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The whitewashed gramophone

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 13, 2018

Moral victory: Beyoncé performs at the 2017 Grammys. The hot favourite for Best Album, her video album Lemonade lost, eventually, to Adele’s 25.   -  Reuters

The whiteness of the Grammys has, with the Beyoncé snub, reached blinding proportions. Why, then, are we still watching?

Of all the political statements made by artistes and celebrities in the last year, few have been as effective and affecting as the blistering performance by New York hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest at Sunday’s annual Grammy Awards show. With guest spots by indie-rap sensation Anderson .Paak and fellow hip-hop veteran Busta Rhymes, the incendiary set featured a rousing rendition of a new track called ‘We The People’, references to “President Agent Orange” and his failed Muslim ban, as well as the powerful image of Tribe and Paak kicking down an oversized fake wall. Unlike the vague, mealy-mouthed ‘political’ stances taken by other performers (I’m looking at you, Katy Perry), A Tribe Called Quest made no bones about their political agenda. “We’d like to say to all of those people around the world, all of those people who are pushing people who are in power to represent them,” said rapper Q-Tip at the beginning of the set. “Tonight, we represent you.”

Q-Tip was talking about Trump’s America, but he might as well have been talking about the Grammys themselves. For the past few years, the world’s biggest music awards show has been under the spotlight for its track record of snubbing black music in general, and hip-hop in particular. For years, black musicians have relegated to genre categories — Rap, R&B/Soul, Urban Contemporary — many of which aren’t even televised. And even there, the Recording Academy’s voting pool (which decides who wins) is skewed towards old, white industry suits who are completely out of touch with the work of young black artistes. That’s why a mediocre white rapper like Macklemore could win all four rap awards over the incredibly talented Kendrick Lamar in 2012. Or why white artistes have won 35 per cent of all rap album Grammys, despite accounting for just 11 percent of the nominations. Meanwhile, the much-sought after general awards — Best Song, Best Album, Best New Artist — are generally reserved for white musicians. Only 10 black artistes have ever won album of the year; the last was Herbie Hancock, then 67, for a collection of Joni Mitchell covers in 2008. This, despite the fact that black music has been the most dynamic and groundbreaking force in American popular music for the past two decades. This year, heavy-hitting artistes like Drake and Kanye West decided they’d had enough, boycotting the show despite earning multiple nominations. In a savage open letter last week, R&B auteur Frank Ocean — who declined to enter his critically acclaimed 2016 album Blonde for consideration — called out Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich for the show’s “cultural bias and general nerve damage”.

That criticism will only grow louder after Sunday’s event, which saw Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade — an era-defining musical statement of assertive black femininity — lose in all three general categories to Adele’s 25, probably the British star’s weakest offering yet. Even a teary-eyed Adele was appalled by the injustice, using her last acceptance speech of the night to pay tribute to Beyoncé and Lemonade. “Lemonade was so monumental, so well thought-out, and so beautiful and soul-bearing,” she said, as an equally teary-eyed Beyoncé mouthed “thank you”. At a press conference later that night, she would ask “What the f*** does Beyoncé have to do to win an Album of the Year?” Adele’s sentiment was echoed by artists from across the spectrum, including Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, Sufjan Stevens and St Vincent, as well as millions of outraged Beyoncé fans. “Beyoncé won the popular vote,” went one popular Twitter meme, while the #GrammysSoWhite hashtag was trending all night. Already, commentators are warning that next year’s show may see even more high-profile boycotts if the Grammys don’t fix their race problem.

Beyoncé getting robbed wasn’t the only controversial incident that dogged this year’s show. Rap fans were left scratching their heads in bafflement when the Best Rap Song award went to Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, a tune that contains not a single verse of rapping. The track also won in the rap/sung collaboration category, despite Drake handling all the vocal duties alone. It’s like they weren’t even trying.

The growing criticism of the Grammys, and the sense that the awards show has been out of touch and irrelevant for decades, often throws up the question of why we need them at all. The answer is simple and depressing. There will always be a need to reward and celebrate artistes, and till enough of them break away from the Recording Academy to start their own shindig, we’re stuck with the Grammys. But perhaps that is the wrong question to ask. In recent years, I’ve been much more interested in looking at how we watch the Grammys, and how we respond to them.

With social media, such conversations are no longer restricted to the music press and private conversations. Instead, every year, Twitter transforms the Grammys from a staid, traditionalist awards show to a global conversation about the state of popular music. Music fans painstakingly explore context, share their grand cultural theories and argue about which artiste was most wronged. For a day, the increasingly individual and atomised culture of music fandom becomes a grand social enterprise.

It’s this meta-commentary — and of course, all the memes — that keeps the awards experience fresh and exciting. This year, I decided to skip the TV broadcast entirely in favour of following my Twitter timeline. It was much more rewarding than watching the show itself has been in recent memory. Perhaps in a few years we’ll get rid of the show entirely, just a Twitter stream of performances, discussions and hilarious hot takes. Till then, we can only enjoy the controversy. And hope that, in the wise words of Ocean, the Recording Academy folks finally decide to “use the old gramophone to actually listen, bro.”

Published on February 17, 2017

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