy, Alicia Keys, and their ilk will arrive for the charade in their best dress. Their aim is not to revolutionize the system, but insert themselves into it as a kind of black upper class. Eilish, a talented white teenager who speaks and dresses like black ’90s R’n’B star, walked away with the biggest wins of the night, followed by Lizzo and Lil Nas X, black artists whose music—though not necessarily their images and identities—easily fits into conventional trends in pop music.
There would indeed be a use for a sustained Grammys boycott by artists who object to the ghettoizing of black artists in “urban” categories—one that models itself off of Ocean’s recent refusal. By not submitting their work for consideration in the first place, black artists could deny the organization favorable “diverse” optics, and instead reinvest their energies (and funds) in the democratizing force of decentralized internet music platforms like Bandcamp as well as more traditional sites with free options like Soundcloud. These sites have given unconnected artists from all backgrounds cheap and accessible ways to share their music with wide audiences. In turn, the industry has both borrowed and stolen from these small-time musicians, since they have, often more than their establishment counterparts, pushed the boundaries of popular and niche genres alike.
Instead, we see the increasing influence of Spotify and Apple Music, which are convenient and ubiquitous for consumers while being at worst exploitative and at best leverageable for musicians. In 2015, Jay-Z responded by buying the subscription music platform TIDAL, which provides higher profits to the 15 popular musicians who are also stakeholders, and, with higher subscription fees, theoretically three times the royalties to all musicians on the platform (TIDAL has been accused of generating false listener numbers for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, while shortchanging other artists, which the company denies.) The platform also hinges its appeal on exclusivity—for a while Jay-Z’s entire catalogue was only on TIDAL, and new releases by Beyoncé and Rihanna have debuted on the platform. Of course, this solution simply readapts the popular streaming model rather than seeking to upend it (in 2017, Sprint bought a 33 percent stake in the company). You can talk all the big game you want about a broken system, but if your answer is simply to remix it, you’ll have to forgive the world for moving on.
Artist integrity generally does not beget profit, which is precisely the point. When black artists like Ocean, Lauryn Hill, Saul Williams, and Noname reject the manipulations and exploitations of the industry, they are also pointing out that the money is tainted and requires their willing participation not only in their own exploitation but in the exploitation of others. Taking a stand against this system does not deny that some amount of money is necessary for stability and even revolution, but asserts that there is a real cost, too, to how you make advances in the industry and which systems you prop up in the process. It’s time to look beyond the Grammys press room for wisdom about systemic abuses and instead demand meaningful action from the industry’s loudest and most powerful critics. As the oft-controversial yet largely self-reformed Azealia Banks said in a recent Instagram story about the Grammys and Tyler the Creator, “I think that when you engage with that institution, there’s a bit of politics that you agree to participate in.” Tyler, who hoped to separate himself from the other blacks by being recognized as a Wes Anderson-knowledgeable pop artist inspired by none other than hip-hop artist Pharrell Williams, will have to figure out what he actually stands for.