Opinion: The 2019 Grammys tried to "step up," but I still need to see Black women win major categories
Author Michael Arceneaux discusses how the Grammys has long invited Black artists on stage to perform but not to win the night’s biggest awards, and how the 2019 ceremony was no exception.
Alicia Keys set the tone for the 2019 Grammys on February 10th when she walked out on stage in a headscarf, dressed as if she would be cooking greens in between her hosting duties—and this should not be interpreted as any kind of dig at Alicia. She served us 1970s baddie with delicious collards.
But, if anything, I took it as a sign that I ought to sit back and relax because I knew there was absolutely no way, even with Keys as host, that The Recording Academy was going to miraculously transform its award show and awarding process after 61 years of failing to truly show its appreciation for Black music, its value, and the artists behind it.
At the Grammys, everyone is invited, but we are all not treated the same when we arrive.
The show made a habit of highlighting its efforts to be more inclusive throughout the telecast—especially after Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s comment last year that women artists need to “step up” in order to win the night’s biggest awards.
Yet the show continued its habit of using Black performers to garner ratings while limiting the awards bestowed upon them in major categories.
Now, someone’s immediate response to that would probably be to note that Donald Glover won both Record and Song of the Year for “This Is America.” With all due respect to Glover and the music video that is the root of the song’s success, I think that was The Recording Academy’s white guilt at work. The video for the single launched a conversation, but was that really the record of the year? Did you really hear that song more than, say, Cardi B’s “I Like It?” Granted, the category has never gone by the metric of which song is played at CVS the most, but I couldn’t help but think Cardi was cheated—even with her historic win for Best Rap Album.
And then I got reminded of why that is.
At one point during the show, Alicia did a bit in which she recalled losing Song of the Year to John Mayer. The segment was supposed to stoke laughter—you know, because her idol Stevie Wonder was presenting the award and, haha, someone else won it! I didn’t laugh, though. I got pissed—because Alicia Keys did deserve that Grammy. And so did Beyoncé for Record of the Year with “Crazy In Love.” And of course, Beyoncé being robbed of Album of the Year twice is still infuriating. So is the fact that Rihanna’s Anti was snubbed completely. And while I am happy for Kacey Musgraves, her win is so telling of how easy it is for a young white female country artist to win in that category—but not a Black woman, of any age.
In fact, Diana Ross did a lovely tribute to herself, but isn’t it something that Diana Ross has never won a Grammy?
What is it with this show and Black women?
Like, I love Jennifer Lopez, but why was she the center of a Motown tribute? Given the history of Motown and the continued discriminatory treatment of Black artists and Black people in this country, why would you give the job of honoring a culture to a woman who is not part of that culture? Again, I love Jennifer Lopez, but Motown did not include salsa dancing. She looked amazing and out-danced everyone like she so often does, but it did not make sense.
And it wasn’t just how Black women were treated at the show last night. Other things that didn’t make sense? Drake, literally one of the biggest artists on the planet, being cut off mid-speech after winning Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan.” The Grammys have an increasingly harder time getting big-name artists—particularly Black ones—to show up to the Grammys given their aforementioned treatment, so when one does, you cut him off and your excuse sucks? Even so, good on Aubrey for using his platform to let artists know that the show doesn’t validate them.
I also wish Post Malone would have taken a second to acknowledge 21 Savage, who was supposed to be sharing the stage with him until ICE arrested the Georgia-raised rapper.
I suppose it’s time to reflect on the good things:
Cardi B’s performance of “Money” was amazing. Her acceptance speech, adorable. I want to reiterate that she still should have won in a major category, but Cardi made history all the same as the first-ever solo woman to win Best Rap Album for Invasion of Privacy.
I also love that Michelle Obama just randomly showed up at the Grammys looking like Album of the Year, and of course she worked in a Beyoncé reference during her speech on stage: “From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side, to the ‘Who Run The World’ songs that fueled me through this last decade…” We love our chair of the political wing of the BeyHive.
While that Aretha Franklin tribute was not long enough, it was nonetheless a delight. (I really, really love when gospel singer Yolanda Adams sings in sin.) And it’s still so funny to me how fast Miley changed her aesthetic back from Twerk Team alternate member, but she was great during the Dolly Parton tribute. I also love that Dolly Parton worked in a plug for her new single.
Lastly, Alicia Keys was a fine host. But that said, I really need her to go back to releasing songs like “You Don’t Know My Name” before she becomes LL Cool J. Save the hosting duties until you reach the peak auntie stage in life and bring us more hits, please.
Until next year when the show irks me for all of the exact same reasons, y’all.
Michael Arceneaux is the New York Times bestselling author of the recently released book I Can’t Date Jesus from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Essence, The Guardian, Mic, and more. Follow him on Twitter.