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.)