As I watched the 59th Annual Grammy Awards telecast, and waited for Album of the Year (AOTY) to be announced, I knew deep down in my gut that Beyoncé’s Lemonade was not going to win.
Despite being the most nominated woman in Recording Academy history with 62 nominations, winning 22 of those nominations, and her 20-plus incredibly powerful years in the music industry, Beyoncé has yet to win the biggest award of them all. And as AOTY winner Adele herself said, “What the fuck does she have to do to win. . .?”
In order to even be acknowledged, people of colour have to go above and beyond. We are not given the space to simply be good or just okay. Beyoncé’s Lemonade shattered boundaries of genre, came with a 60-minute visual piece that centred on southern black femininity, and produced radio bangers. Kendrick Lamar incorporated hip-hop, funk, and jazz with incredible lyricism on To Pimp a Butterfly. Both of these albums changed and revolutionized culture — yet still that wasn’t good enough.
The last time a black person won AOTY was in 2008 when Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters beat Kanye West’s Graduation and Amy Winehouse’s iconic Back to Black. Yet, the last time a black woman won AOTY was in 1999 when Lauryn Hill won for her debut solo record The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. This means that a black woman has not won the biggest Grammy of them all in this century. When you look at those facts, it is clear that something is very wrong.
Racial inequality is an issue that is talked about within the industry, but the conversation seems to stop after we get to diversity within performers. However, it’s clear that awards systems have inequality issues as well. Part of this challenge comes from the fact that we don’t know the Grammy voter demographics, but it is widely assumed that those who vote are predominantly older white folks. The voting body doesn’t necessarily accurately represent the full scope of the audience. It’s important that people of colour be represented in all areas of the industry, not just where they can be seen.
There’s also the challenge of understanding the historical context. Many of the awards that are won come with contexts that are comfortable for mainstream (read white) audiences. Beyoncé has won many of her awards in R&B and Urban categories; Lemonade won best Urban Contemporary Album, which is to say she won best “black” album. In many ways this says, “We’re with you celebrating black people, but that’s not an experience I can relate to, so I’m not going to try.” Adele’s album and career is built upon the same musical legacy and history as Beyoncé, yet she is chosen to win and that just doesn’t seem fair.
Now the irony of this whole discussion isn’t lost on me. Awards and entertainment are meant to be forms of escape from the world we live in. Then there’s also the fact that people around the world are dying and I’m sitting here writing about why Beyoncé should’ve won a hunk of metal and wood that’s going to collect dust on her mantle.
However, these issues are important because entertainment plays an important role in shaping how we understand the world around us. As any good communication student will tell you, television and film don’t reflect the world we live in — it simply replicates that which is familiar.
Popular culture reveals a lot about who we are and what we value as a society. If the world we live in constantly excludes people of colour from spaces of decision making, forcing them into the margins of society, then it makes sense that our media and, by extension, our awards would reflect that. These issues are systemic and need to be changed from the inside out.
Until the system is completely changed to not exploit people of colour, we will not be celebrated like we deserve.