Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
Ella Fitzgerald, 1959.
Donna Summer, 1981.
Public Enemy, 1988.
Kanye West, 2005, 2006.
Beyoncé, 2010, 2017.
Frank Ocean, 2013.
Kendrick Lamar, 2014, 2016.
The Weeknd, 2021.
Can you guess what all these artists and years have in common? Every last one of them, during the noted years, were snubbed by the Grammys and passed over for a peer that was more palatable, more comfortable, more pop, more … white. And the list is by no means exhaustive, the Recording Academy — the entity that oversees the Grammys — has a long history of systemic racism both in who it nominates and who is filling its leadership positions.
As lovers of music culture, we have willingly played our part in the inevitable “diversity theatre” year after year. We call out the show for its failure to acknowledge our contributions. We write thoughtful and scathing op-eds that meticulously lay-out the argument for why the Grammys repeatedly fail to give our community the credit it deserves. We read the studies that lay-out the racism we already knew was there. Music executives and Grammy sympathizers inevitably push back with disingenuous claims of meritocracy, while highlighting the few artists of color who were nominated that year. Then we all watch the Grammys with reluctant optimism, tweeting our disdain and disapproval with witty memes and biting tweets. All this, while the artists of color who are moving music to new heights are ignored, snubbed and overlooked. And, scene.
Each year, we endure the symptom — lack of recognition — but the root cause, systemic racism, continues on, unabated. The Grammys are the brainchild of a group of white, privileged, male, music industry executives who thought they deserved (even) more recognition. The show’s leadership has earned a reputation for sexual harassment, conflicts of interest and voting irregularities — all while controlling the ebb and flow of money and influence within the music industry. Is it really surprising that artists, executives, producers, managers, label owners of color would be excluded?
So, it is time to cancel the Grammys.
Before you @ me, let me explain.
As fans, we can continue to play our role in this diversity theatre, but where is the real change? Perhaps, a new round of diversity reports and positions, all created and approved by the same racist structure that dominates the industry. What’s the best possible outcome of our annual Grammy-shaming routine? Maybe a few executives decide that our memes have become a PR problem. They could take the NFL route, and pay a few celebrities to soften the criticism until it comes out as noble self-reflection, and then maybe hang a few cryptic messages around the stage.
Or, they could go the Oscars route and roll out an elaborate new system of incentives to ensure that every label (and we’re not even kidding about this part) has two interns of color. The problem arises because when the people in power — those with real ownership — are tasked with making the change, they often fail. They do not understand the line between representation and tokenism. They do not know how to assess an industry that has grown far beyond those original six executives. And they cannot understand the harm that can come from their actions. PR campaigns get nothing more than PR responses. And honestly, these insincere attempts to break down racist hierarchies within the Recording Academy hurt the music.
The Grammys, along with other antiquated awards ceremonies, directly impact the economic realities of the artists driving the music industry. Is it any wonder that an entity put in place to ensure that those in control remain in control has completely failed to keep up with or embrace the leveling of an industry that was once vertical? The industry is flattening under the pressure of decreased production costs, more options for reaching fans and new economic models. We are witnessing the birth of a democratized music industry — an industry where artists of color can circumvent traditional gatekeepers and advance music culture on new platforms. The music industry has officially been disrupted, and it is time we disrupt the way we judge its accomplishments. Our participation in the maintenance of the Grammys is impeding its evolution.
So it’s time we stop caring. Stop participating in a process that can only do one thing: make sure the powerful stay powerful. The Grammys are a machine that takes commercial success, adds prestigious recognition, and spits out even more commercial success. It’s a money making machine, nothing more. Did Chuck Berry need the Grammys to change the course of music history? Did Afrika Bambaataa? Would Illmatic better capture life in the projects if it won a Grammy? Would Liquid Swords cut deeper?
We don’t need the Grammys. In fact, we need to ignore them. We need to support artists who move us, who tell our stories, who change everything. We need to support artists who don’t yet have a label or an army of well connected executives ready to defend them on social media. We need to stop playing their game.
Civil rights lawyer Kim Tignor is the creator and founder of Take Creative Control (TCC) and executive director of the Institute for Intellectual Property & Social Justice (IIPSJ). Kim has grabbed the attention of creators of color by shining a light on a barrier to opportunity that’s been hiding in plain sight: our intellectual property laws.