Grammys: Are the awards prejudiced against rap music?

Opinion

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From the moment The Recording Academy decided to recognize rap/hip-hop as a separate and legitimate form of musical expression by designating a specific category to award the genre at the Grammy Awards, the two have had a tenuous relationship. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince took home that first award for best rap performance in 1988, but they, alongside a number of rap acts at the time, boycotted the ceremony because their category would not be a part of the national telecast. It’s been a constant battle for recognition ever since.

And it doesn’t look to end any time soon. The upcoming 54th Grammy Awards are notable for the unprecedented number of nominations garnered by rap acts, but also for their exclusion of these same acts from the most prestigious awards.

Critics say Kanye West was snubbed because his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is not up for album of the year, and neither is his collaboration with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, both well-received and critically acclaimed. No rap album has won album of the year since Outkast’s 2004 victory for their double-album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. They were only the second rap act to win this award, after Lauryn Hill 1999 win for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Neither of these albums are strictly rap, however.

Hill also has the distinction of being only the second rap act to win the Grammy for best new artist, the only other winner being Arrested Development in 1993. The wins for rappers outside of the designated rap categories are scant and the cause of much backlash. This doesn’t square with the impact rappers continue to have on our culture. In an era where rappers are performing in tuxedos at Carnegie Hall, it’s hard to argue that hip-hop is a fringe music. It’s firmly planted in the pop music vocabulary of the day.

The Grammys are also coming under fire for their decision to cut a sizable number of categories from their roster, a move some, like Rev. Jesse Jackson who has floated the idea of a boycott, have argued would lead to less inclusion of diverse musicians. This year will see the number of awards sliced from 109 to 78 (which is 50 more than were a part of the inaugural celebration in 1959). Among the awards being cut are: best pop instrumental performance, best Hawaiian album, best Native American album, and best rock or rap gospel album. Genres like R&B will see a reduction from eight different categories down to four, including eliminating separate awards for male and female vocal performances. This will mean more competitive award races, but obviously less awards to go around.

Why is this important? To echo the sentiments of Public Enemy: “Who gives a f**k about a godd**n Grammy?” It would be easy to embrace that feeling and criticize the Grammys for being more interested in an artists’ chart sales than actual creative merit.

However, the Grammys are still considered the pinnacle of musical achievement by the viewing public and musicians themselves. It’s a matter of respect. There is a difference between being able to say “Grammy award-winning” artist as opposed to having to ride on your name alone. Where Jay-Z may feel he only needs to approval of the people, a Grammy does offer some validation that you have contributed something of cultural import.

Also, as Zack O’Malley Greenburg reports for Forbes, winning a Grammy isn’t just about earning respect among your peers; there’s a potential financial windfall.

After winning a Grammy for his work on Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III, Mississippi born rapper/producer David Banner saw his production fees jump from $50,000 to $100,000. From Greenburg’s analysis, the “Grammy bounce” comes out to around a 55 percent bump in concert ticket sales and the year after a Grammy win. Esperanza Spalding, who shocked many by winning the best new artist award over the presumed favorite Justin Bieber, saw her average nightly gross go from $20,000 to $32,000, a 60 percent increase. That’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to the impact winning multiple Grammys had on Taylor Swift, whose average nightly gross started at $120,000, went to $600,000 after winning four Grammys in 2010, and soared to $1.1 million in 2011. That’s a 380 percent per year post-Grammy bump.

So perhaps the answer to Public Enemy’s inquiry regarding who cares about Grammys is the artists that stand to profit by winning.

Jimi Hendrix, Queen, Diana Ross, Bob Marley, and Led Zeppelin never won any Grammys. No one is going to write them out of the history of music or downplay their contributions because of that. But there’s no denying that winning a Grammy is a boost to a musician’s career. The less opportunities they have to do so, either because there exists no category for them or because the voters don’t take them seriously, the harder it becomes to survive in this difficult business.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.