The Grammys, Kanye, Racism, and Us

On Sunday I gathered with a small number of friends to watch my second favorite awards show of the year (the Oscars take first prize). As one of said friends described, the Grammys are the equivalent—in fact, superior—to most national holidays for me.

Although ratings dropped significantly and a lot of viewers felt little more than boredom, I thought this year’s show was actually indicative of the state of more than music in America—an important step for a show that is typically just another way for celebrities to celebrate themselves.

Despite groaning that Pharrell was going to perform “Happy” two years too late, I was taken aback by his approach to the song. His dancers donned hoodies and—during a piano interlude in the middle of the song—raised their hands to indicate the now-iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” protest signal. Drawing to mind both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Pharrell used his platform to nod to the African-Americans that never get the chance to succeed like him.

President Barack Obama made a surprise video appearance to speak out against domestic violence, along with a spoken word performance from activist Brooke Axtell and Katy Perry’s moving rendition of “By the Grace of God”. In the week leading up to the film release of the disgusting glorification of domestic violence (otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Gray), the three messages were bold, timely, and necessary.

Throughout the three-hour show, social messages like these were more than sprinkled throughout the broadcast. Country artist Eric Church sang “Give Me Back My Hometown” with news footage ranging from #BlackLivesMatter protests to the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations. Beyoncé’s choir also made use of the “hands up, don’t shoot” signal, Prince made reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and John Legend and Common performed their beautiful Selma-inspired “Glory” to close out the show.

Art has always been meant for addressing societal ills in attempts to move people to action. In fact, part of Obama’s speech noted artists’ “unique power to change minds and attitudes and get us thinking and talking about what matters.”

This year’s Grammys seemed to center on that notion, as artists who were being recognized for their work were pointing to what really matters right now.

I couldn’t wait to discuss this with people the following day.

After logging onto Facebook, however, I found that the entire conversation around the Grammys had turned to Kanye’s speech about Beyoncé deserving the Album of the Year win over Beck. “Go away, Kanye. Just go away,” one post read. “Kanye proves to be an idiot again,” another said. Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, wrote an open letter to Kanye, telling him to stop throwing his toys. These and other vulgar words and phrases were used to chastise the artist.

Let me begin by saying that Kanye’s comment about respecting “true artistry” was insulting—intentionally or not—to Beck. It was inexcusable to even accidentally imply that Beck is not a real artist (even though he later clarified that he loves Beck, the initial wording had already done its damage).

But why was that the story that media focused on the next day? You currently cannot Google the word “Grammys” by itself without Kanye’s speech popping up at the top of news stories. Is it that Kanye’s speech was the most “exciting” part of the Grammys—even if it came in the E! post-show? Is it that Kanye was dead wrong or right, depending on who you asked?

I think the real answer is that both media and now social media have trained us to care about the wrong things. In a year where we could have opened up some great and needed conversations about racial issues and domestic violence, media outlets have focused our attention to what is being described as another Kanye “rant,” “outburst,” or “tantrum.”

As I write this, I know some of you will read that last paragraph and think, “Way to go, Kanye. You ruined it.” But Kanye, though not totally innocent, was not the one who turned your focus to him. When you watched or read about the Grammys, you chose what to talk about. You chose what to digest. You chose what to post about.

What many of us do not understand about Kanye’s speech is that his opinion—though not totally clear in this speech—was rooted in very real and valid feelings about the troubling history of Grammy awards. “They need to stop playing with us” is another way of saying, “The Grammys need to stop pretending to honor black artists.” (Kanye has spoken about this before, in clearer terms.)

When LL Cool J introduced Kanye for his performance of “Only One,” he mentioned that Kanye has won 21 Grammys. What he didn’t mention was that Kanye has only won these awards in the Rap and R&B categories, which historically mostly feature only black artists. Though a relatively young genre, hip-hop albums by black artists have only been nominated for the coveted Album of the Year category eight times. Only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have gone on to win. Music legends Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay Z have never been nominated. Compare these numbers (or lack thereof) to Eminem’s four nominations, more than any other rap artist and a third of the total number.

It is easy to dismiss the Grammys as an irrelevant award show. But the reality is that, regardless of how much we vocally dismiss it, we pay attention to it. And when black artists are told they are honored by the show, but see that they are usually only honored when pitted against each other (and not when Eminem is nominated), this promise feels hollow. Yes, Pharrell and Beyoncé won against white artists for “Happy” and “Drunk In Love,” respectively. But the exceptions are never the rules.

A reality of white privilege is that we get to attribute Beck’s win over Beyoncé to musical ability and ignore any potential racial implications. People of color cannot help but be hyper-aware of racial implications, whether real or perceived. This is the reality that Kanye lives in daily, the one where he points out privilege that we are either afraid to admit or unable to even see.

I am speaking from a place of white privilege myself, but I have observed the way my students view different situations in their lives, constantly questioning whether a teacher’s reprimand or a waiter’s rudeness was racially-charged. Before teaching, I never considered that people might be treating me in a certain way based on my race. That is part of what privilege is: being able to exist without awareness of why people treat you in a certain way. The world that people of color exist in does not allow them such a carefree, inattentive attitude.

When my African-American students view the media, I want them to see a narrative that says they are valued, that the outcry of #BlackLivesMatter is not just a dream deferred, something paid homage to only by artists who already look like them. I want them to see African-American success stories without asterisks, without footnotes.

I want them to Google “Grammys” and see celebrations of Beyoncé rather than dismissive reductions of her life’s work. I want them to see people talking about Kanye’s moving tribute to his mother and daughter rather than calling him a baby for expressing real fears of prejudiced voting systems. I want them to see WHITE people fighting for African-Americans, rather than just African-Americans.

If you want to stop being part of the racist media, stop insulting Kanye on your newsfeed. Post something positive about him, or another African-American artist. Question the way media portrays him and other black artists. Start a conversation about whose voices are heard on the Grammys and whose are not. Support the #ItsOnUs campaign to help victims of domestic abuse, an issue affecting all races.

If you feel you cannot do any of these things—or don’t want to—don’t post another word about the Grammys. Don’t call Kanye a child for feeling something you have never had to feel yourself. Don’t reduce people for the sake of it, or at all. The media has already done enough damage without your cutting sword.

Let’s talk about what our world really needs right now. Because black lives really do matter. And domestic abuse is on all of us to stop. And social ills need more than artists paying tribute to them in order to be cured. You are more capable than you realize, and certainly more responsible.

10 responses to “The Grammys, Kanye, Racism, and Us”

  1. Great thoughts on a big issue. I will share it in our staff room, where this conversation was actually happening at lunch last week! Thank you for your insight and honesty.

  2. Though I agree with what you say, it seems to be a bit of “white guilt” in your response to Kanye. But, I agree with the contention that there should be more intelligent debate on social media rather than mindless name calling. But honestly, how do you compare post modern alt rock to an urban r&b record to English soul records?

    • It’s hard for me to acknowledge white privilege and completely separate it from white guilt. It’s the degrading comments of other white people that make me feel this shame of “I promise that’s not me.” I’m still in the process of working toward being an active antiracist without feeling white guilt. And you’re right. I don’t know exactly how the Grammy voting system works, but it’s definitely more complex than color lines. The genres themselves are on different spectrums.

    • For my part, as a middle school teacher, I try to talk through situations that my students perceive were racially charged to drive at the truth. Sometimes those moments do seem racially motivated; other times they do not. The more conversations I have like this with my kids, the more accurately they will be able to decipher and respond to these situations appropriately. I think that all of us could be doing a little more listening and talking than getting defensive or denying racial implications in situations; it might go a long way in changing these conversations and interracial relations for the better.

  3. You know Ben, I don’t know if I agree with all of what you have said (especially the part about Kanye’s reality….I’m not sure any of these multim(b)illionaire performers live in any kind of “reality”…haha…but I guess it is their reality), and I mean that in the truest sense, I really don’t know, because I tend to not think about these things through any other lens than my own…in fact, I tend to not really think about anything like this at all. I have my little box and my fairly stereotypical opinions that I mostly keep to myself and that’s it. But this entry and the article linking it have made me truly think today about other realities and how things might not always be as straight forward as they seem. Thanks for making me think a little bit today!

    • Thanks for your reply, Kelly! I appreciate you taking the time to read and think about these things. I obviously don’t know Kanye personally and so can’t speak entirely to where his heart was, but as someone who has watched countless interviews where he wrestles with race (even as a multimillionaire), I feel that I have some insight on what he was getting at in that moment. I definitely don’t have the whole picture, nor am I defending the way he addressed the situation, but so many people only pay attention to Kanye when these incidents happen and then use those small moments to publicly deride him. We have to dig deeper to know people’s hearts.

  4. It’s so difficult to press this issue on privileged people because they’re constantly showered with privilege from being a majority. Like, complimentary shampoo in hotel rooms (that black people don’t use because it’s not for their hair type). A lot of the privileged arguments were that Beck played all the instruments and produced his entire album, while Beyoncé didn’t. I could say the same for Chuck Berry and Elvis, where Chuck Berry is more original and influential (he wrote all his songs and performed his own material…Elvis had writers and covered some of Chuck Berry’s songs and many other black artists’ songs), yet, still doesn’t get credit for being “King.”

    Honestly, it’s this strong disconnect from many races and cultures. So many people live within their communities that generate some kind of echo-chamber, where they become arrogant from being told things from the same perspective of like-minded people. So, when the majority of like-minds have voting power, they vote for their own self-interests.

    It’s not till Hip Hop and R&B become white-washed like Rock-n-Roll is, till white people start giving awards to themselves in such categories or we bring about diversity in the voting system.

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