How many times? How many times are we going to do this? Time and time again, The Recording Academy tells us exactly what kind of institution it is. We should have believed them the first time. During the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, while receiving the Global Impact Award, Jay-Z delivered a speech full of facts and expertly dragged the Grammys for a few of its biggest indiscretions: relegating rap categories to the untelevised pre-show, consistently rewarding undeserving talent, and specifically and most importantly, the fact that his wife Beyoncé has yet to win Album of the Year despite having the most Grammys in history. But, like the Grammys itself, Jay-Z’s speech — and his presence at the show — was full of contradictions. 

The most glaring discrepancy between what Jay-Z said and choosing to say it onstage at the Grammys after winning that award was that the Global Impact Award (which I’m convinced was just a ploy to get Beyoncé there) is named after Dr. Dre, a man who has been accused of abuse by multiple Black women. Hip-hop pioneer journalist Dee Barnes has spoken out publicly for decades about an incident in 1991 when she alleges that Dre punched her, slammed her face into a wall, and threw her down a flight of stairs. She was then blacklisted from the industry. Two of Dre’s exes and mothers of his children (singer Michel’le and Nicole Young) have accused him of repeated domestic violence including black eyes and broken ribs. As much as I liked most of what Jay-Z said on that stage, we have to acknowledge the hypocrisy of calling out an institution for disrespecting Black women while accepting an award named after an alleged abuser of Black women. Jay’s wilful ignorance of Dre’s alleged abuse actually sums up the music industry pretty accurately; bad men succeed while women and victims have to watch them ascend without consequence. What kind of statement can you really make against the industry’s inequity while you’re praising one of the perpetrators of abuse that the culture of silence continues to protect today? 

Some of you are going to go home tonight and feel like you’ve been robbed. Some of you may get robbed. Some of you don’t belong in the category.


It’s also hard not to pick apart the impact of Jay-Z’s statements about past Grammy boycotts. “How far we’ve come [since] Will Smith and them, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, winning they first Grammy in ’89, and boycotting because it wasn’t televised,” Jay said. Thirty five years later, the same categories were not televised (Killer Mike won three Grammys in the rap categories and was arrested for a reported altercation at the arena and released the same night). “They went to a hotel and watched the Grammys. It wasn’t a great boycott,” Jay-Z continued. “In ’98, I took a page out of they book. I was nominated for Best Rap Album. DMX had dropped two albums that year, they both were number one. Shout-out to DMX. He wasn’t nominated at all, so I boycotted and I watched the Grammys.” The crowd laughed at this quip. Jay’s admitted that “boycotting” while still participating in the Grammys (watching the show) “wasn’t a great boycott.” And yet, Jay-Z stood on that stage, the same one that continues to disregard rappers and R&B artists, consistently consigning them to the genre categories instead of awarding them the overall best, most prestigious Grammys, and did the song and dance. He put on a suit and showed up with his family. Despite the years of disrespect (Jay has never won any of the big three Grammys: Song, Record or Album of the Year, and Beyoncé has one Song Of The Year Grammy for “Single Ladies”), they continue to show up. 

“We love y’all, we love y’all, we want you to get it right. At least get it close to right,” Jay-Z said, addressing the Recording Academy directly. “I don’t want to embarrass this young lady [Beyoncé] but she has more Grammys than everyone and never won Album of the Year. So even by your own metrics, that doesn’t work.” And here’s where Jay started cooking with grease. This part of his speech was my favourite, and the energy he gave is exactly right for a man that gets to call himself Beyoncé’s husband. “Think about that, most Grammys [and] never won album of the year, that doesn’t work.” He’s right. It doesn’t make sense. Beyoncé has lost Album of the Year four times: to Beck, Taylor Swift, Adele, and most recently, Harry Styles. Beyoncé has more Grammys than all of these artists. She has more cultural impact, more innovation, more creativity, and legendary iconography than all of them combined (Adele would agree). During the commercial breaks at the Grammys, there was a line to get photos with Beyoncé consisting of all of the other biggest artists in music. She is the celebrity’s celebrity. She is the standard, the blueprint, the bar. The Grammys know how great she is or else they wouldn’t have awarded her the most awards in history. But, and Black women know this story all too well, our greatness will never stand a chance against white mediocrity. 

“Some of you are going to go home tonight and feel like you’ve been robbed. Some of you may get robbed,” Jay-Z continued his speech and added, “Some of you don’t belong in the category.” He should have said “spoiler alert!” because he accurately predicted how the night would end. SZA’s SOS was, at least on my timeline, the favourite to win Album of the Year. But we also know that the last Black woman to win this award was Lauryn Hill in 1999. It has been 25 (TWENTY-FIVE) years since a Black woman’s work was deemed the best of the year. Call it naïveté, but I truly thought SZA’s SOS could be the one to break through the Grammys’ appalling anti-Blackness. Not only has the album been prolific in the last year, her songs “Snooze” and “Kill Bill” are two examples of her best work, and shining pieces of her artistry, her lyrical prowess and signature cadence on full display. If we’re talking about someone who adequately captures the agony of heartbreak, the relatability and mundanity of love, and uses her past relationships to give us breakup songs that help us feel our feelings a little harder with a little more recognition and honesty, then we should be talking about Solána Imani Rowe. Instead, for the fourth time, Taylor Swift won Album of the Year for Midnights, making her the most winning artist in the category of all time. 

I don’t hate Taylor Swift. I think she’s good at certain things, and tapping into the wants of her fanbase is one of them. She’s good at writing about heartbreak in a way a teen girl is going to latch onto, and I will never be the one to hate on the power of teen girls (or the nostalgia of grown women who loved Swift in their teens). I even think Swift has some eternal bops. I think some of the backlash she gets (looking at you, NFL Brads and Chads) is unwarranted. She is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular artists in the world and if this were the Billboard Awards (which recognize the artists at the top of the charts), we would be having a different conversation. But we cannot ignore the privilege Swift is afforded and the shield her whiteness acts against valid criticism. 

This is the Grammys, and it’s supposed to be about the best. Taylor Swift’s latest album isn’t even in the top five of Swift’s catalog. Someone tweeted that it should have been called ‘MIDnights’ and I laughed out loud at the accuracy. If we’re just considering this album against the other nominees, Swift doesn’t have the best voice (everyone in the category beats her there, but as for her direct peers, Olivia Rodrigo and Lana Del Rey can both outsing her), the best production (Jon Batiste and Janelle Monae would like a word), or the best stage presence or videos (Miley Cyrus laps circles around her here) or even the best songs (“Flowers” and “Kill Bill” are more memorable than anything on Midnights and Swift’s biggest song of 2023 was “Cruel Summer” which came out in 2019 and gained popularity again last year). So if it’s a meritocracy, what are we even talking about? Some Swift defenders claim the Album of the Year is supposed to go to the artist who had the biggest year in pop culture. You could argue Swift (thanks to her Eras tour, her romance with Travis Kelce, and being named Time Person of the Year) had a big year, but if this is the barometer used to award Album of the Year, Beyoncé should have three of them — at least. If we’re just talking about the music, let’s be honest: Taylor Swift didn’t even belong in the category. That’s not a knock on Swift’s work necessarily, but on the Grammys insistence on awarding her, even when she hasn’t met her own standard of quality. 

Show up. Be the best. Work hard. And eventually, they will give you what you deserve. But if Beyoncé, the literal greatest living artist of a generation, is still “showing up” in hopes “they” will finally recognize her genius, what does that mean for the rest of us?

kathleen newman-bremang

Given that the night ended with another undeserved Taylor Swift AOTY win (including the egregious obliviousness of Swift seemingly ignoring Celine Dion when she got onstage that felt especially disrespectful since Dion is, well, Celine Dion and a noted Jamaican Queen), and proof that the Recording Academy will applaud white mediocrity over Black excellence every year, the end of Jay-Z’s speech was even more frustrating. “We gotta keep showing up,” he said. “And forget the Grammys for a second, just in life. You’ve got to keep showing up. Keep showing up. Until they give you all those accolades you feel you deserve. Until they call you chairman. Until they call you a genius. Until they call you the greatest of all time.” I understand the sentiment. This is the narrative so many Black kids are raised on. Show up. Be the best. Work hard. And eventually, they will give you what you deserve. But if Beyoncé, the literal greatest living artist of a generation, is still “showing up” in hopes “they” will finally recognize her genius, what does that mean for the rest of us? I spent years “showing up” to a workplace that refused to promote me or give me what I deserved. I never got it, so I left. We’ve been writing about the Grammys incompetence at Unbothered over and over again, but it’s time to divest from these award shows that reinforce structural oppression within these industries with each celebration of white elitism. 

What I wished Jay-Z had said in his Grammys speech was that the reality is that these white institutions will never give us the validation or respect that we deserve. I wish he had gone one step further and said that they will never call Black artists the greatest of all time because that would require admitting the power of Black art, it would require acknowledging the history of cultural pillaging and musical theft of Black work that the industry was built on. They will never give Black artists what they deserve because what they deserve is a whole different system. These institutions can never make up for their history of exclusion. What Black folks deserve is for someone to take a match to all the institutions that continue to gaslight us into thinking showing up and begging for scraps is noble, or fair, or what you have to do to succeed. They deserve to watch it all burn. I wish he and Beyoncé participated in a real boycott (Drake and The Weeknd have refused to submit their work to the Grammys and stopped attending the show). I wish on nights like these, that celebrate the best in music and are actually fun to watch for music fans (we all sobbed during Tracy Chapman’s performance of “Fast Car” and Victoria Monét’s win, right?”), we didn’t have to also reckon with the racism that permeates the foundation of an industry that brings us so much joy. 

The line in Jay-Z’s speech that will probably have the most longevity is when, after the audience gasped at his candor, he said, “When I get nervous I tell the truth.” I laughed at this, but it makes me nervous that it doesn’t look like the Recording Academy will face any real consequences for its constant transgressions against Black women if artists continue to “show up.” And how the system works is if our faves show up, so do we. And so, we’ll be doing this all again next year (Swift announced a new album, coming out in April). What makes me nervous is that we’re not telling the truth of the harm this cycle causes, over and over again. Jay-Z told the Grammys about itself, but if he was really telling the truth, he would have to admit that he should have stayed home, and the entire system is a lie.

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