The 64th Annual Grammy Awards have come and gone, with Black artists representing an array of musical styles and genres celebrating wins and recognition that even some of the biggest stars in the music industry have yet to experience.
Chart-topping artists like Lil Nas X walked away empty handed, but people like Jazmine Sullivan and Doja Cat reaffirmed their footing with fans, and the Recording Academy, by taking home the highly coveted trophy in their respective categories. Even the biggest award, the Grammy for “Album of the Year”, went to Jon Batiste, who himself seemed to be surprised when his name was called, making him the 11th Black artist to win this award in Grammy history.
With these, and several other Black artists taking home awards, it would seem that the Recording Academy is paying close attention to the continued push for more Black representation in the way these awards are distributed, but a closer look shows there is still a high level of marginalization toward Black artists that many people ignore in light of the success of a select few.
Among the Black musicians honored this year was the late Florence B. Price, whose first and third symphonies (as performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra) won the Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted the recording and accepted the award, dedicated the win “first and foremost to Florence Price.” He went on to honor “Florence Price and all the composers…who have been overlooked because of injustice in the world” and noted that “it’s about time we get them back to the place that they are due to have in our programming.”
While this historic win can be seen as a huge step forward for Black composers and performers seeking a Grammy, the conversations surrounding other classical categories highlighted a different narrative.
Curtis Stewart and Jon Batiste were among the other Black artists in the running for the Grammys’ classical awards, with Stewart’s “Of Power” nominated for Best Classical Instrumental Solo and Batiste’s “Movement 11” nominated for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. These nominations, in particular, proved controversial, with some of western classical’s leading figures airing their grievances unapologetically.
Apostolos Paraskevas, a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, complained about the Batiste nomination by saying:
“If you look at the nominees for the best contemporary classical composition, you see amazing musicians who write operas and symphonies. Batiste’s piece is two minutes long, someone playing sequences in the jazz style. If this person gets an award, this is a big slap on our face. It’s a message to everyone that we should give up and just do this.”
Among those who agreed with this critique was Marc Neikrug, a composer and former Grammy nominee who believed these nominations were more “pop” than classical. In a letter to the Academy he wrote:
“As a serious, dedicated composer of what has always been considered ‘classical’ music, I am dismayed. I have spent 60 years studying and labouring at this precise craft. It is unfathomable that an organisation which is supposed to have some inherent knowledge of music would choose to re-categorise an entire segment of our inherited culture.”
Curtis Stewart, a classically trained musician in his own right and faculty member at New York’s Juilliard School, responded by calling Neikrug’s words “hurtful”. As the son of two classically trained musicians, Stewart noted, “I have literally inherited the music of my mother and father.”
Both Stewart and Batiste lost in their respective categories, with the award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo going to Asian American violinist Jennifer Koh, and the award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition being awarded to Caroline Shaw. It should also be noted that the award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, despite a diverse list of nominees, went to a work by Beethoven. As people in the United States continue to engage in the conversation of defining classical music and expanding the genre, this event has showcased the continued struggle and pushback surrounding the evolution of this age-old art form.
Critics of the Grammys’ attempts at equity have also pointed to other categories, including the (untelevised) award for Best Rap Album, which went to Tyler the Creator.
For more than a decade hip hop music has proved to be the predominant sound and the most lucrative leg of the music industry, and yet highlighting this award is something that the Grammys have yet to do during the televised event. Hip hop stars have responded in many ways, from throwing their previously awarded Grammys in the toilet to calling for a complete boycott of the awards.
There was also a social media uproar when Soja, a predominantly white reggae ensemble from Virgina beat out every Jamaican reggae artist nominated for Best Reggae Album. Critics even saw racism in this year’s “In Memoriam” tribute, with Virgil Abloh, a late, Black fashion designer and collaborator with brands across Europe and the globe, being reduced to a “Hip Hop Fashion Designer”.
All in all, the Grammys have done a better job than in years past of honoring Black contributions to American music, but there is much more to be done. With the exception of music codified by Indigenous people (which is also glaringly absent from Grammy Award ceremonies) there is no music more foundational to the history and to the present of America’s musical identity than the music created by Black people, from the classical symphonies of Florence B. Price to the rap and hip-hop music that drives the industry at large.
As artists and music fans continue to weigh their personal relationships with the Grammys, it’s vital for the conversation to grow and evolve so that Black representation within and around this institution isn’t quelled by the celebration of a select few Black artists who are deemed acceptable according to the pre-defined parameters and practices that keep a vast number of Black artists not only away from the Grammy stage, but out of the larger discourse of Black music as a foundational aspect of the entire music industry.