Injustice at the Grammys

Posted by Sarah Benson

28.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the 56th annual Grammy Awards broadcast on CBS on Sunday, Jan. 26. Maybe these high numbers-the second largest audience for the live awards broadcast since 1993- can be attributed to the prospect of seeing Daft Punk in their signature space suits, or to the titillating temptation of watching Beyonc?? slink across stage. Regardless of the reason for the initial draw, people looked on in anticipation, as they do every year, to confirm whether their favorite artists would receive due accolades.

And because it's an awards ceremony derived from the premise that the "best" music of the year should win and gather public validation, each broadcast is designed to fail. Sure, the recipe for glamorous success is there: beautiful, talented people milling around in fashionable outfits, performing elaborate dance and song numbers and attempting to come together as a community in order to recognize achievements of the music industry. But I would argue, as many irate Internet bloggers chafe to do in response to each category's winner (and its losers) that the notion of "best" needs clarification.

Unlike the Super Bowl, our nation's most recent televised spectacle, the Grammys have famously failed to explicate what it means to win. In the Seahawks vs. Broncos game, there was no mistaking what winning looked like. And in even closer games of years past, the time on the clock and the scoreboard always determined an absolute champion. But what does it mean, for example, to win Best Rap Album? What are the criteria that separate one great musician from another? Is it media exposure, personal charisma, live performance ability, album revenue, Facebook and Twitter followers, tour ticket sales, radio plays, Billboard chart rankings, ambition for social revolution, independence from a record label or recognition from veteran rappers? If an artist best represents any one of these standards, he or she is usually weaker in another comparison to a fellow nominee.

Arguably the biggest upset at the Grammys was when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "The Heist" beat out Kendrick Lamar's "good kid, m.A.A.d city" for the coveted Best Rap Album award. Before, and since then, skeptics have run with arguments that span from racially charged, to homophobic, to anti-mainstream: the rapper/producer duo who also scored the Best New Artist award are white, have put out an iconic song advocating for marriage equality ("Same Love") and have also seen immense commercial recognition. Unfortunately, for many in the hip hop community, these are not reasons to celebrate or embrace the win.

Instead, some critics take issue with all three of these talking points. For instance, back in September, rapper Lord Jamar (from New Rochelle's group Brand Nubian) had complicated feelings about Macklemore's rising fame. He expressed a controversial but articulate analogy in an interview with VladTV, suggesting Macklemore's "Same Love" is pushing an unwelcome gay agenda within the hip hop community that has nothing to do with hip hop culture:

"White rappers, you are invited into the house of hip hop as a guest...I can't go into somebody else's house, and even though they let me wear their clothes and eat their food, that's not my house! That's their house. And I can't get so comfortable in their house that I feel like I could now start talking house politics."

This comparison to an overly contented houseguest is apt, but only in that it puts to words why many others in the hip hop community have not been welcoming Macklemore onto the scene with open arms. No high-profile rappers have been clambering to collaborate with the Seattle-based star, despite his broad crossover appeal. Several hip-hop news outlets have already published articles calling his Grammy win a show of ignorance and disrespect. A humbled Macklemore even felt the need to let Kendrick know privately, and then publicly, that injustice had been served; The New York Times recently blogged about the text message that he posted to Instagram: "I wanted you to win. You should have. It's weird. I robbed you." 

Well, damn. How does this happen? How can rap enthusiasts and experts alike, including the winning artist himself, all agree that this was a "robbery"? If there were no room for ambiguity, all awards ceremonies would be incredibly boring to watch-understood. Perhaps some people would miss the mystique surrounding Grammy politics and would rather leave the cryptic deciding factors unknown. But for many, the margin between what took place and what was deserved is too wide here: Kendrick went zero for seven on Grammy night, leaving without a single award. 

This, to me, is unconscionable. That's not to say that I think Macklemore was entirely undeserving of any award; his win in the category for Best New Artist seems appropriate, given his sudden mass appeal this past year. And his bold attempt to find a home in the hip-hop genre, which is historically known for its homophobia, with a hit single like "Same Love" is a risk worth recognizing. I also happen to be a member of the camp that disagrees with Lord Jamar's parameters for "house politics": gay rights are civil rights; the struggle to attain them is indisputably related to the same strain of oppression that the predominantly black hip-hop community would like to claim as solely theirs. 

Despite these differing vantage points, I can understand the outrage over Macklemore's win. The outpour of vitriol wouldn't be so widespread in certain corners of news media if winning Best Rap Album were directly informed by a mutually accepted upon ethos of social justice. Pervasive backlash tells us that social justice shouldn't be the trump card. But what should be?

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