Beyoncé is the latest black artist to lose album of the year
#GrammysSoWhite started on Twitter
Even Adele thinks Beyoncé should have won the album of the year Grammy over her.
When the British pop star tearfully accepted the ceremony’s top award Sunday night, she shined a spotlight on the woman she said she has loved since she was 11 years old.
“The artist of my life is Beyoncé, and this album to me, the ‘Lemonade’ album, was just so monumental,” Adele said.
Certainly for her diehard fan base known as the Beyhive – and for many music critics – Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” was a creative masterpiece.
But with its racial themes and imagery, some are questioning if the project was “just too black” for Grammy voters.
Kevin Powell, author of the memoir “The Education of Kevin Powell” and a forthcoming biography on rapper Tupac Shakur, thinks so.
He told CNN “Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ made a lot of people uncomfortable, because it is so political, so spiritual, so unapologetically black, and so brutally honest about love, self-love, trust, betrayal.”
“We are still a nation that does not want to deal so directly with truth,” said Powell, who has written about music and race for various publications, including Vibe magazine. “Adele’s album is strong, but it is just songs about love. It is safe and uncontroversial; it breaks no new ground. And neither do Grammy voters, generally speaking, when it comes to picking winners of this particular award.”
Adele and Beyoncé were both nominated for song of the year, record of the year and album of the year.
Adele swept all three.
Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” won for best urban contemporary album. Her hit “Formation” won for best music video.
#GrammysSoWhite became a thing on Twitter Sunday night. One user noted – incorrectly – that a person of color “hasn’t won [album of the year] in almost 20 years!”
There have actually been a few artists of color who have won album of the year during that time period: Lauryn Hill won for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999; Carlo Santana’s “Supernatural won the following year; “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” by Outkast took home the Grammy in 2004 and Ray Charles won posthumously in 2005 for “Genius Love Company.”
In 2008 African American jazz artist Herbie Hancock stirred controversy and disbelief when his album of Joni Mitchell interpretations, “River: The Joni Letters” took album of the year over Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.”
It was just one of the moments that has convinced some viewers that the Grammy Awards are out of step with what resonates with music lovers.
And “Lemonade” certainly resonated.
Since its release in April 2016, the album has been hailed by women of color for reflecting their experience.
“The video album writes black women back into national, regional and diasporic histories by making them the progenitors and rightful inheritors of the Southern gothic tradition,” Zandria F. Robinson wrote for Rolling Stone. “Beyond ‘strong’ and ‘magic,’ ‘Lemonade’ asserts that black women are alchemists and metaphysicians who are at once of the past, present and future, changing and healing the physical, chemical and spiritual world around them.”
Adele acknowledged that power in her acceptance speech.
“You are our light,” Adele said from the stage, as Beyoncé cried in the audience. “And the way you make me and my friends feel – the way you make my black friends feel – is empowering and you make them stand up for themselves.”
Beyoncé joins a long list of acclaimed black artists whose album of the year losses have been decried – and it’s not the first time for Bey.
Rapper Kanye West crashed the Grammy stage in protest in 2015 when Beck’s “Morning Phase” eclipsed Beyoncé’s self-titled album for the award.
There was an outcry in 2014 when rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City” lost to Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”
Even the late Prince was passed over with his two album of the year nominations, including his very popular and critically acclaimed “Purple Rain” in 1985 (though he lost to another black artist, Lionel Richie).
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, whose members vote on the Grammy Awards, does not release a breakdown of their voting body based on race, gender or age.
But the Academy has long insisted that the Grammys voting body is diverse and reflective of the music industry’s artists.
Recording Academy president Neil Portnow told Variety last year that the awards show strives “to be a microcosm of the music that’s made in any given year.”
“We’re proud to be able to be representative that way,” he said. “It’s the great melting pot, without a doubt.”
But Powell said that’s not reflected when the trophies are handed out.
“American music would not exist without the massive influence of black people and black music, but that is not evidenced by who gets the big awards year to year, with few exceptions,” he said.
Powell added that he had no issue with Adele winning song and record of the year, but still disagreed with her winning album of the year.
“The Grammys become more inclusive by not consistently awarding folks like Beyoncé ‘urban’ trophies, while giving the top prizes to the white artists,” he said.
Jem Aswad, a senior editor for Billboard, said that while there can be no denying that issues of race crop up in the music industry just like they do anyplace else, there are still counter arguments that can be made as to why Adele won.
The Grammys has been known to play it safe, he said, and Beyonce’s album was incredibly provocative. Also, Adele’s album had three hit singles while Beyonce’s did not.
Aswad said there were smaller factors like “Lemonade” only being available to stream on Tidal which, while they may not have affected Grammy voting, weighed on the album’s exposure.
“There are all these complicated factors that prevent it from being a very straight narrative,” he said. “Not for nothing, black women have won album of the year – which is the gold standard at the Grammys – only three times in its history. Those three artists were Natalie Cole with the ‘Unforgettable’ album, which is one of the safest albums that you could imagine, Whitney Houston with the ‘Bodyguard’ soundtrack, which had a giant movie behind it, as well as a huge radio hit and the marketing juggernaut Clive Davis, and Lauryn Hill’s album which was edgier, but still went down fairly easy for audiences.”
Harvey Mason Jr., a six-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter, told CNN last year that the Recording Academy was working on being more in step with what appeals to fans.
Ultimately, he said, they are the ones who have the final say as to what is good music.
“Most people don’t care who sings what,” Mason said. “There is no ‘black music’ or ‘white music.’ Make good art and people will listen to it.”