Derek Ali, Ludwig Goransson, and Riley Mackin accept the Record Of The Year award for 'This Is America' onstage during GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.
Kevin Winter—Getty Images
By Ellen McGirt
February 11, 2019

Janet Jackson was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1987. I remember it being a really big deal at the time.

Jackson was up for Album of the Year, Best R&B Song for “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She’d been killing it as a solo artist. No longer an offshoot of the Jackson family tree, she was now a fully independent and creative voice. Her album, Control, had become an anthem for black women. (Control producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were also nominated and came up short.)

Jackson lost Album of the Year to Paul Simon’s Graceland, a lovely and enduring work, lauded at the time for its “adventurous use of African rhythms.” Fun fact: Simon violated an industry-wide and UN-sanctioned boycott of South Africa and its brutal apartheid regime to record it.

I mention it because, well, I’m still pretty salty about it.

Disappointment and saltiness are two of the Grammy Awards enduring legacies, an annual spectacle which has often come tantalizingly close to acknowledging the influence of black and brown hip hop artists and women of color on global culture and then hands the nod to, well, Paul Simon. Or, more recently, Macklemore.

“The snubs in recent years have felt particularly egregious,” explains Tamara Best.

In 2014, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city lost Best Rap Album to The Heist by the aforementioned Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. And then in 2017, Beyoncé’s extraordinary Lemonade lost to Adele’s 25. (Both, I might add, are extraordinarily talented artists who publicly acknowledged the oversight themselves.)

“Of all the recent snubs, this one was a hard moment to witness,” says Best. “Lemonade single-handedly changed the way music was released and experienced. It was also Queen Bey’s crowning artistic achievement to date—a love letter to and for black women about pain, healing and reconciliation.”

Enough is enough, as the song goes. Three A-List artists, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Childish Gambino declined to perform on the Grammy stage this year; Donald Glover (as Childish Gambino), Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande all declined to attend.

“We continue to have a problem in the hip-hop world,” Ken Ehrlich, the show’s producer, told The Guardian. “When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad.”

It’s not sad it’s disrespected clout.

According to Nielsen, eight of the top ten most popular recording artists of 2018 were hip hop artists. Drake, who won best rap song for God’s Plan, shocked everyone by showing up in person, something he hasn’t done since 2013. He used his acceptance speech to reassure snubbed and aspiring musicians that awards don’t matter – which the producers promptly cut short for a commercial.

(Also, I don’t know why Jennifer Lopez led the Motown tribute. Let’s just move on.)

All that said, this year’s Grammy Awards added some needed sweet to the salt.

For starters, it remedied the egregious exclusion of female artists last year. “I guess this year we really ‘stepped up,’” said Dua Lipa, who won for Best New Artist, alluding to an ill-received remark from the head of the Recording Academy about the underrepresentation of women last year.

The vibe was peace, love, and inclusion from the very start, and host Alicia Keys did an extraordinary job setting the tone and performing throughout the show. “Music is our shared global language,” she said. And forever First Lady Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance and frankly, could have read a grocery list, and it would have been fine. Instead, she opted for inspiration. “Music shows us that all of it matters, every story within every voice, every note within every song.”

And though there were disappointments, there were breakthroughs.

Cardi B made history by becoming the first solo woman to win the Best Rap Album award for Invasion of Privacy, and of course, Childish Gambino won both Record and Song of the Year.

His absence spoke volumes.

But so did the utterly gracious Black Panther composer Ludwig Göransson, who was credited for Song of the Year along with Gambino, and accepted the award without him.

Göransson was the only artist who mentioned 21 Savage last night. (The rapper is currently detained by immigration officials.) “We want to thank all the rappers that are featured on the song. 21 Savage, who should be here tonight,” he began. “As a kid growing up in Sweden loving American music, I always dreamt of migrating here and work with brilliant artists like Donald Glover,” he said pointedly. “I really wish he was here with us right now, because it was really his vision.”

“No matter where you’re born or where you’re from, you connect with “This is America”… It calls out injustice, celebrates life and reunites us all at the same time.”

 

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