The Weeknd vs. The Grammys: Are Music Awards Racist?

Felix Asare 9 February 2021

After being snubbed by the Grammys this year, Canadian pop star the Weeknd has taken aim at the awards, claiming that this reflects a long history of racist influence. Given the extent of his recent success, the decision not to nominate the Weeknd for a single award came as a shock to many. His single ‘Blinding Lights’ was Spotify’s most streamed song in 2020 [1] (and has spent over 40 weeks in the Billboard top 10) but was conspicuously absent from the nominations list. This has revived the debate surrounding prejudice within music awards, with Teyana Taylor making similar allegations [2] over the list of exclusively male nominees for ‘Best R&B Album’. The Grammys have since refuted the claims but offered little in the way of explanation, leading to further suspicions about their adjudication process.

The Weeknd discussed the issue of race in a recent interview [3], saying “If you were like, ‘Do you think the Grammys are racist?’ I think the only real answer is that in the last 61 years… only 10 Black artists have won album of the year.” Despite the growing number of BAME artists being nominated for, and winning, Grammys, many have been quick to note how this could reflect the increasing racialisation of the awards. The structuring of the categories has come under particular scrutiny, with critics arguing that organisers choose to create new minor categories filled with BAME artists, as this enables them to justify overlooking their work in major categories. This narrative was fuelled by the creation of the ‘Urban’ category, a title which was later renamed ‘Progressive R&B’ following pressure from those who felt that ‘Urban’ was a racially charged term. Despite claims that this was a direct acknowledgment of racist influence, the Grammys have maintained that they champion diversity, integration, and appreciation of all music and artists, regardless of ethnicity.

Despite the growing number of BAME artists being nominated for, and winning, Grammys, many have been quick to note how this could reflect the increasing racialisation of the awards.

In spite of the continued criticism, there are examples which undermine this narrative of institutional racism and implicit bias. Although the Weeknd may be right to feel that he has been slighted, it cannot be ignored that he received ten Grammy nominations between 2014 and 2018, winning three times. Two of these nominations were in the ‘Album of the Year’ category, perhaps indicating that his recent complaints are misplaced.

In addition to this, both he and other critics often fail to consider alternative factors beyond prejudice. It could be argued that the racialisation of music awards simply reflects the progression of the industry, with the increasing cultural and ethnic associations between genres and demographics decreasing diversity within genres [4]. As a result, awards are left selecting nominees from a list lacking in diversity, creating a sense that their categories are becoming more racialised.

Both the Weeknd and other critics often fail to consider alternative factors beyond prejudice.

Moreover, the adjudication process involves over 10,000 professionals (musicians, producers, engineers and songwriters) of all genders and backgrounds. Whilst institutional racism within this group is of course possible, (and the extent of its diversity is largely unknown) if we assume entry is not based entirely on race, then a group of this size is unlikely to be as racist as critics might have us believe.

Given the history of racism and continued racist influence in the West, many find examples like these unsatisfactory, despite their merits. The Weeknd stated “I don’t want to make this about me”, referencing cases such as Beyoncé’s losses to Beck and Adele, the 1999 snubs to Michael Jackson and Prince, and Kendrick Lamar’s losses to Daft Punk and Taylor Swift. This in many ways neglects the subjectivity of music and the obvious imbalance between nominees and winners, however, the continued absence of BAME artists in major categories cannot be overlooked when considering the historical context of the awards.

 


[1] https://www.lofficielusa.com/music/the-weeknd-spotify-wrapped-2020
[2] https://www.nme.com/news/music/teyana-taylor-hits-out-at-grammys-after-all-male-shortlist-for-best-rb-album-is-announced-2824772
[3] https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/9516909/the-weeknd-xo-records-billboard-cover-story-interview-2021
[4] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10253866.2019.1650741