When Bruno Mars won the Album Of The Year Grammy Award at this year’s ceremony, many people were disappointed in the outcome. Not only did the Recording Academy voters miss a prime opportunity to finally highlight hip-hop and bring the awards show out of the dark ages, but the historical context that underpinned the decision struck a nerve with an audience that has seen many of its brightest stars dimmed by the Academy’s regular failure to recognize their greatness in their time.
The Grapevine recently held a round-table debate to question Bruno Mars’ status as a possible appropriator of Black culture and whether that affects the legitimacy of his win. However when a clip from the above video (cued up to the quote in question) hit Twitter courtesy of user @hannahmburrell with the caption “this is why i hate bruno mars @seren_sensei says it all,” the social media service lit up with a larger debate.
While some users find it just another case of sour grapes from bitter “haters” — and the term “hate” is actually used in the video by Seren Sensei — some find legitimacy in the self-published author’s argument. She actually does make several salient points — the most striking of which is that funk-rock pioneer Prince never won at the height of his popularity.
While Purple Rain was a genre-shifting album whose significance and influence is still felt to this day — just check out Janelle Monae’s most recent music videos for proof — Bruno’s 24K Magic was viewed by some as sort of “Black music karaoke,” where he wore his influences on his sleeve, but didn’t advance the genres he aped or create anything truly unique and original.
While I’d argue that to do so is a tall order for any artist, I can see where Seren is coming from. Yes, 24K is packed with bops, but very little of the album stands apart on its own in terms of the ’80s soul and New Jack swing when removed from the “revivalist” context in which they were released. Then again, very little New Jack or ’80s soul stood apart from any of the rest of it during the actual ’80s, so that might be a little nitpicky, to say the least.
Meanwhile, Bruno did do plenty to update the sounds, although he did mine other avenues of Black music like trap rap, acting as more of a curator than an outright creator. Still, it didn’t seem like anyone else was doing it before he came along, and there’s no denying the immense popularity of his songs — or the renewed attention he brought to the Black creators he openly credited for their influence in his work.
Ultimately, I think the arguments for or against Bruno Mars as a cultural appropriator (and remember, it’s not the appropriation that sucks really, it’s the erasure that usually accompanies it, and Bruno generally does a great job of trying to mitigate that larger cultural effect) come down to the Recording Academy not taking its history into account when voting on Album Of The Year.
Black music has always been more accepted by the mainstream when it was at least a half-step removed from Black entertainers. Michael Jackson’s popularity increased as his skin lightened (then nosedived as his personality and looks become a little too bizarre to process). Justin Timberlake was beloved –at least for a while — in large part because he so carefully mimicked Michael’s movements and music (outselling and outlasting fellow heir-apparent Usher in popularity, no less).
The Grammys undoubtedly made a bad decision and Bruno Mars got caught up in the whirlwind of social media fury. It’s something that practically every non-Black performer stepping into traditionally Black genres will have to face (with the exception of rock, of course). There are no easy solutions to the complex tangle of historical and cultural politics that come along with doing so, but the show must go on. All we can do is hope that next time around, the golden gramophone goes to the best artist with the best project.