The 59th Grammy awards were held last Sunday, February 12th. The album of the year winner was Adele, surprising many who thought Beyonce was the favorite to win. Adele herself seemed surprised and even used her acceptance speech to say that her album of the year was Beyonce’s Lemonade. Lemonade was a critically acclaimed album that dealt specifically with themes of black southern culture and black womanhood. For many, the passing over of this album for the award represented a decades’ long trend of failing to recognize black art in predominantly white settings (the Grammy voters are overwhelmingly white, as are music industry executives). Black musicians are usually awarded in categories like Urban Contemporary, Rap or R&B, but best album of the year is a category that black artists have won only 10 times since 1959, the year the award was first handed out. Stevie Wonder won three out of those ten times. (Source).
Last week while watching Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby our class discussed the consumption of black art and entertainment by whites. The soundtrack to this movie features many black hip-hop artists, including Kanye West and Jay-Z. As Nick stares out the window of Tom’s apartment at the domestic lives of black people in a New York City tenement, he is consuming their lives for his own entertainment, without giving a second thought to the racial dynamic of this visual exchange: Nick, a white man, is taking the stories and private lives of black people for his own personal philosophical development. In this way, white people are continuing to place black people in a subservient position.
While white people are perfectly comfortable enjoying music and art created by black people, we are more hesitant when it comes to awarding it, or even understanding its weighted importance to black people. This dynamic of cavalier and irresponsible digestion of black music can be observed in many places: from minstrel shows to white music executives exploiting black musicians to white teenagers saying the n word when singing along to songs on the radio. Black music and black art is enjoyed by people of all races, yet to actually award that talent on a stage as large as the Grammy’s would be to categorize black art as not just fun entertainment, but intellectual, complex and three-dimensional. These are adjectives many white Americans are not yet ready to dole out to black Americans.