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(Jason Raish)
(Jason Raish)

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The Grammys’ Black Box

Kanye West, Drake, and Frank Ocean won’t be at Sunday’s Grammys, an awards show with a less-than-stellar history of recognizing black music. (Macklemore, anyone?) Here’s how the Recording Academy is attempting to fix that.

The year is 1989. After ignoring hip-hop for more than a decade, the Grammy Awards have finally introduced a new category: Best Rap Performance. Will Smith, LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Salt-N-Pepa, and J.J. Fad are all in contention. The recognition is an early coup in the genre’s steady march toward mainstream acceptance — until the Recording Academy informs the nominated artists and record labels that they would be excluded from the prime-time telecast of the awards ceremony.

Def Jam spearheads a boycott, and the Fresh Prince, LL Cool J, and Salt-N-Pepa sit out the February ceremony, instead turning up at an anti-Grammys after-party hosted by Yo! MTV Raps. More than a decade old at this point, hip-hop is still on the fringes of popular culture. A year earlier, Public Enemy had already warned against begging pop’s gatekeepers for acceptance: "Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?!"

The battle lines were thus drawn, and rap has been at war with the Recording Academy ever since.

Black musicians have a long, strange, love-hate relationship with the Recording Academy. Kanye West, who has won 21 Grammys and is nominated for eight more this year, is reportedly boycotting this year’s awards ceremony to signal his belief that the Grammys are "irrelevant." Drake, nominated for eight awards, has deemed his European tour more important than a Grammys appearance. And Frank Ocean, who was nominated for Album of the Year in 2013 but isn’t up for any awards this year despite having released not one but two critically acclaimed albums in 2016, believes "the Grammys are a dinosaur that doesn’t represent young, black artists," according to a TMZ report.

Like most major awards shows, the Grammys have long suffered from the perception that they’re incapable of getting it right. Rappers such as YG and Migos will admit that they covet these awards, even as they publicly doubt (as perpetual Grammy shutout YG does) whether voting members of the Recording Academy — all fellow musicians, since the Grammys are an industry-peer award — care about any hip-hop outside of Top 40. This long-standing suspicion culminated in 2014 when the Seattle rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis beat Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Performance, and Best New Artist — an upset that prompted a two-year discussion of white privilege in hip-hop and commercial music generally. Compton rap godfather Ice Cube chimed in to characterize Macklemore’s win as evidence of a broader, persistent bias in favor of "fly-by-night" pop performers. "It’s the Grammys," Cube told the Associated Press. "What do you expect?"

In recent years, the Recording Academy has sought to temper such cynicism about the Grammys’ relationship to black music. Bill Freimuth, the vice president of awards for the Recording Academy, is candid about his organization’s diversity efforts, especially as the Grammys and other major awards shows, such as the Oscars, have faced charges of racial bias. For the Recording Academy, efforts to address these concerns begin with the organization’s member services department.

"I would say that one of the very most active of those groups are those dealing with the R&B and hip-hop communities," Freimuth says. "There’s an awful lot of passion in that community as well about the Grammy Awards and it hasn’t always been positive." Freimuth credits Jeriel Johnson, the Recording Academy’s project manager for its R&B, rap, and reggae categories, with recruiting a greater share of those genres’ working musicians into the voting pool. The overall goal is to recruit more black musicians into the process, the idea being that the nominations will then reflect the demographic shift. (The exact racial makeup of the nonpublic academy membership roll has not been disclosed.)

In this sense, the Recording Academy has sought to bolster its credibility among black musicians largely through word of mouth. Terrace Martin, an L.A.-based producer who has worked with YG, Kendrick Lamar, and Herbie Hancock, won two Grammys last year for his production and songwriting work on Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly. This year Martin is nominated in the Best R&B Album category for his own solo record, Velvet Portraits. "Everybody was so upset because Good Kid, M.A.A.D City didn’t win no Grammys. I didn’t get upset," Martin says. Instead, he researched the academy and became a voting member. "I said, ‘Let me learn how to do it,’ and then we came back and did it."

Turns out, earning voting membership in the Recording Academy is a straightforward process: So long as you’re credited with production on 12 digital (or six physical) recordings, at least one of which was released within five years of submission, you’re eligible to seek membership. Once accepted into the academy, full members are able to submit songs for nomination. The Recording Academy’s select committee pares down the 15 most popular entries in each category to five or six nominees, at which point the voting members cast ballots to determine winners in up to 15 genre categories plus the four general ones (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist). In the summer, the Recording Academy hosts musicians at the organization’s Santa Monica headquarters to learn about membership duties and the awards process. In the fall, about 650 voting members of the various committees meet to discuss nominations.

Like Freimuth, Martin also describes the Grammys as a lesson in civics. "It’s like a giant social club," Martin explains. "It’s just accolades and appreciation. The Grammys never say, ‘We are the Grammys and we define what art is.’" (Still, Martin second-guesses the Grammys’ hip-hop track record as much as anyone else. "I don’t understand why Snoop Dogg doesn’t have a Grammy," he says, echoing one of YG’s standing complaints.)

"The Grammys can’t define what you are," Martin insists. "We still keep these old rules, but the art has grown. Where do you put Fetty Wap? Where do you put Future? The art makes new ways and new sounds, and so we gotta make new rules for these guys." According to Freimuth, the Recording Academy reevaluates its genre distinctions each year, considering whether to redraw or reinvent categories "based on what’s going on in the culture." For Martin, that adaptability serves as an opening for black musicians to formally enter the awards process and define success within it on their own terms.

"If anything, the Grammys have been nothing but open to me and all of my friends before we won Grammys so we wouldn’t be bitter," Martin says. "Now, I get it. I am so goddamn active."

At last year’s Grammys, Kendrick Lamar performed two songs, "The Blacker the Berry" and "Alright," from To Pimp a Butterfly. It was a stunning performance on several levels: The songs themselves are confrontationally pro-black, the stage bonfire and shackled chain-gang dancers even more so. And the fact that the Recording Academy openly courted controversy with Kendrick’s performance was unimaginable until it played out live in prime time. The billing was the academy’s atonement for snubbing Kendrick Lamar two years earlier, and, more importantly, it was a sign that perhaps the Grammys had finally acclimated to hip-hop’s power and value beyond the pop charts.

As of 2017, the Recording Academy recognizes 84 competitive Grammy Award categories, including four R&B honors, four rap honors, five jazz honors, and a single best-album distinction for reggae and "urban contemporary." That’s 14 categories for traditionally black music in total — about a fifth of the overall awards haul. For several years now, the Recording Academy has struggled to strike an ideal balance between too many categories (which dilute the honor conferred by any given award) and too few honors (which inevitably invites complaints that the academy is squeezing everyone but the industry superstars out of contention).

Whether there are 109 awards categories, as there were in 2011, or 84, as there are now, the stratification of black music categories in any given year isn’t the problem. As hierarchical and esoteric as all the major awards rites may seem at a glance, the Grammys are a peer honor, and — as Freimuth and Martin both note — the deeper wariness among black musicians enables a self-fulfilling bias in favor of white artists and pop music at the general expense of black music. It’s American civics, indeed — and, as clichéd and only moderately reformist as this sounds, the only clear, near-term recourse is for more black musicians to enter the process. With Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Drake running the rap categories this year — and Chance as well as A Tribe Called Quest performing at the ceremony in prime time — there’s no great Macklemore heist on the horizon. If the Recording Academy successfully welcomes a new generation of black musicians into its ranks, there may never be such an upset again — even if they’re not around to accept their awards.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Frank Ocean won Album of the Year in 2013; he was nominated, but didn’t win.

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