grammy awards

The 2017 Grammy Awards Had an Inclusivity Problem

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Jonathan G

Writer. Feminist. Eater of most things.

At the 2017 Grammy Awards, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow spoke about music and its ability to unite, especially in these times.

We are constantly reminded about the things that divide us. Race, region, and religion. Gender, sexual orientation, political party. But what we need so desperately are more reminders of all that binds us together — our shared history, our common values and our dedication to build for ourselves a more perfect union.

Neil Portnow, Recording Academy President

The passionate speech sparked applause from the crowd, as they clapped in agreement. While the clamor of their hands might be inspiring, the Academy’s actions tell a different story about how they feel about diversity.

Queer Representation in the Grammy Awards Nominations

This year’s nominations lacked LGBTQ+ representation in the major categories. A small amount of queer artists were nominated and even fewer actually won.

Grammy Awards
Tegan and Sara’s 2016 Album Love You to Death

It’s not like there weren’t any opportunities to nominate more queer artists. Artists like Tegan and Sara and Adore Delano released worthy albums well within the time frame for nomination. Indie pop artists like Shura and Muna also released music that would have fit perfectly in major categories. Muna’s ode to acceptance (“I Know a Place”) could have ignited an image of solidarity under this stressful political climate. RuPaul’s 2016 album also fits the zeitgeist of pop/dance tracks that dominated in those categories.

I don’t have to list more artists to illustrate the lack of queer representation in this year’s nominations. (I CAN, but I won’t.) It’s worth mentioning that nominations are based on those who apply. It would be silly to assume all my examples applied this year; however, I still wonder how many queer artists applied, only to be snubbed. Queer artists are often the exception to a more heteronormative roster at award shows. They are shown to be nothing more than a good headline for the next morning.

Queer Representation During The Show

Grammy Awards
Rupaul’s 2016 Album Butch Queen

The program itself had a better showing for the community. A trans woman participated in the dissemination of awards, for the first time in the show’s history. Laverne Cox also briefly took the stage to announce Beyonce’s performance. Cox took her time as presenter to highlight Gavin Grimm and the plight that transgender students are facing. In addition to this, bisexual pop star Lady GaGa rocked out in one of the show’s most exciting performances. (Yes, she identifies as bisexual, but that part of her is always erased).

One of the show’s focal points centered around George Michael. Adele sang an emotional rendition of his song, “Fast Love.” Midway through her performance, Adele stopped and restarted. Her intentions were clear: she wanted to honor the late icon and do him justice. She seemed uncomfortable throughout the moment, however, as if a connection failed to come to fruition. I’m not doubting Adele’s talent, but the tribute left me a bit confused.

Why would the Recording Academy choose a heterosexual singer to honor a queer icon? Part of me wonders if Adele stumbled because she couldn’t relate to the song in the way a queer person would. The lyrics would have held more relevance, striking a larger resonance. A queer tribute would have honored Michael’s legacy, opening doors for artists just like him.

I’m not trying to shade Adele, as I think she sang beautifully. My problem concerns the award show producers. Often times, these shows spotlight queer allies more frequently than actual queer individuals.

Representation of People of Color

The Grammy Awards have a conflicting history with Black inclusivity, which took a toll on this year’s guest list. Kanye West and Frank Ocean both opted out of the event, citing the Grammy’s track record of snubbing Black artists. This year, Adele’s win added on to the disappointing statistic. Even Adele was confused about how she won, citing Lemonade’s political importance in her victory speech.

After this year’s show, Recording Academy President Portnow denied any claims that the Grammy’s have a problem with representation. In an interview with Pitchfork, Portnow said,

We don’t, as musicians, in my humble opinion, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity. When you go to vote on a piece of music—at least the way that I approach it—is you almost put a blindfold on and you listen. It’s a matter of what you react to and what in your mind as a professional really rises to the highest level of excellence in any given year. And that is going to be very subjective.

I don’t know about you, but the response sounds very, “I don’t see color! I’m colorblind!” The statement is extremely problematic and silences any opposing voices. Later in the interview, Portnow dismisses a comparison to The Motion Picture Academy. When asked about their steps to be more diverse, he simply states, “Well, they may have had a problem. We don’t have that kind of an issue in that same fashion.” The entire interview is an incredible eye-roll. He even uses Chance The Rapper’s win as a way to say that the Academy has no problem with inclusivity. To me, it sounded like the age-old, “I’m not racist, I have one Black friend!”

Portnow is an example of how award show producers perpetuate the oppression of minorities. Different award shows highlight at least one speech about inclusivity, calling for more diverse voices and stories. But the problem is, the voices are already out there. Instead of calling for these stories, these producers need to actually listen.

My hope remains in the few glimmers of color that shined throughout the 2017 Grammy Awards. I’m thankful for the diversity that was present this year, but I hope this inclusivity spreads in the years to come.