Inside The Grammys’ Complicated History With Black Political Anthems

(Photo: RCA Records)

Inside The Grammys’ Complicated History With Black Political Anthems

How “This Is America” could defy the Academy’s tendency to mishandle radical Black voices.

Published February 8, 2019

This Sunday, Donald "Childish Gambino" Glover's 2018 hit “This Is America” will compete for four Grammy awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Performance and Best Music Video. To some, the song’s slew of nominations may simply register as yet another trophy run for one of pop culture’s foremost critical darlings. But within the context of Black political anthems – movement music that timestamps our collective consciousness – Glover’s Grammy love speaks to a more unanimous sort of acclaim in mainstream spaces.

Even Kendrick Lamar, despite being another socially commentative rapper who’s managed to charm white critics, has yet to receive such unabated adulation. Confined to mostly untelevised rap categories, Lamar’s political opus To Pimp a Butterfly managed to manifest a handful of golden gramophones, including one in 2015 for Best Rap Song (“i”) and another in 2016 for Best Rap Performance (“Alright”).

At the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on February 10, however, “This Is America” has the potential to become the most celebrated Black political anthem of all time, as a work of its kind has never won Record of the Year or Song of the Year—two of the Academy’s most prestigious awards. Though evidence would suggest Black folks are routinely set up for disappointment at these ceremonies, something about Donald Glover’s Obama-esque appeal to white people provides a similar notion of hope.

As we wait to see if the multi-hyphenate’s latest cultural contribution sweeps the night or is roundly snubbed (a fate Glover and most other Black artists seem to be prepared for), here’s how the song fits within the timeline of political artists’ fight for recognition on the industry's most respected stage.

  1. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (1939)

    Written in protest of Jim Crow era lynchings, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” predated the Grammy Awards ceremony by 20 years. Singer and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone recorded the most famous rendition of the song in 1965. While Simone has received four Grammy nominations throughout her career (two during her lifetime and two posthumously), none of them were for her cover of “Strange Fruit.”

  2. “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown (1968)

    Coinciding with the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, “Say It Loud” by James Brown scored the pride and angst of politically active Black folks throughout the late '60s and early '70s. Much like Holiday and Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” though, Brown’s revolutionary anthem didn’t receive Grammy recognition until years later.

    While the song itself never earned a trophy, its spirit was briefly enshrined in the Grammy Museum with Say It Loud: The Genius of James Brown. Open from September 2011 to February 2012, the exhibit celebrated trails blazed by the Godfather of Soul, which included the politics represented in both his music and his activism. Yet seven years since the exhibit’s close, Brown’s only lasting presence within the shrines of the Academy are in the four songs he’s had inducted into the Hall of Fame: “Cold Sweat Part 1,” “Get Up (I Feel Like Being) a Sex Machine,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” —none of which matched the political potency of “Say It Loud.”

  3. “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)

    A more sensitive take on the racial inequalities Black folks faced at the time, Marvin Gaye followed Brown’s “Say It Loud” with “What’s Going On,” reflecting on the disproportionate loss of Black life in the Vietnam war.

    Unlike Brown and much like Holiday, in 1998, Gaye’s contribution to the canon of Black movement music made it to the Grammy Hall of Fame with the induction of his 1971 album of the same name. With 27 years separating the release and enshrinement of the record, by the turn of the century, the music most closely associated with the plight of Black Americans largely remained a relic of the past for the Academy—as opposed to being acknowledged as a present day part of popular culture.

  4. “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy (1989)

    When considering the Academy’s inability to promptly recognize radical Black voices throughout the 20th century, Public Enemy’s 1990 nomination for “Fight The Power” may have represented the lone exception, and the first step toward true and sincere celebration.

    Originally recorded for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film that shed light on the issue of racism and police brutality, “Fight the Power” served as a rallying cry for revolution, self-defense and political awareness. Across the country, organizers, activists and politicized youth took to the streets with the song on a loop. Yet despite its influence, impact and improbable Grammy nomination, “Fight The Power” lost Best Rap Performance to Young MC’s “Bust A Move,” predating and perhaps foreshadowing Kendrick Lamar’s equally puzzling 2014 loss to Macklemore for Best Rap Album.

  5. “My President” by Young Jeezy feat. Nas (2008)

    Celebrating the election of President Barack Obama, Young Jeezy and Nas’ most notable collaboration coincided with Black America’s most tangible promise of progress. Yet despite being inextricably tied to the most historic moment of the 21st century, the song received absolutely no Grammy recognition upon its release.

  6. “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

    Most often associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement, Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly track fused the celebratory spirit of “My President,” the defiance of “Fight the Power” and the anthemic cry of “Say It Loud.” As the fourth single off the rapper’s politically resonant and critically lauded sophomore album, “Alright” and its nomination for Song of the Year may have set the stage for Donald Glover’s potentially groundbreaking night this Sunday.

    Though Lamar lost that particular award to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” he was appeased with a Best Rap Performance trophy for the song. Similarly, TPAB lost Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989, but was awarded Best Rap Album.

  7. “Freedom” by Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar (2016)

    Following her evocation of the Black Panther Party during her performance of “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl, and Lamar’s own protest anthem “Alright” the year prior, Beyoncé collaborated with the Compton rapper to call for a simple yet powerful ideal dating back to the earliest traditions of Black movement music—freedom.

    While the singer’s fourth Lemonade single lost Best Rap/Sung Performance to Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” the album itself, which presented a powerful exploration and depiction of Black womanhood, won the Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album.

  8. “This Is America” by Childish Gambino (2018)

    There are certainly issues with the universal praise white critics have afforded “This Is America," one of which lies in its visuals being nominated for Best Music Video despite being regarded by some as Black trauma porn. Yet and still, the song’s four nominations mark a shift in the Grammys’ willingness to place Black artists who represent the political anxieties of Black Americans centerstage. Perhaps that visceral performance of the aforementioned trauma is the cost of entry.

    Whether Glover’s nominations are cause for celebration or cynicism, they have to be acknowledged as at least significant. Influenced by various Black cultures across continents, “This Is America” delivered one of the most global forms of movement music to date. Borrowing adlibs from rappers such as Young Thug, 21 Savage, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi and Blocboy JB, as well as incorporating a gospel-style choir and performance of the South African Gwara Gwara dance in its controversial video, “This Is America” presents a mosaic of Black life.

    Throughout its bloodshed, the song and video depict the persistence of Black joy under the looming threat of gun violence. Its that potent and reliable mix of Black swagger and subjugated suffering that may capture the voyeuristic gaze of the predominantly white Academy, propelling the song above all other movement music before it, and resulting in somewhat stained trophies for both Record and Song of the Year.

Written by Austin Williams

(Photo: "This is America" via YouTube)


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