“Grammy night, damn right, we got dressed up. Bottle after bottle, ‘til we got messed up” – Kanye West, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”
Last year, the 58th Grammy Awards threw hip-hop a bone and started televising the Best Rap Album Award category. Kendrick Lamar conveniently won the award for To Pimp a Butterfly and performed two socially charged cuts off the project: “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright.” LL Cool J was the host, and despite K. Dot not winning for Album of the Year (his friend Taylor Swift did), this was apparently enough to wipe away all of the years that hip-hop was consistently sidestepped by the legendary ceremony.
This year, the 59th Grammy Awards was a hip-hop lovefest. DJ Khaled showed up; so did his infant son Asahd in a matching tux. He even dropped a song with Jay Z and Beyoncé immediately following the ceremony. Diddy came; French Montana came. They drank DeLeon Tequila from a Grammy they didn’t win. Jay Z showed up, though that was more for Beyoncé’s sake. Cee-Lo painted himself gold; Desiigner brought his mom as his date. Lil Yachty came with Skittles-tinted grillz, Rae Sremmurd and D.R.A.M. showed up. 2 Chainz came looking sharp, tangentially winning a Grammy with Chance the Rapper (who also attended) for Best Rap Performance with “No Problems.” Chance also took home the Best New Artist Award and the Best Rap Album Award for Coloring Book, as well as performed “How Great” and “All We Got.” A Tribe Called Quest performed three songs: “Movin’ Backwards,” “We the People” and “Award Tour.” Busta Rhymes and Anderson .Paak helped. Host James Corden opened the entire ceremony by rapping his introduction.
This all follows nearly thirty years of hip-hop artists fading in and out of the Grammys' periphery, leading to rappers consistently finding reasons to boycott the ceremony. This year, the boycotts were only from Kanye West, Frank Ocean (who penned a scathing open letter to the Recording Academy) and Drake — outnumbered by all of the aforementioned who suited up and showed up to support their fair-weathered friend, the Grammys. It begs the question of when will the acceptance from such a mainstream ceremony stop mattering?
Despite the 80+ detailed categories, there is nothing niche about the Grammys. It’s large, it’s mainstream, it’s meant to be inclusive while simultaneously exclusive. Yet it isn’t any of that, really. There are habitual sound issues, ill-fitting tributes, awkward performance pairings and the obvious politically-driven wins. Yet it sits amongst the Emmys, Oscars and Tonys, completing the perfectly well-rounded career achievement known as an EGOT. It’s simultaneously coveted and detested by those who are othered by any or all of it.
Musically, the Grammys represent everything about the proverbial concept of “making it” that is alluring to any genre or culture, namely hip-hop. Since the late ‘70s, hip-hop music has fought an uphill battle for acceptance. Gaining media coverage, radio play and even concerts with reasonable insurance policies were just a few of the early obstacles that didn’t necessarily prevent hip-hop from becoming great, but certainly stunted its growth. While the Grammys were an early interference (just ask DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), race stood at the forefront of hip-hop’s issues and still does to this day. Yet the Recording Academy will still politely use “mainstream” to mean “white” and “urban” to mean “Black.” And despite knowing all of this, rappers push to swim the mainstream, using that gold gramophone as a buoy. But why?
“Mainstream success translates into dollars for most rappers. That is the bottom line,” says Kim Osorio, former Editor-In-Chief of The Source magazine. “They become obsessed when they get a little taste of what it's like to be successful in the mainstream.” When the tax bracket for rappers jumped significantly in the late ‘90s and early aughts, things certainly shifted for the genre. Everything changed once rap songs entered the pop charts. A culture rooted in struggle became the soundtrack for those who never experienced it. And maybe that was never the goal for rappers — to look out into an audience and see faces that didn’t look like theirs — but it became their reality. But so did an unfathomable level of fame, punctuated with cars and designer labels that would make their former rap references pale in comparison. Some might also call that “the mainstream,” but is that really only rooted in money? Per veteran music publicist Roberta Magrini, it's a simple equation of “Power + Success” that is the gateway drug to the rest. “That includes Hollywood and red carpets, shared with other big stars,” she says. “Out with the hood, in with the rest of the world.” But that power is still fueled by funds. “Mainstream and pop success mean a bigger platform,” Magrini adds. “Therefore bigger sales, bigger stages, bigger revenues.”
It’s a curious case for rap music when it’s fought so hard to even enter the room, let alone participate in the conversation. A Tribe Called Quest took umbrage in the ‘90s over being categorized as “alternative hip-hop” by the same genre-determining committees that created the Grammys, yet found themselves on that Grammy stage this year. Before Chance, the last time a hip-hop artist won Best New Artist was Lauryn Hill in 1999, and she had to overstate she was “hip-hop” to a disbelieving audience.
These days, "grey area R&B" has managed to comfortably slide into the Pop-EDM realm, evidenced by Rihanna’s nomination this year for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Work” alongside Drake. With hip-hop, it’s a little harder than that. “Crossing over” and “selling out” are synonymous for some. Further, artists like Flo Rida, Pitbull and even Iggy Azalea have blurred the lines between hip-hop and hip-pop, considering merely rapping on a song does not qualify it as the former. But it’s the amount of success from the latter that’s so appealing. “That's the minute they realize that rappers are making a fraction of what they could be making,” says Osorio. “It will probably always be seen as ‘white,’ but these days, rap music is more mainstream than it's ever been.” So with hip-hop showing out at this year’s Grammys in the midst of a continuously tense racial climate in this country plus a new regime led by the epitome of privilege, was its presence making a statement or redemption? We’ll only really know next year, after the buzz of this year’s chosen winner Chance fades and the Recording Academy has to determine their next favorite.
Perhaps one day that mainstream stamp of approval will no longer matter. The acceptance of any piece of it, Grammys included, will feel more like an insult than a compliment. Or maybe, just maybe, the minority culture of rap will become the majority. Maybe everyone else will feel othered — even pop — and those will be the awards that aren’t televised.
(Photo: DIDDY via Instagram)