Adele at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, the ninth in a row in which a white artist took the top honor (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
The Grammys’ race problem followed the awards show all the way to the stage this year, when a white singer once again beat an acclaimed black artist for the top honor — but this time called attention to the fact.
“I can’t possibly accept this,” Adele said as she accepted her gilded gramophone, then turned to passed-over Beyoncé in the audience. “The way you make my black friends feel is empowering.”
Beyoncé had been making “relevant music” since Adele was a child, she said after the ceremony. “What the [expletive] does she have to do to win album of the year?”
Versions of that question have echoed across the recording industry for nearly a decade.
“Don’t be racist,” white artist Sufjan Stevens wrote on his website after the award. Black artist Frank Ocean told the New York Times that he had declined to subject his album to the Grammys’ “dated” awards system.
The Washington Post’s Chris Richards noted the issue in December, when he wrote that “the Recording Academy unfurled its bloated list of nominees … which pit an innovative, politically minded black artist against a conventional, commercially dominant white artist for the evening’s most coveted trophy.”
Much like a year ago, when “the virtuoso agitprop of Kendrick Lamar lost the night’s biggest prize to the innocuous Target-pop of Taylor Swift,” Richards wrote.
And all the way back to 2008, which is the last time a black artist won album of the year — as Pitchfork reminded National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences President Neil Portnow after Sunday’s awards, when it asked him what the Grammys’ problem was.
Portnow’s answer: Nothing. Democracy.
“I don’t think there’s a race problem at all,” he said.
“A black artist releases an ambitious album that defines its year and embodies the deliberate craft the Grammys supposedly reward,” Pitchfork wrote. “Votes are cast largely by suits whose sole form of sustenance is industry politics as a drip-feed into their ears; someone else wins.”
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In his interview, Portnow denied that the Grammys were “a corporate entity” — and said they were certainly not racist.
“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,” he told Pitchfork.
In an explanation that approached the antithesis of a flashy Grammys production, Portnow outlined the organization’s awards procedures: 12 chapters, 40 trustees and 14,000 voting members.
“And the reason for that is to have diversity and broad participation in a very democratic and very open environment,” he said.
At which point Portnow appeared to compare the win of yet another white artist to Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
“Maybe we’ve just seen this in the last national election to some degree,” he told Pitchfork. “Sometimes people are perhaps disappointed at the results and then when asked, ‘Hey did you participate in this election?,’ the answer is no.”
“So to anybody that is unhappy with the results or even feels that there could be a stronger representation of any genre or ethnic group, the bottom line is very simple. Just become members, join and vote.”