Another year, another Grammys. It’s hard to express any real interest in the ultimate awards ceremony for the pop music industry – the entire thing feels artificial, each artist given barely a few seconds to accept their award before being ferried off stage. The media seems more interested in the ‘drama’ and what the artists (female, that is) were wearing rather than the art they are being awarded for. It’s all, for the most part, a populist sham.
Yet there is something a little more interesting going on in the shadow of the Grammys. It gives us a great view over the pop industry, who is a major player, who is relevant, or so one would think. In reality, it demonstrates the same racism within the pop industry that has existed since The Beatles.
Let me extrapolate. The Beatles – what was racist about them? Appropriation of Indian instruments aside, they were the poster boys of a growing music industry, fast realising its ability to market across the Atlantic. They were decidedly uniform, even down to their haircuts. Four white boys, big in Europe and the US. Today, they are heralded as pioneers of rock and roll, one of the most influential artists of all time.
But there was nothing new about what The Beatles did musically. Nearly everything about them was lifted from the rock n roll artists of the 50s, and even the precursors of the late 40s. Apart from Buddy Holly, the unifying factor of these artists is that they were black. The Beatles took inspiration from these artists – not that there is anything wrong with that – but the white face on it made it popular. Suddenly, this new brand of music was marketable in a country where the civil rights movement was in its prime.
50 years later, and things haven’t changed all that much. Meghan Trainor claimed that she was “bringing booty back” – what, exactly, have Rihanna and Beyoncé been doing then? When there is a white face on it, it suddenly becomes acceptable, while Rihanna and Beyoncé find themselves constantly slut-shamed.
The same is said for Iggy Azalea, another multiple Grammy nominee. Compare the way she talks with the way she ‘raps’ – she has openly admitted to “blacking up” in her vocal style. And she has enjoyed enormous commercial success because of it, while black women find it extremely hard to break into the scene – and yet, when Azealia Banks spits fury about it, the media is quick to demonise her for some admittedly rape-apologist comments about Bill Cosby.
At the Grammys, best album went to Beck for Morning Phase and best rap album went to Eminem for MMLP2. During Beck’s acceptance ‘speech’, Kanye West jokingly went on stage in a mocking of his own humiliation of Taylor Swift at the VMAs in 2009. The media, as it is wont to do, tore him apart – comments calling Kanye an egotist, a fool, talentless, the age old argument of “Beck writes his own songs and plays a real instrument” all being thrown around. No one considered the fact that actually, Beyoncé’s album was far better than Beck’s. Beck is undeniably a great artist and has produced some superb works, but Morning Phase was not among them.
Similarly, Eminem’s win is a symbol of how hard it is to give black people the credit in their own musical genres. If Eminem was winning this award in the early 00s, it would be understandable – he was at the top of his game. But he is barely relevant anymore, and MMLP2 was dire – yet it wins, with the closest competition coming from, you guessed it, Iggy Azalea.
Black artists aren’t neglected entirely, though. Pharrell picked up the award for Best Pop Solo Performance, and Happy was undeniably one of the biggest songs of the year. Yet Pharrell himself doesn’t think of it in terms of race anymore – he is “New Black”. In his own words: “The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realises that it’s not pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.”
Pharrell has unwittingly put the onus of racism on black people. It is condescending and tired. For a century, black people have been cast in the shadow of white success in many walks of life, including music – when a black person is liked by white people, this rhetoric of transcending race emerges. The Grammys are evidential of this as are most mainstream music awards. It is time to listen to Kanye West and see award ceremonies for what they are – capitalist, racist fads that pay no attention to the works of the artists and represent an industry laced with the poison of racism. The mainstream media needs to get its shit together, and start seeing things for what they are.