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The Grammys: A celebration of white mediocrity?

In the ever-evolving landscape of the music industry, the Grammy Awards remain the pinnacle of musical recognition. Yet, beneath the star-studded ceremonies and prestige, a troubling undercurrent of racial bias persists, often side-lining genuine artistic innovation within communities of colour. Recent years have seen artists such as Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and Zayn shining a spotlight on the politics behind the Grammy voting process, prompting a critical examination of whether the awards inadvertently uphold a culture that prioritises white mediocrity over ground breaking talent from underrepresented communities.


Following Taylor Swift’s history-making win at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, fans took to social media to suggest that SZA’s newest studio album, SOS, should have been the recipient of the coveted Album of the Year award instead. The album was the longest-running #1 female album of the decade, spending 10 weeks at the top of the charts. While Swift has undeniably established herself as a dominant cultural force with over 200 entries on Billboard’s Hot 100, it may be said that her rise to fame has inadvertently positioned her as a symbol of white mediocrity. Securing her fourth Album of the Year title with Midnights, Taylor Swift has now won the award more times than all Black female recipients combined, with the last being Lauryn Hill in 1999.


However, it is not just fans on social media that have engaged in the discourse surrounding this controversial win. Later in the evening, while accepting the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z pointed out the Recording Academy's glaringly obvious lack of recognition for Black artists. While acknowledging that music is an objective art, he couldn’t help but question how his wife, Beyoncé, has never won Album of the Year despite making history in 2022 with her 32nd Grammy, and ultimately holding the most Grammy wins of all time.


The alleged snub of Renaissance as Album of the Year in 2023 intensified conversations around the appreciation of artists of colour, specifically Black artists. Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, Renaissance, paid homage to ballroom culture, which has its roots in Black and Latino LGBTQ+ communities. The album was accepted as a glowing recognition of queer culture and received critical acclaim, yet somehow lost Album of the Year to Harry Styles’ inoffensive and somewhat bland Harry's House.


It can be argued that the underrepresentation of artists of colour at the Grammys is systemic. After all, how can one expect a voting body composed largely of white industry professionals to appreciate the nuances of black and brown art? The experiences of artists like Beyoncé and SZA are emblematic of a broader trend within the industry, raising concerns about the need for diversified voting panels.


Despite occasional victories for artists of colour at the Grammys, a closer examination reveals an upsetting pattern: these wins often occur in niche, racialised categories rather than one of the “big four” categories. For instance, Bad Bunny’s record-breaking ‘Un Verano Sin Ti’ was confined to the Best Urban Music Album category at the 65th Grammys, losing out, like Beyoncé, on Album of the Year to Harry Styles. This category has long been criticised for its use of the term ‘urban’, as it carries heavy socioeconomic and racial connotations often viewing people of colour as a monolithic entity.


Ultimately, despite being a symbol of musical success, the Grammy Awards need to address the stark racial discrepancies in artistic recognition. Although plenty of artists of colour are receiving accolades, the fact remains that white artists are held to a lower standard, meaning that the industry’s traditional metrics for success may not fully encompass the depth of the contributions of black and brown creatives. As the music industry continues to evolve, it becomes imperative for the Recording Academy to dismantle systemic biases and champion a future where innovation and excellence are celebrated irrespective of an artist’s racial or cultural background. In the words of Issa Rae, “I’m rooting for everybody black.”


Words: Theo Chisango, he/him

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