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The Grammys Weren’t Built for a Black Revolution

In an unprecedented year, the Grammys ultimately played it safe while feigning progress

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Noah Cyrus didn’t inspire a single person to shimmy against police brutality. Chris Martin didn’t have the nation screaming, “Bitch, I’m a thot, get me lit.” Billie Eilish’s 2020 songs were meant as bastions of capitalism, not for the warm pavement. These are all facts in a world increasingly devoid of them, and yet on January 31, those three artists will compete for the biggest awards in the music industry. But there’s one song conspicuously absent from the Grammys’ main categories that says more about the state of the Awards than it should.

At a time when very few songs are capable of encapsulating the sheer tumult of 2020, one anthem emerged against all odds: Pop Smoke’s “Dior.” Released a full summer before our current moment, “Dior” sounds like dread, but feels like all-consuming aspiration. Chanting “Christian Dior, Dior / I’m up in all the stores,” between calls for justice and peace doesn’t seem to make sense until it does.

For the past 11 months, the world was united in a common specter of death thanks to a pandemic that knew no borders, but Black Americans fought a war on two fronts. The realities of a racist health care system meant a disproportionate amount of Black people succumbed to COVID-19. Then as the spring and summer months approached, the all-too-familiar shadow of the nation’s police force reared its perennial, militarized head. In the words of Pop, “When it rains, it pours.”

In March, Breonna Taylor was killed by police as she slept in Louisville, Kentucky. Two months later, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a police officer kneeled on his neck until he stopped breathing. As protests began, people needed an anthem, just as they did in 2015, when Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” soundtracked countless Black Lives Matter protests. They chose one penned by an upcoming drill rapper from Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, Pop Smoke never got to witness how his music energized these demonstrations. In February, the rapper born Bashar Barakah Jackson was killed during a robbery in the Hollywood Hills. Nine months later, he’s nominated for one Grammy despite the pervasiveness of “Dior” and success of his chart-topping Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon. And if you’re naturally skeptical, a person of color, or understand the Recording Academy’s operating principles, then you know where Pop Smoke’s “honor” was relegated. “Dior” will compete for Best Rap Performance.

It’s a bitter pill considering the brutality of 2020 and the people who fought tirelessly against it. In essence, the nominations for the 63rd Annual Grammys say nothing, because they mean nothing. Expecting a historically racist institution to reflect the most important music of a moment and a movement could never be more than wishful thinking.

The nominations this year feign progress, but fail at that too. A Black woman (Beyoncé) has the most nominations at nine and a Black man (Roddy Ricch) is tied with Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift for the second-most nominations at six, but upon deeper inspection, the same narrative begins to take shape. Only two people of color will compete for Album of the Year: Jhené Aiko and Eric Burton of the Black Pumas, the latter as half of a duo. Noticeably, there isn’t a Latin, K-pop, or Afrobeats project nominated in any of the general categories, despite those genres defining the present and future of music. Some of the most commercially successful artists of the year were mostly forgotten (Lil Baby, Bad Bunny, the Weeknd, BTS, Blackpink, Burna Boy) or awarded on the margins. Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat landed in the Best New Artist and Record of the Year categories on the strength of TikTok hits, but noticeably neither are competing for an award that rewards a full project.

Even the rap categories are struggling to tell a cohesive narrative. Lil Baby is among the most commercially successful rappers of the year, so when he dropped “The Bigger Picture” at the height of Black Lives Matter protests in June, it sent a message. The song was raw, sentimental, and imperfect, but it helped synthesize a general sentiment. Lil Baby’s music, by virtue of its proximity to racialized poverty and inequity, has always been political, but it’s never been as overt as when he rapped, “I find it crazy the police’ll shoot you and know that you dead, but still tell you to freeze / Fucked up, I seen what I seen.” So the fact that “The Bigger Picture” is nominated for just Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance while the Quality Control artist’s massive project My Turn was snubbed in Best Rap Album and Album of the Year sends a signal. In a year when popular artist’s minor hits were nominated (e.g., Post Malone’s “Circles” and Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted”) the question arises: What makes a Lil Baby or Pop Smoke album so undeserving of praise in both the most prominent rap category and the night’s biggest general awards?

Grammy voters want you to believe that projects by Nas, Royce Da 5’9’’, Jay Electronica, D Smoke (the winner of Netflix’s reality competition show, Rhythm & Flow), and Freddie Gibbs defined 2020. In some cases, these rappers turned in solid projects (*cough, cough* Freddie Gibbs and Alchemist), but the bulk of the Best Rap Album category leans heavily to a traditionalist mindset. It’s important to note that none of those artists are under the age of 35, which is a boon for a typically ageist genre, but also speaks to the respectability politics that run rampant when determining which bodies of work typically get acknowledged. If Lil Baby’s My Turn, Roddy Ricch’s Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, and Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake are among the most consumed projects of the year, then the Grammys at least has to contend with those artists and their specific vision of an inherently Black art form. Hip-hop’s biggest singles of the year were given their due—“The Box,” “Say So,” “Savage”—but the most important albums were mostly forgotten.

The Grammys never had the bandwidth for this moment. Only 10 Black artists have ever won a Best Album of the Year Grammy and on January 31 that number likely won’t change. Tyler, the Creator knew that last year when he won the Best Rap Album Grammy for IGOR, despite IGOR not being a rap album and being ignored in the general categories. “It sucks that whenever we and I mean guys that look like me do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything they always put it in a Rap or Urban category,” Tyler said. “I don’t like that ‘Urban’ word—it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.” The Grammys may have renamed the Urban categories this year, but the same bias persists. Awards shows—like most of American society—are just gilded mirrors of an old world that can’t bother to represent anything.