Another year, another bittersweet Grammy ceremony for hip-hop. While it’s true that efforts to improve voter diversity in previous years has resulted in a more representative sample of the best the genre had to offer in 2018, it didn’t seem that increased diversity resulted in any more credibility for the honors among rap’s upper echelon.
In fact, it almost seemed to go in reverse, with some of rap’s biggest names — Childish Gambino, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar — declining performance offers and even foregoing the ceremony altogether. The one who did briefly attend, Drake, used his podium time to downplay the award show’s importance despite his win for Best Rap Song. J. Cole echoed his sentiments the next day on Twitter. If anything, the night seemed to signify that rap’s attitude towards the Grammys is changing, and there’s little, if anything, the Grammys can do to change that.
Drake and the rest did miss some history being made, sure. Cardi B won Best Rap Album, making her the first solo female rapper to pull off that feat in the 30 years since rap awards were first installed. Childish Gambino also broke ground for the genre, becoming the first rapper to secure either Record Of The Year or Song Of The Year — and he even won both, despite never showing up to claim them. That’s impressive, yes, but by the end of the night, the only award anyone in which anyone truly seemed invested felt like a foregone conclusion.
“Of course, it was going to go to the white girl,” was the unspoken sentiment among rappers and their fans when Kacey Musgraves was announced the winner of Album Of The Year for Golden Hour. Never mind the artistic merit of the album itself; no less than four rappers were nominated for the honor (five if you include Janelle Monae’s swaggering verse on “Django Jane” from her futuristic funk-pop masterpiece, Dirty Computer), but once again, hip-hop went home unvalidated, unacknowledged, and basically discarded by the Recording Academy’s voting process.
It’s no wonder few established rappers even bothered to show up and the few who did were willing to risk censure to diminish the value of the golden phonograph. Once coveted among rappers as a symbol of “making it,” the Grammy award has become just another meaningless accolade for hip-hop. Rappers, on the whole, seem to be saying, “If the Grammys don’t recognize us, we won’t recognize them.” That’s bad for the Grammys, as rap becomes more ingrained in pop culture. It’s already the most popular genre in the US by airplay, it’s more and more likely to reflect the mindset of the youth in the future, leaving the Grammys — never the most forward-thinking institution — in the dust.
In the entire 61-year history of the Grammy Awards, only two hip-hop albums have ever won the Album Of The Year. Only 24 have ever been nominated. And, dear reader, when I tell you that I stretched the definition for a “hip-hop” album as much as I possibly could without breaking it, understand that I counted Black Eyed Peas’ electro explosion The E.N.D. as one. The two winners, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, feature at least as much singing as they do rapping. I don’t point this out to demean those albums or those artists (by all rights, they prove how versatile and resilient hip-hop can be as a genre), but to point out that the only two rap albums to ever be recognized as the best albums in a given year by a vote of music industry professionals barely have any rapping on them.
From the inception of rap awards, the Grammys has always marginalized rap music and rappers, shuffling them off into a corner and handing out token nods with nominations rap fans know won’t ever come to anything. Kendrick Lamar, inarguably one of the genre’s most important rappers and the voice of a generation — the generation, incidentally, that is coming for the positions of the aging Baby Boomers that make up governing bodies like the Recording Academy or, say, Congress — has been shut out every year he’s been nominated in favor of 1980s R&B cosplay from Bruno Mars and robotic techno funk from Daft Punk. His best shot, 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly, lost out to Taylor Swift.
Drake, who has dominated the zeitgeist for the better part of a decade with “Hotline Bling” sweater dancing and status update-ready quotables, was nominated for the award exactly twice. He lost out Adele and Kacey Musgraves. I don’t know if you noticed the pattern developing here, but the gist of it is this: Rap, says the Grammys, will always come in second place to the American standard, despite all evidence to the contrary. Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” was a fun song for political rallies. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was the battle cry of an entire social justice movement, an affirmation of an entire cultural heritage, and a defiant reprisal to the powers that be who would rather silence the voices of protestors asserting their humanity, that their lives matter. Hip-hop is the voice of those people, yet the Grammys have only begrudgingly made room at the table, only to continually snub the sacrifice and artistry behind the genre that the awards barely acknowledge as art.
There are a million reasons we could attribute to this disdainful attitude, but it’s probably because rap was coined by, created by, propagated by, and still mainly speaks for Black people. The problem isn’t where the attitude comes from, it’s where it will eventually lead the Grammys and the Recording Academy — to obsolescence at the margins of society. It won’t just be karma; it will be the natural end result of trying to prop up a broken system long past its expiration date. You simply can’t keep putting new tires on an old car and ignoring the clanking, grinding, and grumbling coming from the engine.
Rappers are pulling out, decrying the awards, and dismissing them live on TV from the very stage where they now begrudgingly accept honors they’re no longer sure they even want. Those are the warning signs. Unless rap is treated with the same dignity as country, jazz, folk, pop, and rock, the engine that drives interest in the aging Grammy Awards show is headed for a slow, painful death by stagnation. The Grammys need hip-hop right now way more than hip-hop will ever need the Grammys.