In 1999, a young Lauryn Hill swept the Grammys, picking up album of the year for her neo-soul, autodidactic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. A few years later OutKast won the golden gramophone for their massively successful double-album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Finally, a win for hip-hop at the turn of the new millennia, where black eminence was honored by the pre-eminent awarding body in music. These wins, unfortunately, were crude anomalies. The next time a black artist prevailed as an AOTY winner would be in 2008, with Herbie Hancock taking home, essentially, a lifetime achievement award for a Joni Mitchell tribute album.
The Grammys have snubbed black progenitors perennially in the big four categories since its inception. In an article for Vulture, Rembert Browne argued that for a black artist to secure upper echelon honors, they have to make an album of the decade. The stats don’t lie; only three black women have received AOTY the 61 times it’s been handed out, triumphing in genre-specific, “racialized” categories. NPR writer Ann Powers accused the Grammys of foregrounding only the biggest black artists in its televised segments, remaining exclusionary to fledgling artists in need of a spotlight.
Even after some overdue “self-examination” on the Academy’s part, a damning indictment of the Recording Academy’s conduct by expelled President Deborah Dugan has emerged. Dugan has filed a lawsuit, specifically citing the monumental losses Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Beyoncé (among others) faced in core categories as evidence of racial discrimination. The chasm between these transcendent black artists and the historically white Grammys board grows ever wider.
As “the arbiter of music excellence” gears up for a telecast in its most heated climate to date, we’re looking back at some of the most egregious snubs of the last decade to rile and remind you the Recording Academy has a grave systemic problem rewarding black achievement in music.
2013: Frank Ocean – ‘Channel Orange’
Channel Orange dictated much of the cultural conversation when it was released in 2012, yet Ocean was relegated to the environs of music achievement at the 2013 Grammys with a solitary win in the ‘black people category’ – Urban Contemporary Album. The timeless classic was trumped on the night by Mumford & Sons for AOTY, and Ocean was snubbed in best new artist category by the now defunct FUN.. Ocean’s intersectional exploration of queerness in a heteronormative industry felt and sounded ground-breaking. A complex, but seamless work of identity and adolescent angst losing to a rustic folk-lite band, conveyed a complete ineptitude to incentivize something truly innovative.
In a 2016 New York Times interview, 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 follow-up Blonde for award consideration.
2014: Kendrick Lamar – ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d City’
The Grammys, in a move that shocked no one, rewarded Daft Punk’s luxury yacht party vibes over a Kendrick’s sophomore effort, a stunning convergence of underground and mainstream hip-hop sensibilities. What stung the most, however, was when the now obsolete Macklemore & Ryan Lewis prevailed in all rap categories, also taking home best new artist over Lamar. Clear bias by the Recording Academy towards white rappers has been an built-in feature; Eminem accruing wins in the Rap Album category every single time he’s been nominated tells you all you need to know about what hip-hop looks like in the hearts of Grammy voters.
With Good Kid… Lamar breathed new life into rap, marrying whip-smart prose with inimitable flow. It’s a snub that warranted even Macklemore to personally apologize to Lamar, and then upload the whole exchange in a warped, conciliatory PR move. Cringe.
2015: Beyoncé – ‘Beyoncé’
Beck’s win over Beyoncé’s self-titled LP at the 2015 Grammys really left us mortals collectively reeling, even the late Great Prince couldn’t feign his discontent. The Grammys justified Beck’s win as a sole craftsman, excelling in “musicianship,” over an immaculately produced record with impact and cultural relevance. But who remembers Morning Phase now?
With her self-titled opus, Beyoncé freed herself from the shackles of an industry blueprint, abjuring the standard kiss-ass dependency on radio payola in favor of letting her art speak for itself. One could argue once Beyoncé’s work took a more unadulterated slant, ripe with sexual overtures (monogamous love people!), the Grammys turned off. For all the discourse that Beyoncé should be “content” with the fact she’s the one of the winningest woman in Grammy history, Beyonce has only ever prevailed in the “big three” categories once – out of 11 nominations. If there’s anything that incenses the Grammy voters, it’s a carefree black woman.
2016: Kendrick Lamar – ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
At the 2016 ceremony, Taylor Swift’s instant-pop confection 1989 deserved some glory, but not the top prize of the evening. That honor belonged to Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The LP earned Lamar 11 nominations at the 58th Grammy Awards, the most nominations for any rapper in a single night. He walked away with none of the trophies that truly mattered.
With an album frequently cited by critics as a monolithic work in the hip-hop pantheon, Kendrick’s third full-length was an empowering manifesto that would sojourn in the consciousness of black Americans through the ages. Frank Ocean captured the Academy’s short-sightedness, addressing the Grammy producers: “You know what’s really not ‘great TV’ guys? 1989 getting AOTY over To Pimp a Butterfly… If you’re up for a discussion about the cultural bias and general nerve damage the show you produce suffers from then I’m all for it.”
2017: Beyoncé – ‘Lemonade’
‘The Lemonade Snub’ at the 2017 Grammy Awards looms large as a flagrant example of black erasure. Give the black woman the stage, but not the silverware. Beyoncé walked away with no SOTY or ROTY wins for the polemical “Formation,” but the AOTY loss was a different breed of forfeiture.
Adele secured the trifecta for the second time in her career and her brief remonstration couldn’t stem the hurt. Sufjan Stevens summed up the positioning of Beyoncé by an elite members club – “it’s where the white man puts the incomparable pregnant black woman because he is so threatened by her power, persuasion and potential.” Lemonade’s audio-visual, micro-macro portrayal of a woman undone by infidelity, conveyed the unique struggle of black woman since time immemorial. That a white woman prevailed once again over the black woman standing dignified in defeat, is an image etched forever in our collective imaginations.
2017: Rihanna – ‘ANTI’
Also at 2017 Grammys, Rihanna was nominated six times for her 8th studio album, ANTI, the most she’d ever received. Vote-splitting with Beyoncé’s Lemonade meant the Grammys deemed two of the most influential black artists of their generation unworthy of the biggest accolades on the night.
Imagine turning up for a telethon, watching winner after winner warble their way through acceptance speeches, none of them you. The Bajan songstress summed up her mood by apathetically downing shots. ANTI deserved wins. Rihanna, for the first time in her career, eschewed conveyor belt formula, creating a compelling, effusive piece of work with a narrative through-line. The braille, a poem by Chloe Mitchell, found on Rihanna’s ANTI album sleeve, foreshadowed her loss. “What I choose to say is of so much substance That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.” Speak on it!
2018: Bruno Mars – ’24K Magic’
Bruno Mars winning AOTY at the 2018 Grammys for 24K Magic may have broken a decade-long whiteness streak, but Bruno Mars’ six wins in a year where hip-hop was the most lucrative genre, was a case of same old story. Bruno’s sweep, for a record so contingent on the sounds of his hero, Prince (who never picked up an AOTY statuette), was just another slap in the face.
Mars was credited with “reviving” retro sounds for a new generation, but really, 24K Magic was just another accessible, serviceable pop record. The Recording Academy are notorious for rewarding broad-appeal pop grounded by a traditionalist approach to song craft, averse to more highly-stylized or sample-based music. Mars fulfilled that quota. Vote-splitting between three hip-hop nominees in the final category of the night, a tool so effective in eliminating a sole black winner, ensured the Grammys got the last laugh. Again.
2018: JAY-Z – ‘4:44’
In a banner year for the Grammys, where not a single white man was nominated for Album of the Year, the Academy still found a way to snub arguably the greatest rapper in history. The most nominated artist of the night for his return-to-form, redemptive companion piece to Lemonade, 4:44 – JAY-Z walked away with zilch.
4:44 delved into legacy, generational wealth, and his own failings as a father and husband – this was Shawn Carter uncovered, not the habitually elusive JAY-Z. The 2018 Grammy awards hung up black artists as ornamental wall flowers, dangling nomination after nomination in front of them, all the way signaling to the glass ceiling above. The rapper let us know what he really thought about the institution with that now iconic swipe from “APESHIT,” “Tell the Grammys, Fuck that 0 for 8 shit.”
2018: SZA – ‘CTRL’
Yep, the 2018 Grammys were tone deaf and messy. In the thick of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and an entire industry galvanized by emboldened women coming to the fore, the Academy grievously short-changed one of the most critically-acclaimed female albums of the year – CTRL by SZA. SZA was the most-nominated female artists of the night, but her loss in the best new artist category and her outright omission from AOTY, had us shaking our heads in vehement fury.
SZA had both approbation and commercial success for her insular, hypermillenial debut album, which navigated modern romance through wit and wry vernacular. A singular voice had entered the fray. SZA, real name Solána Rowe, had been a center piece of the Black Panther soundtrack (also nominated for AOTY), her presence in the industry was unavoidable. But no, the Grammys saw fit to disavow a brave and boundless work of art, free from genre classifiers commonly placed on black musicians.