Award season is an exciting time of year; it’s easy to get carried away in the glamour and extravagance of events such as the BAFTAs and the Grammys. There is, however, increasing momentum behind the criticism that these awards ceremonies are not inclusive. In fact, they’re downright racist. Black, Asian and Hispanic artists are forced into the shadows while conventional white stars continue to stand in the spotlight.
So here’s my question: why did the Grammy’s choose not to award Best Album to Kendrick Lamar for his ground-breaking and critically acclaimed work, To Pimp a Butterfly?
Instead of awarding Best Album to Lamar, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences instead chose Taylor Swift for her pop-hit, 1989. Sure, I like singing along to Wildest Dreams in the car like everyone else. But 1989 is, essentially, conventional. That’s not to say that it isn’t a well-produced, popular, high-quality work. My issue with 1989 is that it sounds the same as every other successful pop record of the past few years. Moreover, it focusses on the same petty issues – dramas in the love lives of stunningly attractive women.
Compare this to To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is an inspirational narrative, using different characters and musical genres to tell the story of Lamar’s own life. He is a man who, having been institutionalised by his society, breaks free to achieve not just success but also self-respect. This begins with Wesley’s Theory and King Kunta. In these tracks, Lamar is successful but feels compelled to display his wealth in conceited ways. In Wesley’s Theory, Lamar says that when he gets signed he’ll buy a “brand new caddy on fours” and “take a few M-16s to the hood.” By the end of the record, however, Lamar’s perspective has changed. In Mortal Man he says “the word was respect/ just because you wore a different gang’s colour than mine/ doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man.” Lamar’s focus is now on displaying empathy towards others in his community. This revelation comes after devastating tracks such as Institutionalised, Alright, and The Blacker the Berry, which reflect on the structural inequality and disadvantage that African-American communities have been subjected to.
Another reason 1989 sounds so familiar is because it was produced by Max Martin, who has worked with Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Kesha, Adele, and Ellie Goulding, among others. The Best Album Award is Max Martin’s second Grammy (his first being for Best Producer in 2015), and astoundingly his 16th nomination. You might think that this is a testament to his success as a producer which, given the phenomenal success of the acts he’s worked with, is undoubted. But it can also be interpreted as an indication that the Grammys shy away from provocative, non-white acts. This isn’t the first time that the National Academy has played it safe – last year the award went to Beck rather than Beyoncé. In 2014 Lamar lost out again, this time to Macklemore. Even Macklemore recognized that this was unfair, tweeting that Lamar had been “robbed” of the award.
Although Lamar was awarded the Best Rap Album title, this is not enough recognition for the political and social impact To Pimp a Butterfly had in 2015. Over the past two years, the campaign against police brutality toward African-Americans has gained increasing traction, particularly in the wake of the shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, among others. Alright, one of the tracks from the album, has become the anthem of the Black Lives Matter campaign; some have called it the modern We Shall Overcome. And although I’m pleased that the Grammys gave Lamar the opportunity to perform some of his tracks, including Blacker the Berry, that seems tokenistic when they were not willing to give him the most significant award.
While artists like Taylor Swift use their work to make statements about themselves, Kendrick Lamar uses his music as a powerful form of political advocacy. His message of hope and freedom from oppression is politically relevant, but also perennial. It is a great disappointment that the Grammys chose not to recognise this.