Grammys 2021: Herstory Was Made, But Black Erasure Remains

Grammys 2021: Herstory Was Made, But Black Erasure Remains

Worthy moments were delivered but palatability prevailed once again…

This year’s Grammys had a fevered backdrop with artists castigating the institution: Zayn Malik’s opportune tweet referencing clandestine committees and a lack of transparency echoed The Weeknd’s earlier condemnation - the list of musicians, bypassing or boycotting the Grammys growing ever longer.

The actual ceremony itself carried a dystopic feel. Music’s biggest stars sat socially-distanced in adorned marks cocooned in an improvised marquee; the sounds of sirens and traffic threatening to drown out gushy acceptance speeches.

The live and pre-recorded performance set-up meant the usual protracted telecast was truncated: performances were reeled off in a cogent mix of intimate and grand visual splendour; Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s joint venture, Silk Sonic, delivered the performance of the night with a kitschy, moonlit escapade through past eras. As pandemic award shows go, this wasn’t a failure many anticipated it to be.

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There were some touching firsts: Kaytranada and Thundercat, two masterful producers with far- reaching catalogues finally got their dues, the former prevailing in the best dance categories, a small but welcome shift in recognising black musicians outside of the “urban” fields. Burna Boy and Wizkid also garnered first-time wins, solidifying the worldwide afrobeats takeover.

Megan Thee Stallion’s best new artist victory was vindication after a hellish few years that saw the rapper lose her Mother, survive a shooting and resist the pervasive misogynoir that exists within the arena of hip-hop. The sight of two Houston natives, Beyoncé and Megan, on stage together, dominating in the rap categories for their collaboration on ‘Savage Remix’, was a moment to behold and savour.

For all the talk of the Recording Academy’s waning reputation, the Grammys are still emblems of prestige to young musicians; a shiny, industry co-sign they can wield as a prefix. Chances to co-sign the future were squandered when the Grammys failed to prize Chloe x Halle or Phoebe Bridgers as first-time winners; two gifted acts who codified their respective genres during much of 2020.

Sure, history was made with Beyoncé becoming the most decorated vocalist in Grammy history, but a closer inspection of her many wins is that of an ornamental figurehead, waved by the Academy to fend off accusations of racism. All but one of Beyoncé’s Grammy wins belongs in genre-specific, ‘racialized’ categories; in a twenty-year career she’s only received a solitary Song Of The Year win but no Record Of The Year win and more importantly, no Album Of The Year win.

The winners list, at times, abandoned rhyme or reason: Dua Lipa overcame Taylor Swift for best pop vocal album, then lost to her in the more prestigious album of the year category. Swift made history, securing a trifecta of album of the year wins with her album ‘Folklore’, for her most dense and deserving work to date.

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And yet, the endemic issue of the erasure of Black artists in the mainstream categories was as glaring as ever: a Black artist has failed to secure the coveted Album Of The Year since a ‘legacy win’ for Herbie Hancock in 2008, with his collection of Joni Mitchell covers.

What is the Recording Academy actively doing to redress the balance behind the scenes? What’s their reasoning behind Taylor Swift’s three album of the year wins, whilst Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé and Kanye West - who’ve continually produced paradigm-shifting records – have yet to win in that category? How many times does a white artist have to feign surprise, or offer up their award on the pulpit as a form conciliatory recompense?

This year’s Grammys might have reflected a milestone year for women in music but the fact remains, that in the final, wearisome closing moments of the ceremony, the Grammys were as ever, resistant to change.

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Words: Shahzaib Hussain

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