By Florrie McCarthy
For this issue, I wanted to delve into the noise created in the news by the artist known as The Weeknd in 2021 when he made some scathing comments about the Grammy Awards and pulled what might develop to be a somewhat revolutionary stunt.
On the 25th of November 2021, the day after the Grammys Show, The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, tweeted “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…”. This was in lieu of his 2020 album “After Hours” not getting a single look by the Recording Academy this year, for album of the year nor R&B album of the year or even R&B progressive album of the year. If you are not so familiar with his work, the aspect of this that makes it all the more perplexing and ridiculous is the real crime in that the hit single off this album, “Blinding Lights”, which was actually released in November 2019 was not to be seen anywhere either. Not a single nomination was to be seen in R&B song of the year, best R&B solo performance, best pop solo performance, let alone song of the year, which makes no sense at all contrasted with this song’s whopper achievement for 2021: longest-charting song of all time in the Billboard Top 10. The song has spent an entire year, that’s a record of 52 weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, although it was only 40 at the time of these Grammys, even then this was beating the 39-week record held by Post Malone’s track “Circles” which did in fact get a nomination for song of the year in the 2021 Grammys.
The main scandal of this hullabaloo was when The Weeknd announced that he would be boycotting the Grammys permanently, saying “Because of secret committees, I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys”. For one of the most influential pop/R&B artists of the last 10 years to remove themselves from the running of perhaps the most iconic authority on what’s good and what isn’t in music, this is huge. Perhaps off the cuff, it has the appearance of being hurt and coming from a place of embarrassment, as if he was so convinced his work was worthy of their recognition and was appalled when it turned out the members of the Recording Academy did not even care to look at it. However, digging a little deeper brings one to wonder about more insidious structural problems within the system.
This was the 63rd year of the Grammy Awards, run as usual by the body known as the Recording Academy, formally the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The Academy admits thousands of voters, between individuals and media corporations, to submit nominees. Committees are then formed every year to veto the nominations, see that the submissions are made in their correct categories and narrow the selections down to their final shortlists. Once the shortlists are completed, the final voting ballots are sent to the most prestigious members of the Academy who are renowned experts of the recording industry, to make their final votes. The members are asked but not obliged to vote in the category in which they have the most expertise. They are also asked not to take into account the commercial success of a record but purely the quality. Now, if this were purely the case then perhaps we would only see Grammys given to lesser-known, niche artists producing highly intellectual music, however of course the initial submissions are made by the recording labels who own rights to the songs and individuals all over the world, so realistically the list is going to be made up of popular songs.
And it all sounds very fair until you start to discover more and more outcry that has been made over the years by people like The Weeknd. Zayn Malik, former member of British pop supergroup One Direction, also made publicly clear his disdain for what he deemed to be secretive, corrupt selection on the part of so-called impartial expert panels. In a deleted tweet he has said “F**k the Grammys and everyone involved. Unless you shake hands and send gifts, there are no nomination considerations”. I find this very interesting to observe; that while the advertised description of the process might sound neutral and fair, an industry artist’s insight like this would suggest otherwise.
But this isn’t the first time the Grammys have received backlash. Other artists have cried corruption before as well, but for different reasons. Indie R&B superstar Frank Ocean has had things to say about the ceremony, too. He released his full album Blonde in 2016 to massive acclaim. He purposefully released it under his own label so it would be easier for him not to submit it to the Grammys awards, just like The Weeknd has done. He has said that “the institution certainly has nostalgic importance. It just doesn’t seem to be representing the people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.” He specifies the same fact that most black artists who have spoken out about the Grammys are unhappy about – only a few black artists in recent times have won Album of the Year, namely Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Outkast and Herbie Hancock. Ocean said he would rather have his “Colin Kaepernick moment for the Grammys than sit in the audience”.
Generally, it would appear many black artists are unhappy with the Grammys for this reason, claiming that the black and other non-white artists tend to get overlooked for the white artists, whose music could often, in places, be described as influenced by black music and culture. Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, I think, is a perfect example. It is recognised as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, as well as generally being seen by critics as a deeply meaningful, artistically masterful and carefully produced masterpiece, bringing really inspired innovation into the texture of the music. However, it was beaten by Taylor Swift’s album 1989 for album of the year in 2016. It’s not to say that 1989 isn’t a good album, but while its hit singles were huge that year I think it’s safe to say that it can’t be described as anything but a generic pop record (some of my best friends are Swifties, I promise). We can’t help but wonder at what motivates things like this, be they subconscious or conscious, intentional or unintentional, especially when, realistically, all of the above – The Weeknd, Ocean, Kendrick – are popular because the actual cultural spaces from which they come are those that dominate the scene right now. Where “pop” music simply stands for popular music, then pop music today is hip-hop, it is R&B, it’s rap, soul; and if it isn’t, it’s more often than not full of features that come from those cultural spaces.
Regardless, the pressure didn’t seem to be on the academy after Frank Ocean’s comments in 2017 when the then-president Neil Portnow said “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all. […] Remember, this is a peer-voted majority… We stand 100% behind the process: it’s a democratic vote by majority.” He may have been confident then, but after the Weeknd’s snubbing, it would appear the bigwigs in command perhaps got nervous at some flaws they were happy not to notice for a few decades. After the Weeknd’s comments, chief acting executive Harvey Mason Jr. said: “We’re all disappointed when anyone’s upset. But I will say that we are constantly evolving. And this year, as in past years, we are going to take a hard look at how to improve our awards process, including the nomination review committees.”
Whatever your opinions on the type of corruption that might exist in the Grammys – be they racially biased or fuelled by brown envelopes and surprise gifts – I know I’ll be watching this year’s ceremony on April 3rd.