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Brief Thoughts on the 61st Annual Grammy Awards

Brief Thoughts on the 61st Annual Grammy Awards

At last year’s Grammys ceremony, Alessia Cara was the only woman to accept an award during the live telecast.  And Lorde, who was up for Album of the Year, wasn’t offered a solo performance slot.  Shortly after criticism reverberated, via the #GrammysSoMale hashtag, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said women needed to “step up” to get more of the recognition they sought.  He was rightly skewered for those remarks, and announced that he’d be stepping down at the end of his contract in July. All of those events led us to this year’s ceremony – the year of the woman.

The message was driven home loud and clear – women needed to be a major part of this broadcast and they were.  Country star Kacey Musgraves won Album of the Year and performed twice.  Alicia Keys hosted the ceremony.  Camila Cabello opened the show.  Michelle Obama (!!) made a surprise appearance in the opening moments.  And women delivered the night’s most electrifying performances, from Janelle Monae’s fabulously queer mashup of songs from Dirty Computer to Cardi B’s opulent take on her latest single “Money” to the stirring Aretha Franklin tribute from Yolanda Adams, Fantasia, and Andra Day, who all sang the shit out of “Natural Woman”.

This is just one year, and there’s still plenty of room for the Academy to mess things up (see: Ariana Grande), but this was a big step in the right direction.  For women. The Grammys still have an issue with relevance and race, though.

Many of the night’s most nominated artists, and some of the industry’s most influential acts, declined performance slots and didn’t even attend.  Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) made history, becoming the first rapper to win both Record and Song of the Year.  And, save for a really entertaining Google Pixel ad, he was absent. 

This wasn’t just a flex to say that he’s so famous he doesn’t need to show up.  It was an acknowledgment that the Recording Academy has failed to properly honor artists of color for years.  Artists like JAY-Z, who last year was nominated for 8 awards and won 0, are invited to the party again and again, only to watch their white peers win the night’s top honors. 

The wins for Childish Gambino, while great from a historical standpoint, seem like a bit of a concession. On one hand, it’s too little, too late. Why, in 2019, when hip hop is unquestionably the biggest genre of the streaming era, are rappers having firsts in these major categories?  And, why did the Academy take a chance on “This Is America”?  The potent aspect of the song is its video.  As a standalone track, it’s fun but not remarkable.  And if the voting body really wanted to show hip hop some love, they could’ve given Record of the Year to Kendrick Lamar and SZA for the ubiquitous Black Panther Soundtrack smash “All The Stars”. The song is up for an Oscar in two weeks, and Lamar has probably been wronged the most.  He lost Album of the Year to Bruno Mars in 2018 and then went on to win a Pulitzer.  How did the Pulitzer Prize voting committee get it right before the Grammys?  When it comes to black music, the Academy is just as out of touch as they’ve always been, even though they’ve invited more POC into the fray.

The rift between black artists and the Recording Academy is further demonstrated by Drake.  He was nominated for seven awards, taking home the trophy for Best Rap Song.  In a rare appearance on the broadcast, he gave a speech that essentially said artists don’t need awards like a Grammy to feel successful.  He was mysteriously cut off mid-speech.  

Drake didn’t submit his previous album More Life for consideration and criticized the Academy for awarding him Best Rap Song for “Hotline Bling”, which is, in essence, a pop song.  His appearance on the telecast last night wasn’t to suggest that he needed to be there; it was to say that the Grammys needed him to be there. 

And, in a very puzzling choice, the Academy chose Jennifer Lopez to lead a tribute to Motown Records, an unapologetically black record label that served as home to many of the greatest black artists of all time. She was backed by Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, and Smokey Robinson, but she was the headliner.  Lopez is not black, and she’s not a revered vocalist.  Though she performed with gusto, it was a head-scratching moment in a stadium filled with several black artists who could have easily filled in.

The Grammys still have lots of problems – a ridiculously long runtime, half-baked tributes, and awkward forced duets among them – but the biggest one is its relationship with black musicians. If only the Academy could have pounced on that issue as quickly as it did its problem with women.

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