The Grammys remain more of the same even amid calls for change

US singer-songwriter Billie Eilish (L) and brother US producer Finneas accept the award for Song Of The Year for "Bad Guy" during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

In the end, it was the same as always Sunday night at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards.

At a ceremony overshadowed by tragedy and scandal, pop dominated music’s self-declared biggest night, while hip-hop and R&B artists came away without winning any of the four major categories. All of those went to Billie Eilish, the 18-year-old Los Angeles singer, who won Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist, along with Best Pop Vocal Album for her muted, moody 2019 debut When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Eilish became the first woman to sweep all four major categories, and the second artist overall: Christopher Cross did it in 1981.

Yet Eilish’s ascendance—and her disarmingly startled, half-wary reaction—came as part of an annual ritual that feels increasingly rigid, even as the music it purports to celebrate becomes more malleable. Genre lines grow ever blurrier as artists decline to stay put within categories that have come to look too narrow and confining, and the Grammys haven’t figured out how to keep pace. For example, Tyler, the Creator won Best Rap Album for his 2019 release Igor, which blends elements of hip-hop with pop, soul, and funk for a sound that doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. Competing in the rap album category felt to him like an outdated placement.

Tyler the Creator
Tyler, the Creator, winner of Best Rap Album for “Igor”, speaks onstage during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on Jan. 26 in Los Angeles. Backstage, he said it was unfortunate that genre-bending albums like his own often ended up in the rap category.
Kevin Mazur—Getty Images for The Recording Academy

“It sucks that whenever we, and I mean guys that look like me, do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category,” Tyler said backstage, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. It’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word. When I hear that, I’m just like why can’t we just be in pop?”

Though rap and R&B artists are frequently featured as performers during the Grammys telecast, they are often also-rans in the major categories. Since 1999, just five non-white artists—and two hip-hop albums—have won album of the year. When Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” won song of the year and record of the year in 2019, it was the first time a rap song had taken either award.

“Truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be,” Sean “Diddy” Combs said the night before the ceremony at Clive Davis’s pre-Grammy gala in Los Angeles.

This year, at least, R&B and rap acts were well represented among the nominees in the biggest categories. Singer and rapper Lizzo came into the ceremony leading the pack with eight nominations, including nods in all four major categories. In the end, she won three Grammys, all in genre fields. Rapper and singer Lil Nas X had six nominations, including three in major categories (he won two genre awards, both for his is-it-country? song “Old Town Road”), while three of R&B singer H.E.R.’s five nominations came in the big categories (she went home empty-handed).

The Grammys began on a heartbreaking note, just a few hours after basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash that also killed seven others. The awards ceremony took place at the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers, where Bryant played home games for his entire 20-year career, and where his jerseys hang in the rafters. “We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built,” host Alicia Keys said near the start of the show, which Lizzo opened with a medley of her songs “Cuz I Love You” and “Truth Hurts.”

“Tonight is for Kobe,” Lizzo said.

If the show directly addressed the tragedy of Bryant’s death, it skirted the swirl of scandal that has recently overtaken the Recording Academy. Though Keys mentioned early on that “it’s been a hell of a week,” there was no direct mention of Deborah Dugan, who was removed Jan. 16 as the academy’s chief executive after just five and a half months on the job. She subsequently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that included allegations of gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault, and corruption in the Grammy nomination process that sidesteps the votes of 21,000 eligible members of the academy.

Dugan’s appointment last August had seemed to indicate the academy was getting serious about addressing a lack of diversity. Even with her ouster, Tyler, the Creator’s comments, and Combs’s speech, seem to make clear that there is a growing appetite for change. “So I say this with love to the Grammys, because you really need to know this, every year y’all be killing us man. Man, I’m talking about the pain. I’m speaking for all these artists here, the producers, the executives,” said Combs, himself a three-time Grammy winner, prior to the awards. “The amount of time it takes to make these records, to pour your heart into it, and you just want an even playing field.”

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