Commentary: The Ongoing Fear of Hip Hop at the Grammys

Commentary: The Ongoing Fear of Hip Hop at the Grammys

The 57th annual awards show was "sobering moment in music and couldn't have come at a worse time."

Published February 9, 2015

2015 was quite possibly the most whitewashed Grammy award show ceremony in years. Even from the beginning, AC/DC opened, Taylor Swift was the first presenter, Sam Smith swept the wins Adele-style, Beck had some modest success (even snatching Album of the Year from Beyoncé) — the list goes on. All while rapper LL Cool J played fair-weathered host and managed to cough up a few bars of his classic “Going Back to Cali” for posterity’s sake at the show’s start to remind everyone that in between acting he likes to rap.

It was a sobering moment in music and couldn’t have come at a worse time. 2015 is still licking the wounds of 2014, where racial tension was at an all time high and hashtag campaigns like #DontShoot and #BlackLivesMatter were created to defend the lives of young Black men who were the casualties of a race war. It was an opportunity on behalf of the Grammys to shed some positive light on young Black music. Instead the opposite happened.

Any category at the Grammys within an inch of hip hop’s life was gingerly slid to a “ceremony held earlier in the evening.” Never mind the fact that the two assumed “hopefuls” for Best Rap Album were Eminem and Iggy Azalea (Eminem won for The Marshall Mathers LP 2). Kendrick Lamar won two Grammy’s for his expression of self-love, titled “i” (Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song) — redemption from the previous year’s loss. None of it was televised. It was a missed opportunity to display some semblance of positivity toward rap music.

Hip hop represented, but only in the tangential sense. Kanye West brought his first Grammy performance — his song “Only One,” entirely sung through Auto-Tune — followed by the also sung “FourFiveSeconds,” flanked by Paul McCartney and a subdued Rihanna. The Roots’ Questlove performed with Herbie Hancock (and John Mayer), but only as the backing band for Ed Sheeran. Elsewhere John Legend and Common delivered a riveting performance of their Selma song “Glory” (led by Beyoncé’s stellar rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”), it was politically charged, as if it couldn’t exist without specific reason. There lacked any moment where hip hop was just there — mainstream, worthy, respected and not requiring an attachment to a “cause.”

And sure, it’s hard to expect anything more when the only other considerable chunk of “soul” that evening came from Annie Lennox’s cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You” or Sam Smith’s neo-blue-eyed-soul performance of “Stay With Me” with Mary J. Blige. It wasn’t exactly a gala of diversity. It never has been really.

1989 marked the year that the Best Rap Performance award arrived, at the 31st Annual Grammys. It lasted one more year (Young MC’s “Bust a Move” win in 1990) before being split into the Best Rap Solo Performance and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. It was combined again in 2012 (Jay Z and Kanye West’s “Otis”), ironically at a time when hip hop could use as many categories as possible given the considerable shift in sound and overpopulation as of late. Even as early as ’89, though, hip hop wasn’t televised at the Grammys — leading to a boycott from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, who won the first Rap Grammy for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Last year, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took the win for “Thrift Shop,” causing an uproar fueled by the Internet buzz phrase of “cultural appropriation.” Even seeded in the “safety” of the previous year, hip hop couldn’t see a televised win in 2015.

So what is it, really? Is it a time constraint? Is it racism? Is it a reckless lack of care for the music industry’s cash cow culture? Is it a combination of all three? While the Grammy Awards did try to pack in as much performance as possible (the “hurry up” music played as soon as the winner hit the stage), the exclusion of hip hop still feels overt, especially when other genres like R&B, country and rock are able to show face at the ceremony.

In 1999, at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards, Lauryn Hill broke a record for female artists with her five wins, but more importantly she won Album of the Year for 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. “This is crazy, because this is hip hop music,” she said at the start of her acceptance speech, a reminder that hip hop had every right to be there. Yet it didn’t click for the Grammys and it still hasn’t.

We spent an entire calendar year in 2014 debating which box to put an artist like Iggy Azalea in because she was a modelesque white girl with racist tendencies rapping to the tune of pop music. While her presence felt like an abscessed tooth at times, Iggy was the best problem for hip hop to have in the Grammy sense: not knowing where hip hop ends and pop music begins. Swimming in that pool of technicalities, gray areas and blurred lines, hip hop still showed and proved for the answer. All of the kings were present (Jay Z, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, Nicki Minaj, etc.). And still, hip hop couldn’t have a moment.

Then again, why should we care so much when they don’t?


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(Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Written by Kathy Iandoli

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