The inherent greatness and inevitable errors of the Grammys

Ali Shaheed Muhammad, left, and Jarobi White, from A Tribe Called Quest, perform at the 59th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Matt Sayles/AP)

Art is political. Whether pointedly or unconsciously, whether music, literature, painting or film, art is political. Which is why Beyoncé lost, and A Tribe Called Quest won at the Grammys Sunday night.

Adele’s victory for album of the year has been rightly criticized, as it comes at the expense of Beyoncé’s pioneering project, “Lemonade.” Many have argued that Beyoncé’s music was simply better; that Adele does a solid job as a traditionalist, but Beyoncé – with her political themes related to black American history and her feminist rendering of her rough patch with Jay-Z, not to mention the many genres at play on her album, as well as the entrancing film she released alongside it – had the more imaginative, thought-provoking work.

None of that matters. Undeserving artists win Grammys all the time. What matters is that these wins come in spite of inspiring efforts by black artists. Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” was bested by Mumford and Sons in 2013 (perhaps why Ocean didn’t attend the Grammys or apply as a contestant), even though “Channel Orange” was widely considered an instant classic. Kendrick Lamar lost album of the year in 2014 and 2016 to Daft Punk and Taylor Swift, respectively, even though good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly were either classics, or genre defying/defining moments in hip-hop. Beck beat Beyoncé for the honor in 2015. And let’s not forget Macklemore winning over Lamar for Best Rap Album.

A black artist hasn’t won album of the year since Herbie Hancock in 2008. Only three black female musicians – Lauryn Hill, Natalie Cole and Whitney Houston – have ever taken home the gramophone for the year’s best album.

This matters. Think of the millions of people (including myself) who listen to these albums, comprehend their gravity, and see them rejected yearly (and how that might affect people of color, especially). What is the common denominator in these cases? Blackness, and the assertion of blackness. Some may point to Chance the Rapper’s successful night, claiming all is not lost, but that would disregard his accessibility to white audiences, his charismatic, good-natured persona and his reluctance to address white supremacy as decisively as a Lamar or Knowles.

Referring to Beyoncé after the Grammys, Adele asked: “What the f**k does she have to do to win album of the year?” The question reminds me of a theory I’ve touched upon in the past: being a person of color is like being a short basketball player – you have to be three times as good as everyone else to get anywhere. It would seem that the answer to these persistent injustices would be to ignore the Grammys. They’re pointless prizes handed out to keep the music industry relevant. But performances from brilliant black artists, like Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper and A Tribe Called Quest imbue a sense of significance on the ceremonies. Therefore, while the Grammys are afraid of progress and continue wrongfully awarding safer white artists, they can still be used for a positive platform.

That’s where Anderson .Paak, Consequence, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest (Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White) come in.

Whom, other than hip-hop heads, had even heard “We the People” before the Grammys? One of the most notorious stages in pop music showed a national audience one of the most iconic choruses ever written Sunday night:

All you black folks, you must go

All you Mexicans, you must go

All you poor folks, you must go

Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways

So all you bad folks, you must go

This coincided with the performers of this song literally breaking through a wall and inviting people of every creed up on stage with them, a strong rebuke to conservative xenophobia and our current president’s stupid, expensive wall.

They raised the black power fist.

They told the audience to “resist”.

Questions of the concrete impact such a strong statement might have are for another column. A Tribe Called Quest and co. used their platform for positivity, as Phife Dawg would have wanted. Busta Rhymes called out Trump specifically: “I want to thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt of the Muslim ban.” This – political confrontation – is why hip-hop is currently the most necessary genre of music, no matter the Grammys ignorance of it. It’s further proof that the Grammys best performances are from black artists, yet they continue to giftwrap accolades for the white ones. The Atlantic summed this particular phenomenon up well: “Black visionaries have fared poorly in Grammys general categories while delivering the performances that make the show worth watching.”

A Tribe Called Quest and Beyoncé showed how great the Grammys can be, and how unfortunate their unforced missteps are. What do we draw from this contradiction? Well, timeless music doesn’t need a trophy for validation, and timely political comment deserves a stage.


Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.