Op-ed: Why Beyoncé deserved the Grammy: How racism dictates success in the music industry

When Adele took the stage to accept the award for Album of the Year at the 2017 Grammy Awards, she broke down, stating that she “can’t possibly accept [the] award” because the “artist of [her] life is Beyoncé.” She told Beyoncé and the audience that “the ‘Lemonade’ album was just so monumental,” highlighting Beyoncé’s empowerment of the Black community.

After Beyoncé released her visual album “Lemonade” in 2016 amid a politically divided country facing an upcoming presidential election, it seemed as though the struggles of Black women were finally starting to receive much-earned media attention. Upon its release, the album was met with universal acclaim. According to Metacritic, “Lemonade” was Beyoncé’s most critically acclaimed album at the time, earning a score of 92 out of 100. Met with glowing reviews, Beyoncé proved that she was a musical force to be reckoned with.

It came with no surprise that Beyoncé was nominated for nine Grammy awards that year, including nominations in the major categories of Album of the Year for “Lemonade” and Song of the Year and Record of the Year for “Formation.” Leading up to the 2017 awards, USA Today declared that “in a just world, Beyoncé will take the stage on Feb. 12 to accept the album-of-the-year Grammy Award for her audacious, emotional masterpiece ‘Lemonade.’”

It isn’t a just world, however, for on award night, Adele took home the Grammys for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year while Beyoncé was reduced to winning only the awards for Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best Music Video. Adele had now won each award in the major categories twice while Beyoncé, who earned much higher ratings and left a profound cultural impact on America with “Lemonade,” took home an award in the lesser urban category.

Beyoncé had been no stranger to losing this award, however. She had already lost the top prize for Album of the Year to two white artists: Taylor Swift in 2010 and Beck in 2015. At this point in her career, Beyoncé had amassed a whopping nine nominations in the major categories (Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year) at the Grammys, yet had only yielded one victory. 

Beyoncé was not the only Black artist to have lost multiple Album of the Year awards to white artists. Kendrick Lamar, for example, lost in 2014 to Daft Punk and again in 2016 to Taylor Swift. As a featured artist on “Lemonade,” Lamar has now lost three of his five nominations in the category to white artists — two of whom, Swift and Adele, had already won the award twice. In his career of major award nominations at the Grammys, Lamar has lost all nine of his nominations to date. Why is it that so many talented Black artists face such extensive barriers to getting recognized for their hard work?

USA Today argued that one of Beyoncé’s greatest competitors for the 2017 Album of the Year award was Adele, who had already won the prize herself in 2012. Heading into the awards ceremony, Adele had increased her nomination count in the major fields to eight nominations, still shy of Beyoncé’s 12. Adele’s album “25” was lauded by critics no more than her previous album “21.” On Metacritic, “21” held a score of 76 to the score of 75 held by “25.” Both scores were well below Beyoncé’s 92 for “Lemonade.”

What Adele lacked in reviews, she made up for in sales. At the time of its release in late 2015, 3.38 million copies of “25” had been sold in the album’s first week, the largest sales week in the United States for any album since Nielsen started tracking album sales. This would seem like the two albums were evenly matched for winning the ultimate prize at the Grammys, right?

Wrong.

Despite the sales and relatively acclaimed reviews of “25,” it lacked the cultural impact that Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” left on the United States. This impression was illustrated by Beyoncé’s performance of her lead single “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl, a powerful show centered on Black power and identity. Beyoncé’s delivery and imagery in her performance and music video highlighted topics of police brutality in America, prompting numerous police departments across the South to boycott Beyoncé by refusing to work at her future concerts.

In “Sound, Vision, and Embodied Performativity in Beyoncé Knowles’ Visual Album ‘Lemonade’ (2016),” Johanna Hartmann asserts, “the reactions to ‘Lemonade’ by liberal media and from within the music industry were overwhelmingly positive, claiming that she made African American women again the center of a southern regional culture and historiography.” Fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé took a stance for the changes she wanted to see in America in her music. Her risks paid off, and she sparked necessary conversations in America. Beyoncé’s album is a shining example of how bold artistic choices and powerful topics cemented “Lemonade” as the strongest competitor in the field for the Grammy.

To be rewarded with a Grammy in the urban category was overwhelmingly unjust. This genre, along with rap, is a category in which Black artists’ music and success are often confined to. After Tyler, The Creator’s album “Igor” won Best Rap Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards, he commented on the topic of Black artists’ being categorized as “rap” and “urban” in a post-award interview. “When I hear that, I’m just like why can’t we just be in pop? … Half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backhanded compliment.” In June 2020, Republic Records removed “urban” from its verbiage in describing departments, employee titles and music genres in hopes to no longer “adhere to the outdated structures of the past,” a euphemism for racially categorizing music created by Black artists.

It is tiring for Black musicians to continuously face rejection while white artists are often given the accolades and glory. The common “do better” argument, which is grounded in the notion that artists need to work harder in order to receive recognition and awards, is fictitious and damaging. How much harder do Black artists need to work in order to win these coveted awards, and when will artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar finally receive the recognition they so rightfully deserve? Beyoncé is one for 12 in major awards at the Grammys, and Lamar is zero for nine. In a society that claims to champion racial equality, there is a blatant lack of diversity and representation in the music industry that further inhibits Black artists from excelling outside of the boundaries that they are forced into by society.


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