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Second Take: Grammys continue to overlook underrepresented artists despite nominee expansion

(Katelyn Dang/Illustrations director)

By Ashley Kenney

March 28, 2022 2:17 p.m.

This post was updated March 30 at 11:40 p.m.

Music’s biggest night just got a little bit bigger.

The 64th Annual Grammy Awards introduced an increase in 2021 from eight to 10 nominees in the general field categories – a last-minute change proposed by Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. in hopes of increasing the diversity of artists and variety of genres. The expansion evidently brought increased minority representation with the nominations of Ye’s “Donda” for Album of the Year and Arooj Aftab for Best New Artist. But given Grammy history, the sudden rule change is ultimately a performative gesture that is unlikely to result in more meaningful recognition for musicians of color at the forefront of today’s most popular and innovative music.

The 2022 cycle change comes shortly after the 2018 expansion of the general field categories when the number of nominees was increased from five to eight. Notably, this category revision came after a year when only one woman – Alessia Cara – received a Grammy during the televised portion of the award show. At the time, the Recording Academy stated the modification would bring greater opportunities for recognition, but this change failed to do so.

In 2021, The Weeknd was shut out from the Grammy nominations entirely, despite “After Hours” being the fourth-highest selling album of 2020 after having debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. BTS and Bad Bunny were among many other artists of color who were completely left out of the major categories despite their commercial success. The 2018 expansion clearly did not inspire more recognition for artists of color, and it’s unlikely that this year’s expansion will either.

[Related: Ye receives Grammy nomination for innovative hip-hop album ‘Donda’]

And even though a Grammy nomination – regardless of category – comes with some prestige, it often does not translate to wins for artists of color. Within the Grammys’ decadeslong history, only 10 Black performers have taken home the award for Album Of The Year. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift has taken home this exact award three times in the span of just 11 years. Though Black performers represent more than 30% of the top charting music of the last decade, white artists continue to be recognized more frequently by the Recording Academy.

After winning Album of the Year in 2016, Adele tearfully broke her Grammy in half to give to Beyonce, whose landmark visual album “Lemonade” went unrewarded in the major categories by the Recording Academy. Last year, Billie Eilish admitted that Megan Thee Stallion deserved the award for Record of the Year more than she did during her acceptance speech. Regardless of the fact that Adele and Eilish believed they were undeserving of their awards, their names are the ones written in record books while the legacy and cultural innovation of musicians of color are overlooked by both the Recording Academy and the general public.

Even among the Grammy nominations for which musicians of color are recognized, they are often confined to the R&B, rap and Latin music categories due to their race. Tyler, the Creator’s “IGOR,” for instance, took home the award for Best Rap Album despite being heavily pop-influenced.

Similarly, the Recording Academy only recently renamed its Best Urban Contemporary field – a category that previously typecast Black artists – to Best Progressive R&B Album in hopes of better representing the music and artists nominated.

Artists of color tend to only see success in categories that are racialized, as though genres pioneered by artists of color are unworthy for the general field. But even these fields fail to be recognized by the Recording Academy as it stands. Last year, Best Rap Album and Best R&B Album were both a part of the pre-telecast categories and were not aired to the general public.

[Related: Life and Hip-Hop: Grammy Awards have long history of snubbing hip-hop, Black artists]

Meanwhile, the Grammys have also been accused of exploiting artists of colors for viewership without awarding the artists through the nomination or voting process. The 63rd Grammy Awards saw the nomination of K-pop group BTS in a pop category – the first time a K-pop group has been nominated in Grammys history. Despite the group earning an untelevised loss, the broadcast continuously showcased members’ reactions and teased the group’s performance during commercial breaks in hopes of capitalizing on their active fanbase. This year, BTS is once again nominated in the pop field for their widely successful “Butter,” but even with the intention of increasing diversity of the nominations, the expanded general field categories once more did not see room for BTS.

The sudden expansion of the general field categories comes alongside several other key changes within the Recording Academy in 2021, including new categories and the elimination of secret voting groups. But more nominees do not guarantee a win for artists of color, or even a seat at the table.

The Grammys’ expansion also accompanied new invitations to join the Recording Academy and participate in the voting process – a modification that is intended to democratize the awards process following the dissolution of secret voting committees that formerly selected Grammy nominees. Though a larger voting body levels the nomination playing field, it does not prevent the potential for vote splitting that may accompany the larger general field categories.

The Academy still has a long way to go if it wants to truly increase diversity and pay respect to artists of color, and the Academy can start by properly recognizing them during the awards ceremony, whether that be through broadcasting of categories that are typically more diverse or invitations to perform live. Meanwhile, the Recording Academy can continue to increase its membership of artists of color and hear their voices in the nominations and voting process. Only then may the 10 nominees in the general field categories be truly representative of today’s most popular and influential music.

Even with the intention to reward artists of color through nominee expansions, the Grammys are still out of tune.

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Ashley Kenney | Photo editor
Kenney was the 2021-2022 Photo editor for the Daily Bruin. She previously served as an assistant Photo editor on the arts and entertainment beat and is an Arts contributor. Kenney studied human biology and society with a minor in food studies.
Kenney was the 2021-2022 Photo editor for the Daily Bruin. She previously served as an assistant Photo editor on the arts and entertainment beat and is an Arts contributor. Kenney studied human biology and society with a minor in food studies.
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