On Sunday night, after almost twenty years of consistently committing mortal sins against the gods of hip-hop, the Recording Academy attempted to repent with the culture at the 59th Grammy Awards by decorating Chance the Rapper and his latest project, Coloring Book, which wasn’t distributed by a major record label, with golden trophies intended to symbolize a new understanding of, and appreciation for, underground music.
Having spent months campaigning to make his freely-distributed music eligible for awards, Chance seemed to have all his wishes granted, professing unswerving thankfulness to the Lord before blessing the stage himself with a soulful performance. But for hip-hop at large, this meager victory is not enough: Iconic figures are still not being invited into the room.
In 1989, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince won the first Grammy for rap music, but they, like all other nominees in the category, refused to attend the ceremony, as they felt overlooked by programmers’ decision not to air the award’s reception. Five years later, Tony Bennett took home the trophy for best album in the same year that revolutionary hip-hop classics illmatic, Ready to Die and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik had been released.
In the early 2000s, breakout sensation 50 Cent lost Best New Artist to Evanescence and the Black Eyed Peas won best Rap Duo/Group two-years running. Finally, most painfully, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III lost Album of the Year to a Robert Plant/Allison Krauss collaboration, a tough triumph that any reasonable person who owned a radio in 2007 should be willing to admit was a mistake.
Sure, the Grammy’s took some relevant steps towards taste-making this year, such as enlisting Anderson .Paak to perform alongside A Tribe Called Quest, as well as including De La Soul and ScHoolboy Q in its rap nominees. But still, Drake’s Views, an articulately-marketed package of music that’s been largely deemed stale by rap fans, was the genre’s only representation in the top category, and its singsong single, “Hotline Bling,” which is now eighteen-months-old, won best rap song.
Sure, Lil Yachty was on scene, having snuck himself into the commercial realm through a four-times-platinum guest-feature on D.R.A.M.’s hit single, “Broccoli.” But Young Thug, Travis Scott, Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Migos and Metro Boomin’, all populist champions who have indefinitely defined the most recent era in hip-hop, both sonically and aesthetically, don’t seem to have received their invitations to the ceremony, which still, despite all its shortcomings, labels itself with the notoriously cringe-worthy title: “Music’s Biggest Night.”
Two weeks ago, TMZ reported that neither Kanye West, Justin Bieber nor Drake would be attending the Grammy’s ceremony, following the leadership of cult-icon Frank Ocean, who didn’t even submit his platinum-selling, critically-acclaimed LP blonde for nominations.
“That institution certainly has nostalgic importance. It just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down,” Ocean said in a statement.
The news was particularly noteworthy as West, Bieber and Drake combined were nominated for 20 awards and, honestly, carry half of the internet’s attention around the world with them. But these male, pop figureheads don’t think the Grammys are getting things right, a complaint that’s too common to ignore, even after the Academy’s 59th attempt at awarding great art.
Last February, Kanye West sent out a string of tweets that trolled the Academy for its blatant lack of appreciation for Black culture.
“I think the Grammys are super important!!!” he began, diving deeper into his frustrations by noting, “I know so many cool artists whose hearts have been broken by the politics including mine,” before finally speaking on behalf of almost four decades of misunderstood rap brilliance.
“You like your Black people a certain way also. You wouldn't have Future perform and that man owned the clubs last summer,” Kanye tweeted, going on to use the Atlanta-raised trap-rap sensation as a symbolic marty for the culture. “Has anyone at the Grammys ever heard “March Madness”??? Yes I have a problem with the Grammys,” he wrote, before finally proposing a perfectly reasonable, tangible solution: “We need to see Young Thug at the Grammys. Not just me and Jay in a suit.”
“All us artists here, we fucking adore you. You are our light, and the way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my Black friends feel, is empowering, and you make them stand up for themselves,” Adele confessed to her apparent idol, Beyoncé, in the final moments of the 59th Grammy Awards on Sunday night.
This was during her acceptance, or, more accurately, denial speech for Album of the Year, an award that her 25 won over Beyonce’s Lemonade in what will surely be remembered as another time the Grammy’s chose conventional excellence over difficult, breathtaking, truly trailblazing Black art. Adele’s praise also came just moments before she snapped her trophy in half, seemingly to give part of it to Beyoncé.
As tough of a fact as it is may be for some to swallow, Kanye West’s February 2016 Twitter rant about the Academy bears significant weight.
“I feel the Grammy awarding system is way off and completely out of touch,” West wrote, something that even its most decorated victor of 2017 seems to agrees with. But of course, that was before he packed in some signature Kanye-isms, such as: “If I'm not at the show next year then there is no show.”
Yes, the Grammy ceremony happened, without Kanye West, Justin Bieber or Drake in attendance; without awarding Beyoncé her hard-earned Album of the Year trophy; without accrediting the most important hip-hop figures of the year; but once again, we’re unsure if the Academy’s opinions are relevant in the first place. Once again, its disconnection from the culture, the listeners, those who stay awake at night awaiting their favorite artists’ releases and line up for blocks when those stars’ whereabouts become known, is too apparent to ignore.
Sure, Chance the Rapper, underground champion and indie-darling, has been anointed a figurehead of the mainstream, having won Best New Artist and a couple of hip-hop Grammys without ever selling a single album. But it’s important that he had influential online outlets like Complex, illroots, Fake Shore Drive and Pitchfork pushing his music for years, and also had to reinvent himself into a family-friendly, colorful rap figure before ending up on stage.
Chance the Rapper absolutely deserves all the success that he’s gotten; I don’t think there’s a single hip-hop head in America who would say otherwise. But right now, Chano is one in a million, a rare mixtape rapper who managed to maneuver his music onto official streaming platforms and establish a network of committed fans to campaign for his success. Finally, after every other tastemaker in the game deemed him an icon, the Academy did the inevitable by acknowledging his existence. They didn’t break down any walls though, if you think about it.
Chance the Rapper’s 2017 decoration is a victory for hip-hop somewhat like Lauryn Hill’s in 1999, when she won Album of the Year with her classic LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It was a remarkable feat for the culture, but the Academy’s late realization that Ms. Hill was an iconic talent becomes less honorable when we consider that they awarded Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On the trophy for Album of the Year just two years prior, when The Fugee’s masterpiece The Score would’ve been eligible to claim the prize.
Right now, it’s fine to celebrate the victories of our favorite Chicago superhero, Lil Chano from 79th, a.k.a. Chance the Rapper. It’s also okay to watch his Coloring-Book-mash-up performance on repeat all day, then proceed to replay the album all week, constantly realizing you missed many important details on all of your former listens. But it’s equally, if not more, important to mourn Beyonce’s devastating loss. It’s equally, if not more, important to keep hoping that next year will be different.
Until a ceremony can finally conclude without a winner apologizing to the populist-elect, the Academy has work to do. I won’t allow them, or the mass media, or even Chance the Rapper himself, to claim their recognition of one, single mixtape rapper as sufficient acknowledgement of worldwide scene.
Sure, the Academy squeezed Lee “Q” O’Denat, who founded the vital online platform WorldStarHipHip.com and passed away this month, into its annual eulogy reel, but they still left out Shawty Lo. Sure, they’ve now declared freely-distributed music eligible for awards, but Chance the Rapper hardly had time to shout out “DJ DRAMA for doing it first” before the music cut his speech off. What about DJ Esco, DJ Whoo Kid and the rest of the unawarded figureheads?
I, much like Kanye West, want to see Young Thug at the Grammys. Here’s to hoping next year that might become a reality.