The 61st annual Grammy Awards didn’t kick off so much as it sputtered into gear. In the show’s opening performance, Camila Cabello, the Fifth Harmony alumna, served up just enough razzle-dazzle to prep audiences for the still-transcendent Ricky Martin. Katy Perry reached desperately for a broad range of notes during a later tribute to Dolly Parton, only to be outshined by the legendary country star’s goddaughter, Miley Cyrus. And Alicia Keys, first as the show’s host and later as a performer, was flatter than the hair she hid under an ill-advised scarf.
But just about halfway into the lethargic ceremony, a black-turtleneck-clad Aubrey Drake Graham shook things up when he accepted his second career Grammy for Best Rap Song. There was no awkward declaration of affection for Rihanna, no heartfelt recounting of his own bar mitzvah. Instead, the rapper took an unexpectedly condemnatory tone when speaking about the industry that catapulted him to success and about the Grammys as an institution.
After he sauntered onstage to receive the trophy for “God’s Plan,” the rapper commingled critique of the Recording Academy and affirmations to fellow artists and at-home audiences: “We play an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” he said. “This is a business where sometimes it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York,” referencing the Bronx-born Dominican and Trinidadian American rapper Cardi B, who performed earlier in the show.
Before the rapper’s speech, no artists at the ceremony addressed the industry’s failures to reward the commercially and critically successful work of female musicians and artists of color in its broadest categories. The only meta references to the institution itself came in tonally awkward segments: Early into the show, Keys led a bizarre tribute to the concept of music itself, a Hail Mary that managed to be weak and unconvincing, despite several remarks from former first lady Michelle Obama.
The broadcast cut to a commercial before Drake could finish his remarks, but the speech still marked a notable departure from the artist’s congenitally jovial awards-show presence—and a clear sign of further artist divestment from the annual ceremony. But even before his onstage critique of the Grammys’ arbitrary mechanism of celebrating artists, Drake had already joined a slew of musicians who declined to perform at the ceremony. (Many others declined to attend altogether, among them Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande, who had been slated to perform and then bowed out after a disagreement with the Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich.) While Drake is certainly not the first musician to note the Grammys’ decreasing relevance, his vote of no confidence might be among the most damning.
Much of the anti-Grammys sentiment has been driven by the Recording Academy’s consistent failure to recognize the achievements of female artists and musicians of color (especially black singers and rappers). As John Vilanova wrote before the ceremony, there were a few pre-awards indications that the Recording Academy had been paying attention to the sharp criticism that emerged following last year’s paltry showings:
The 2019 show’s short lists appear to be the result of successful activism, as the Recording Academy has implemented broader cultural mandates for inclusion. The “Big Four” General Field categories—Album, Song, and Record of the Year, and Best New Artist—are full of women and artists of color from a wide array of genres. All told, half of the Record of the Year and Song of the Year nominees are black, and five of the eight nominees for the headliner Album of the Year category are black as well. Women-led acts account for five of the eight nominations in each category for Song, Record, and Album of the Year, and for six of the eight noms in Best New Artist.
The Grammy award still carries currency in the music industry, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it’s no longer a relevant measure of success for black artists. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” with its overt messages about racist violence in the country, took home both Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Though Donald Glover’s work across several genres has reckoned with the effects of white supremacy, “This Is America” is a particularly strange choice for both of these awards: The song is far less effective (if also perhaps more enjoyable) without its visual accompaniment. The message behind its selection registers less as a celebration of Glover’s musical accomplishment and more as an endorsement of his interracial-dialogue-starting capabilities, especially when evaluated alongside the less issue-driven nominees. At the ceremony, Glover was notably absent. (In his Record of the Year acceptance speech on behalf of Glover, the composer Ludwig Göransson was the only person of the night to mention the ICE-detained rapper 21 Savage.)
Despite the night’s curious assessments of black artists’ work, there were, of course, a few bright spots—among them Cardi B’s performance of “Money” and her later securing of the Best Rap Album award (the first such win for a solo female artist). More women were nominated, and awarded, this year than last, perhaps a sign of incremental progress with regard to gender parity. While accepting the award for Best New Artist, the “New Rules” singer Dua Lipa repeated a sly dig she’d made on the red carpet earlier. “I guess this year we really stepped it up,” she said, after noting her appreciation for the many women nominated alongside her, a reference to the Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow’s 2018 suggestion that female artists “need to step up.”
Immediately following Dua Lipa’s acceptance, the program aired a montage of celebrities celebrating Portnow and his work. Portnow, who is stepping down after this year, spent much of his own speech reiterating the need for diversity and inclusion within the Academy. Among the artists thanking Portnow for his tenure were Common, John Legend, and BeBe Winans. Even so, Portnow’s career can’t be separated from the clear distrust it’s sown within musical communities led by artists of color. Minutes later, the country singer Kacey Musgraves took home the Album of the Year trophy for her impressive Golden Hour. Musgraves is a talented songwriter, but the announcement felt like a final reminder of the evening’s disinterest in lauding black artists beyond the confines of their de facto categories. If Drake, that goofy and algorithm-friendly genre-bender of a rapper, is no longer willing to feign appreciation for the award, then who in hip-hop will care about its future?