Drake has called for the Grammys be replaced with “something new that we can build up over time and pass on to the generations to come”, after it failed to recognise his pop peer the Weeknd in any of its 2021 categories despite the latter’s global chart domination this year.
The Canadian star’s remarks reflect longstanding criticism that the Grammys habitually overlooks Black artistry. Posting on Instagram, Drake highlighted Lil Baby, Pop Smoke, Partynextdoor, Popcaan and “too many missing names to even name” as artists snubbed by the Recording Academy this year.
Critics also questioned the absence of Lil Uzi Vert and the sidelining of Burna Boy, an internationally famous and influential Nigerian pop star, to the best global music album category (recently renamed from “best world music album”), as well as the presence of white rapper Post Malone in the album of the year category.
Drake wrote: “I think we should stop allowing ourselves to be shocked every year by the disconnect between impactful music and these awards and just accept that what once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to the artists that exist now and the ones who come after.”
He said he had assumed that the Weeknd was “a lock for either album or song of the year along with countless other reasonable assumptions and it just never goes that way”. In 2018, Drake refused to submit his album More Life for Grammys consideration after being frustrated that his single Hotline Bling won best rap song in 2017 despite not featuring rap. “Maybe because I’ve rapped in the past or because I’m Black, I can’t figure out why,” he said at the time.
After receiving no nominations for his album After Hours or huge single Blinding Lights, the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye called the Grammys “corrupt”. Recording Academy chair and interim president Harvey Mason Jr said they understood Tesfaye’s disappointment. “His music this year was excellent, and his contributions to the music community and broader world are worthy of everyone’s admiration.”
The frustration expressed by Drake and the Weeknd suggests that the Recording Academy’s recent attempts to address diversity and inclusion have not been sufficiently effective.
In March 2018, it established a task force to examine diversity and inclusion within the institution. Among other ongoing efforts, in September it founded the Black Music Collective (BMC), an advisory group comprising “prominent Black music creators and professionals who share the common goal of amplifying Black voices within the Academy and the wider music community”, with Quincy Jones and John Legend among them.
The BMC hailed the 2021 nominations as “historic”: “Ten Black women are nominated in the top four categories and more than 20 Black nominees are represented in the general fields. Also, for the first time, all six nominees for best rap album are Black independent artists. This is progress.”
However, acknowledging that some artists were disappointed, the BMC said: “Our work is not done, and it will take some more time, but the mission to be more inclusive continues.”
The last Black artist to win the prestigious album of the year award was Herbie Hancock in 2008 – with an album of Joni Mitchell covers. In 2015, there was widespread outcry when Beck’s Morning Phase beat Beyoncé’s critically acclaimed self-titled album to the award.
Kanye West briefly ran on stage during Beck’s acceptance speech, echoing his protest at Taylor Swift beating Beyoncé at the 2009 MTV Video Music awards, and later told reporters that Beck “needs to respect artistry and he should have given his award to Beyoncé”.
West continued: “At this point we tired of it because what happens is when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats in music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.”
His comments reflected those made by Little Richard at the 1988 Grammys ceremony, where he commented on the Recording Academy’s tendency to award white artists for work inarguably influenced by Black trailblazers such as himself. Announcing the award for best new artist, Richard claimed that he was the winner. “I am the architect of rock and roll,” he told the crowd, “and they ain’t never gave me nothing.”
The situation played out again in 2017 when Adele’s 25 – an album heavily inspired by Black soul music – pipped Beyoncé’s pioneering Lemonade to best new album, a state of affairs that even seemed to embarrass Adele. Lemonade instead won best urban contemporary album.
Following widespread disavowal of the term “urban” as racist and othering, that category was renamed best progressive R&B album for the 2021 ceremony.
When Tyler, the Creator won best rap album for the wide-ranging Igor in February 2020, he said he was “grateful” for the acknowledgment, but resented how the Recording Academy frequently put Black artists in “a rap or urban” category regardless of the genres explored in their music: “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. It’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word to me. When I hear that, I’m like: why can’t we just be in pop?”
His former Odd Future bandmate Frank Ocean declined to submit his widely acclaimed 2016 album Blonde for the 2017 Grammys in protest at its oversight regarding Black artists: “That institution certainly has nostalgic importance,” he told the New York Times. “It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.”
He continued: “I think the infrastructure of the awarding system and the nomination system and screening system is dated. I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment for the Grammys than sit there in the audience.”
Beyoncé garnered the most nominations for the 2021 Grammys, with nine overall. This year’s shortlists made history when Mickey Guyton became the first Black female solo artist to receive a nomination in a country music category, with her song Black Like Me nominated for best country solo performance.