After the debacle that was the 2015 Oscar nominations, in which Black-centric movies such as Belle and Black or White were denied nominations for Best Picture in favor of the scintillating Middle-Class Heterosexual White Male Makes a Privileged Commentary on His Society, many hoped that the Grammys would offer the unbiased recognition of diverse talent the Oscars so staunchly avoids.
Then Beck beat out Beyoncé for Album of the Year, and the collective realization was made that in 2015, systems of privilege have the power to trump talent when the time comes to make decisions about recognizing excellence at the highest level.
The trend of white (male) artists winning Album of the Year over Black female artists whose albums are complex, controversial, and commercially successful is nothing new. In 1987, Janet Jackson's album Control, which was widely regarded as an innovative work of Black feminism, lost the Album of the Year award to Paul Simon's Graceland. Then, in 1998, Jackson's The Velvet Rope, which was praised for its introspective lyrics about Jackson's struggles with anorexia, mental illness, and her sexuality, was not nominated for Album of the Year at all, the award ultimately going to Bob Dylan for Time Out of Mind.
Similarly, Beyoncé's self-titled album features the artist praising her own sexuality; grappling with the emotional trauma of a miscarriage, motherhood, marriage; and emphasizing the value of the unique Black female aesthetic. ("I woke up like this" is a reference to Black female beauty and was never intended to become an ironic twee catchphrase.) Beyoncé released the album with no prior promotion and subsequently changed the music industry in her refusal to submit her work to the inevitable possibility of its message being misconstrued and appropriated during the promotional process. Beyoncé is, in short, a nuanced self-portrait that examines the limitless possibilities of what a Black woman can be (a wife, mother, sexual being, businesswoman, artist, etc.) that was produced and released in a way that very adamantly rejected the assumed superiority of a patriarchal society built upon white privilege. Beyoncé, over the course of her 18-year career, worked to place herself in a position that afforded her the wealth, influence, and notoriety to make an attempt to subvert the existing power structure in both the music industry and American society, and the lyrical and visual content of Beyoncé subtly encourages its listeners to do the same.
So you can see now why Beyoncé was never going to win Album of the Year.
Of course, Beyoncé did end up taking home a couple of Grammys. Three, to be exact, in the categories of Best R&B Song ("Drunk in Love"), Best R&B Performance ("Drunk in Love"), and Best Surround Sound Album (Beyoncé). However, upon closer inspection, these accolades are not the benign wins that they appear to be but a social representation of essentialist ideologies that prevent artistic works by people of color from receiving the large-scale recognition that they deserve. In this context, essentialism is basically the idea that groups in our society (may those groups be classified by gender, race, or ethnicity) have certain "essential" inherent qualities that shape the way they think, act, and interact with other social groups.
The creation of "Urban" and "R&B" (and, to an extent, "Rap") categories for award shows like the Grammys perpetuates the idea that music that is traditionally produced by African Americans is so drastically different from "mainstream" music that it requires its own category and a different standard of evaluation. While it is true that R&B music differs from certain types of pop, rock, and country music in terms of beat, rhythm, and melody, placing an artist like Beyoncé, who has achieved crossover appeal, into such a category implies that no matter how successful she becomes, the "essential" qualities linked to her race and gender will always prevent her from achieving the same recognition as white males (who have positioned themselves as the "default" for identity in American society). Additionally, allowing her to win only in those categories as a quasi-consolation prize isolates the Black feminist message of her album to one stereotypical racial category and prevents it from being acknowledged by a wider white audience.
Institutions like the Academy and the Grammy selection committee have consistently proven themselves to be uncomfortable with change and racial difference. There is a reason that African-American actors and actresses typically only win Academy Awards for portraying criminals, prostitutes, maids, enslaved people, and villains. The same reason applies to why African-American musicians such as Common, Beyoncé, and J. Cole are regularly snubbed or under-rewarded for their musical talent as soon as they begin to take definitive and public stances on issues relating to racism and discrimination.
It is unsurprising for people who hold racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist personal beliefs to dislike or condemn those who actively work to dismantle systems of oppression. However, issues arise when the same discriminatory beliefs are used to decide who receives the highest accolades in a particular field and, along with that, national and international recognition. Admittedly, it would be difficult to expect the selection committees of shows such as the Grammys and the Oscars to immediately become institutions that accurately represent and respect the cultural differences that exist in our society today. However, as individuals it is entirely possible to explore these differences ourselves and promote the validity of variation within a cultural, musical, and artistic aesthetic.
This post originally appeared on herfoolishwit.blogspot.com.