It is a sign of how tied up in politics the 2021 Grammys were that the ceremony made Beyoncé the most decorated female artist in their history, and yet were unable to get the eight-times nominated artist to perform at the show this year. After years of not being nominated in the major categories but instead only competing in the genre categories, Black artists have made a stand about the overt and covert racism which the music ceremony continues to display.
This year marked the third time in recent years that the most high-profile nominee did not grace the stage at the Grammys, with Jay-Z not performing in 2018 and Kendrick Lamar following suit in 2019. The Weeknd, too, recently announced he would be permanently boycotting the ceremony after his critically acclaimed and commercially successful record failed to net any nominations. Meanwhile, other artists including Drake and Justin Bieber have skipped the ceremony to make a statement.
What those who boycotted the virtual event on Sunday didn't get to see was the first baby steps toward a more diverse kind of Grammys. This meant a record haul for women, who have long been under-nominated, or failed to win when they are up for an award. This year saw success for Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, Dua Lipa, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.
There were also signs of improvement in terms of recognition for non-white artists, with Megan Thee Stallion becoming the first female rapper to win the best new artist award since Lauryn Hill in 1999. While she also won best rap performance and best rap song for “Savage” featuring Beyoncé, the best new artist award is especially notable given how rappers have normally been confined to genre awards and not succeeded in the broader categories.
Elsewhere song of the year went to Dernst Emile II, H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas for “I Can’t Breathe”, a political anthem which was inspired by the death of George Floyd and features the last words of several Black men killed by police brutality. Black artists dominated the categories for best rap performance, album and song, and this year continued from last in having no white artists nominated in these fields.
Yet perhaps most notable was where Black artists conquered outside of this genre, with Kaytranada taking home best dance recording for “10%”, and “Jesus Is King” winning Kanye West best contemporary Christian music album. These wins finally show a willingness on the part of the Grammys to stop solely seeing music made by Black artists as confined to the urban, R&B and rap categories.
Still, it is hard to brush off just how many years it has taken for such incremental change to finally be seen. It has taken a year of mass protests to remind the world that Black lives matter after the killing of an unarmed man, causing many companies and individuals to align themselves with the cause or be left behind. It's worth remembering that the #BlackoutTuesday trend on Instagram begun as a music industry protest and snowballed, proving the power of this industry to effect mass change, despite how outdated the Recording Academy have long been.
The Grammys have a checkered history when it comes to recognising both women and non-white artists, and many will chalk up their small amount of progress this year to nothing more than them feeling forced to show some willingness to change. 2021 was an improvement, but for many of the artists who have been burned one too many times, it will be too little too late.
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