Drake. Kendrick Lamar. Childish Gambino.
All three have produced major hits over the last year, yet all declined invitations to perform on the Grammy stage this Sunday night. While there has been no public comment thus far on their decisions there’s a glaring reality hard to ignore: Even as music created by black artists continues to have undeniable commercial and cultural cache, the awards they receive on “music’s biggest night” continue to be largely relegated to genre categories. Sure, you can have the biggest hit of the year. Sure, you can craft a genre-defying album to critical acclaim. But winning Record of the Year or Album of the Year? Now, you’re asking for too much.
The snubs in recent years have felt particularly egregious. In 2014, Kendrick Lamar’s debut masterpiece good kid, m.A.A.d city lost Best Rap Album to The Heist by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to the chagrin of many hip-hop fans. Macklemore later took to Instagram to post a text message he sent to Lamar saying, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win.” In a 2016 New York Times interview, two-time award winner Frank Ocean said the Grammys “...just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.” Ocean declined to submit his critically acclaimed album Blonde for award consideration. In 2017, Beyoncé’s Lemonade lost to Adele’s 25 for Album of the Year. In a somewhat stunning turn of events, Adele said she “couldn’t possibly accept this award” calling Lemonade “monumental.”
Of all the recent snubs, this one was a hard moment to witness. Lemonade single-handedly changed the way music was released and experienced. It was also Queen Bey’s crowning artistic achievement to date—a love letter to and for black women about pain, healing and reconciliation. With a slight smile as she stood teary-eyed in the audience, it’s hard to know exactly what Beyoncé was feeling. Yet, there she stood dignified and composed as black folks—and black women especially—are taught to be even when slighted. Beyoncé led all Grammy nominations that year with nine in total and Lemonade won for Best Contemporary Urban Album. Last year, Jay Z’s 4:44, an introspective response to Lemonade, garnered eight nominations. He went home empty-handed.
On “Apeshit,” the lead single off the couple’s surprise joint release last summer titled Everything Is Love, which is nominated for three awards, he rapped of the snub, “tell the Grammys fuck that 0 for 8, shit, have you ever seen a crowd going apeshit?” The rebuke was blunt. But it’s actually the latter half of that line which makes a larger and more poignant point. Artists like Jay Z and Beyoncé have a grip on audiences and have built massive empires. For more than a decade they have produced commercially and critically successful albums while selling out stadiums. Last year their On the Run II tour grossed over $250 million. It is in the intimacy and grandeur of a live music experience that perhaps offers the truest validation. It’s a moment to go “apeshit” together cementing the bond between artist and fan that no shiny piece of metal can quantify.
Still, validation counts. Far too often for black artists, and artists of color more broadly, the barometer for success is weighted against access to and approval by historically white institutions and spaces. Those gatekeepers are usually content to offer small accolades—enough to make you feel like you’ve won but keep you reaching higher for more. Artists are left juggling the desire for commercial success, authenticity, and industry accolades that open doors. Around and around the circle goes. It’s part of the reason that when a big win comes along, there’s an exhale of finally felt everywhere from group chats to think pieces. For a moment folks who look like you, who write and sing your stories, have been seen beyond the context of the black experience. That matters. And speaking of the Carters, it’s the reason why “Apeshit” created such resonance.
There they were, music’s royal couple, in the Louvre—the most famed and white museum in the world—appearing at turns powerful and yet nonchalant in front of the Mona Lisa. Their presence in front of the priceless work and the imagery in the video sent a clear message about belonging in spaces that often prove exclusionary.
For a music lover, it’s a breath of fresh air to see some of the biggest black artists of our time increasingly send the message of “nah, I’m good” to performing on some of the biggest stages—including the Grammys. It’s a reclamation of personal and communal agency by refusing access to their talent for commercial gain without proper recognition of their artistry. So many artists in previous generations fought to open doors and have a seat at the table. To reach a point in time where some black artists can willingly choose to close the door—whether it’s the Grammys or the Super Bowl—build their own table and flourish is something that was a dream not long ago. It also helps to slowly force change.
Last year, the Recording Academy made the decision to expand the number of nominees in several categories from five to eight in an effort to offer “more flexibility to our voters when having to make the often challenging decisions about representing excellence and the best in music for the year,” Academy president Neil Portnow said. Of the 16 nominations between Record and Album of the Year, roughly half are occupied by black artists.
Whether any of them take home the top honors is anyone’s guess. However, the absence of black stars speaks louder than their presence as they continue to redefine what it means to be successful, celebrated and seen—on their terms.