The Grammy’s : Early Years, Voting Issues and Relationship with Black Music

The Grammy awards have been shrouded in controversy since it seems the beginning of time ; where popular records have long been ignored, ground-breaking achievements have paled into insignificance and hotly contested voting practices have garnered much attention. All of these elements have moved to take the focus away from the main purpose of the awards , this the honouring of the most outstanding contributions to the musical sphere in a given time period.

Inception and Early Years The Hollywood Walk of Fame project in the 1950s ushered in a change in the musical world, with recording executives on the Walk of Fame committee realizing that many leading people in the music industry would not earn a star on Hollywood Boulevard despite qualifying for this accolade. Executives then borrowed on ideas from The Academy Awards (Oscar’s) and The Emmy Awards (both of whom had prizes that recognized outstanding achievements in film and television respectively) for a concept to honor outstanding musical contributions in a given calendar year. This in turn birthed The GRAMMY Awards, which began as The Gramophone Awards and were first held on May 4th of 1959. (1) The first awards ceremony saw 28 awards be presented within categories such as R&B,Pop ,Jazz and Country alongside the big 3 categories ( Record of the Year , Song of the Year , Album of the Year). Big winners included Ella Fitzgerald , Domenico Modugno and Henry Mancini ; notably however, industry favourite Frank Sinatra only received one award and this was for Best Album Cover Photography. More importantly also there was a key omission category wise in the shape of rock and roll, with the domineering pop culture phenomenon that was the genre not being recognised by the Academy due its crass and hard hitting nature. This led to acts such as Little Richard , Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley not receiving any adulation for their efforts at this time, with an award for this genre of music not even being created until 1980. Rock and Roll’s omission was one of the earliest examples of the Academy’s unrelenting ability to out right ignore popular and worthy music.

Voting issues

The Grammy’s voting system (see visual above) and qualifying standards have been under the microscope since its very dawn, with eyebrow raising decisions being made at every corner with as recently as 2020, where the “secret committee” was scrapped due to coming under fire from former Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan, who filed a complaint against the organization following her removal.

She said the following on the organization: “The Grammy voting process is ripe with corruption,” Dugan alleged in her Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, pointing particularly to instances in which “members of the board [of trustees] and the secret committees chose artists with whom they have personal or business relationships.” (2)

This is the first time this committee has been brought to the limelight, but they’ve been, ironically, secretly orchestrating the fate of many artists in key genres such as rock, rap and dance music. Also as Deborah alluded to above , there have been rumblings of some artists sitting in on Secret Committee meetings and being able to influence the voting selections for categories that they were in fact a part of.

The Weeknd made a reference to such in March 2021 where he stated “Because of the secret committees, I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.” These comments were made after he was famously snubbed by the awards for his record breaking album “After Hours” this containing the single “Blinding Lights” which was one of the best charting singles in US Chart History. It spent 57 weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 and 43 weeks in the top five, breaking the record for the most time logged in the region over the chart's 62-year history as well as also being the longest running single in the history of the Hot 100 chart with a total of 90 weeks, surpassing Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive", which spent 87 weeks. (3)

This is just one case in a long line of famous Grammy snubs that include The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” beating out Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and “Billie Jean”, Adele’s “25” winning over Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Taylor Swift’s “1989” getting the gong over Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” - this one of the greatest albums ever created.

* (first 5 albums nominated , latter 4 snubbed) for all Figures If we even look at these albums in terms of a total score aggregated across an average Metacritic review and an average User Score, the winners in some cases are even more baffling. 2016 (Figure 1) highlighted how in one of the better selected AOTY years true excellence was still refuted recognition ; and this has been a damning theme throughout the Grammys tenure.

Figures 2 and 3 add further insult to injury and may be a truer reflection of the Grammys overall dysfunction, as they demonstrate both its underwhelming and negligent selection processes as well as the poor selection in the eventual winner from the overall poor selection of albums in a given calendar year.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

The Grammy’s and Black Music

From the very onset there have been ripples in the relationship between the Grammy’s and Black Music ; the highs and raucous levels of success attached to individuals such as Ella Fitzgerald , Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones could make one believe that black music has been fairly represented but damningly outside of these musical geniuses, awards have been scarcely distributed to the black community.

Since the awards' creation in 1957, only ten black artists have won the Album of the Year Award: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock.

The unjust representation of Black Music across the Grammy awards have been becoming increasingly evident through every passing decade. Diversity think tank researchers explored this relationship and in turn cross-referenced the number of Black artists who made the Billboard Hot 100 over the last nine years with the number of Grammy nominations they received in the award show's most coveted "Big Four'' categories (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist) and they discovered that Black performers represented about 38% of all artists on Billboard's signature chart from 2012 to 2020, yet only received 26.7% of top Grammy nominations during the same period. (4)

Rob Kenner, a Grammy Screener, said that along with the official guidelines, he soon learned another unwritten rule during private conversations with other committee members: “be careful about green-lighting an album by someone who was really famous if you don’t want to see that album win a Grammy”. Statements like this highlight the immense undertones and hidden subculture attributed to the Grammy awards; and they also shine the light on previously unknown epithets that have done nothing but steadily reduce the credibility of this award. (6)

The awards attempted to increase their degrees of inclusivity through the brandishing of an array of “Urban” adjacent categories, which only worked to limit black artists' ability to receive notable recognition in non-racialized categories. It has led to one of the most iconic performers in the history of music in the shape of Beyoncé only winning 7 Grammy awards in categories that do not include the words “Rap” “R&B” or “Urban” within their titles.

The usage of the term “Urban” did not particularly endear them to the black community with most notably Tyler, The Creator calling out the term for being a politically correct way to say the n-word. The Grammys have now stopped using "urban" to describe music of black origin in its awards categories with now, the prize for best urban contemporary album being renamed best progressive R&B album, amongst other changes. The Recording Academy said the changes had been made to ensure its awards were "inclusive and reflect[ed] the current state of the music industry". One could question that, if a more societally reflective academy had been integrated since the progression of the Grammy’s as an award , whether an issue like this would even surface in the first place.

Tyler, the Creator, also suffered from degrees of racial bias as he stated his album IGOR was not a rap album and was only nominated for a rap award at the 2020 Grammys because he is Black — highlighting that nominations are less about music and more about segregation.

Rock’s earlier mentioned 1980 inauguration to the ceremony was bested in lateness by the almost begrudging addition of the Rap category in 1989. Both of these genres share interesting origin stories with both being rooted in blackness ; The NY origins of DJ Kool Herc’s mixes brought through a cultural revolution in the shape of Hip-Hop and a lesser celebrated queer black woman’s sheer endeavour brought through a new wave of music that was heavily borrowed upon by Elvis Presley for the popularisation of Rock and Roll music. Her name is Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

The audacious and non conforming nature of Hip-Hop music has stood the test of time and has seen to be almost reprimanded for these strengths. Hip-Hop’s ascension forced its recognition, but only however by the Grammy’s credos. This led to DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince boycotting the 1989 awards show in protest to the Grammys’ choice to not televise their performance for their best rap performance award receiving song “Parents Just Don’t Understand''. Other notable black acts such as Public Enemy and LL Cool J also boycotted the awards. (7)

They have since added 3 additional categories for the hip-hop genre, but since the rapid ascension of the genre only 2 Hip-Hop album have won the illustrious Album of the Year award (Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” and Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”) , this societally not being truly indicative of the vast levels of ground-breaking output seen to be present within this space.

More than two decades later, The Grammys’ relationship with hip-hop became even more tense after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “The Heist” won 2013’s best rap album over Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” This is regarded as one of the most influential albums of all time ; and this was an award snub that was so egregious that the winner apologized to Kendrick Lamar for even receiving the accolade.

The future of The Grammy’s appears to be at crossroads - with further falling ratings , increasing star unavailability and a still looming cloud appearing over its meritocracy. The Academy can be seen to be actively attempting to repair elements of its failings through show revamps and more transparent voting protocol, but one could question whether the hole has been dug too far. The rapid accession of streaming has provided further pressure on music award shows in general, with artists not needing to seek validity at the hands of a few, due to gaining this through the clicks of the masses. Their contentious relationship with black music does also require serious addressing with the awards at present feeling like an extension of white supremacy, with a history of white society attempting to validate Black art. System disruptors need to also be given their respected dues and greater encouragement at the peak of their most ground-breaking work, with artists such as David Bowie ("Changes" only being inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame, 45 years after its release) and Kanye West (808s and Heartbreak snub) not being honoured whilst being at the very cutting edge of musical innovation . Elements such as these will only help to re-establish the credibility of such an illustrious award, and hopefully move to put only music at the forefront of discussions when the Grammy’s annual ceremony is upon us.

Sources : 1.

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Figures 1 ,2 and 3 -

4. 5. 6. 7.