Award shows have taken a lot of heat recently for elevating the accomplishments of white actors, musicians, and artists while tending to studiously ignore those of people of color, particularly those of black nominees. Social media stings like #OscarsSoWhite pointed to the noticeable white-washing of 2016’s crop of nominees, despite the wealth of films produced featuring people of color which could have merited nomination. The hashtag and accompanying complaints on social media were so numerous that many film buffs believe they may have even influenced the diversity push seen in 2017’s lineup, which includes Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer. Washington has refuted claims that the movement influenced selections in any way, however, there is no stopping the relentless wheel of social media speculation.
The same critical eye has been cast on the recent Grammys. Already under fire for their dwindling viewership, the award show came under serious scrutiny after the surprise upset of Beyoncé’s Lemonade for album of the year by Adele with 25. Comments which could be perceived as condescending made by Adele and, later, by Faith Hill praising Lemonade and entreating Beyoncé to “…be my mommy,” merely added salt to the perceived wound, coming across as more patronizing than idolizing in nature (via NPR). The upset caused many viewers and artists to question the equality of the award show, suggesting that Beyoncé’s loss may have been tied to racial prejudices in the industry manifesting themselves during the decision process.
Grammy president Neil Portnow has flat out denied these accusations. While acquiescing to the fact that the Academy Awards may suffer from such bias, Portnow refutes the same categorization of the Grammys as unfair or prejudiced in any way:
“No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all…We don’t, as musicians, in my humble opinion, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity. When you go to vote on a piece of music—at least the way that I approach it—is you almost put a blindfold on and you listen. It’s a matter of what you react to and what in your mind as a professional really rises to the highest level of excellence in any given year. And that is going to be very subjective” (via Pitchfork).
Of course, this statement is immediately problematic when you consider that subjectivity doesn’t just imply bias, it openly flirts with it—a decision subject to individual opinions will inevitably carry the taint of personal, ingrained prejudice even if the individuals in question do not realize they are acting on such preconceptions. Portnow points to Chance the Rapper’s win for best new artist as concrete evidence that the award show does not suffer from a so-called “race problem,” but does that argument really hold weight? Does Chance the Rapper’s win absolve the award show of its purported bias?
Portnow likens the process of choosing winners to putting on a blindfold; blocking out all external and internal factors and choosing based on the final product alone, rather than who created it. In my opinion this is, frankly, garbage—there isn’t a blindfold in the world thick enough to completely dull your senses to the point that you become immune to ingrained preconceptions regarding race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. It just isn’t possible, particularly when you consider the fact that any individual or committee in charge of selecting a winner cannot possibly be ignorant of the race, religion, gender, etc. of the artists in question given how exposed they are to the public eye. There is no such thing as colorblindness as it pertains to music or even to life. We identify and connote differences between ourselves almost as soon as we perceive them, and with those observations comes inherent bias. While we can learn to temper and adjust our reaction to such perceived differences as sentient, intellectual beings, it would be a lie to suggest that anyone can be entirely immune to even the smallest implications of racial prejudice. It’s there, it’s been there, and claiming to be blind to it accomplishes nothing.
So, do the Grammys have a race problem? The more important question is: does America have a race problem? The answer to that is yes, so any iteration of American music and pop culture such as the Grammys will inevitably suffer from the same issues, particularly when it centers on an industry filled with diverse talent. Are the Grammys more obvious in their bias? Perhaps. But unfortunately, the supposed “race problem” at the heart of this year’s Grammys is not a problem we can resolve at the level of a music award show, but one we must struggle daily to resolve at a national level.