The Grammys have found themselves in trouble again. With the number of controversies the Recording Academy has garnered—and dismissed—over this past decade, including repeated accusations of racism and sexism, and a lawsuit that alleges both sexual harassment and voting fraud, it’s hard to even discern what “trouble” means for the seemingly unassailable institution. But a big move by The Weeknd ahead of Sunday’s broadcast has music fans wondering whether the Grammys could finally clean up its act.
On Thursday, the Canadian R&B singer announced in a statement to The New York Times that he would no longer submit his music to the Grammys, citing the “secret committees” that determine the nominations after the larger voting body of industry professionals cast their votes as his reason for opting out. This announcement comes several months after The Weeknd’s critically and commercially successful album After Hours and its record-smashing lead single “Blinding Lights” were noticeably absent from the slate of 2021 nominees. The omission sparked backlash from his fanbase online as well as accusations from sources close to the musician that he was given an ultimatum by CBS, the home of the Grammys telecast, to either headline this year’s Super Bowl halftime show or perform at the ceremony.
While The Weeknd doesn’t directly call out a racial bias in his latest rebukes of the Academy, he follows a tradition of Black artists criticizing the institution’s awarding process that has often resulted in artists of color being pigeonholed into raced categories or overlooked entirely. Over the past decade in particular, the Academy, among other things, has been lambasted for routinely awarding its top prize, Album of the Year, to white artists—namely Beck, Taylor Swift, and Adele, over Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay-Z, who many would argue have produced more culture-shifting bodies of works. Jay-Z subsequently boycotted the Grammys for six years, and his 2018 song “Apeshit” with Beyoncé. “Tell the Grammys fuck that 0-for-8 shit / Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” Jay-Z raps, a reference to losing all eight of his nominations for 4:44.
The last time a Black artist took home Album of the Year was in 2008, when jazz pianist Herbie Hancock won for River: The Joni Letters.
Spectators unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Grammys voting system often pin these oversights on the Academy’s predominantly white and male voting body that typically favors commercially successful, wide-reaching albums like Adele’s 25 over more experimental works like Beyoncé’s Lemonade. But it was the aforementioned lawsuit brought on by the Academy’s ousted CEO Deborah Dugan last year that informed much of the public on the alleged “secret committees” The Weeknd refers to in his statement that have largely stood in the way of a truly democratic process.
“But it was the aforementioned lawsuit brought on by the Academy’s ousted CEO Deborah Dugan last year that informed much of the public on the alleged “secret committees” The Weeknd refers to in his statement that have largely stood in the way of a truly democratic process.”
The Grammys are not entirely determined by popular vote. According to an insider report by Rolling Stone, the Academy voters, about 1,200, select 20 contenders for each category from the year’s submissions. Those shortlists are narrowed down by expert committees and sent back to Academy voters for a final popular vote. According to Dugan’s lawsuit, though, members of the expert committees, who remain unknown, have included artists on the final ballot who weren’t chosen in the first phase of voting based on their own personal interests or relationships with said artists.
A year after this bombshell was revealed (and vanished) in the news cycle, the question of whether The Weeknd’s actions will have a substantial impact on an organization and the music industry as a whole hangs in the air. In the case of any boycott, there’s power in numbers. But despite the fact that the Grammys are consistently accused of fraud, big-name artists, relying on the attention economy, still have a hard time completely divesting from the show, whether or not they agree with its politics.
Rapper Wiz Khalifa pointed this out back in December when this year’s nominations were announced, tweeting that artists “always think [the Grammys] [are] unfair until they get their turn.” This isn’t completely accurate as artists, like the first rap field nominees of 1989, have protested the show during the years they’ve been up for awards, and Grammy winners like The Weeknd himself have gone on to criticize the Academy later on. However, Khalifa’s remarks highlight a truth about the unreliable nature of celebrity protests: that many artists who complain about the politics and procedures of the Grammys, particularly this year with Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber as two examples, center their objections around their own perceived mistreatment as opposed to the systemic failing of marginalized musicians as a whole.
Drake highlighted this paradox, albeit in the reverse circumstance, when he accepted the award for Best Rap Song at the 2019 ceremony. While he used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to assure his fellow nominees that awards don’t really matter, a choice that got him cut off by the producers, he nevertheless showed up in a tuxedo and with a moisturized beard to enthusiastically receive his own. Likewise, it says a lot that The Weeknd only called out the corruption of the expert committees after being snubbed and allegedly having his performance pulled, and not when Dugan brought these allegations to light last year.
Whether or not his intentions are primarily self-serving or for the greater good of the music industry, the fact that the Grammys routinely devalue Black art remains intact. If the awards ceremony does receive any sort of comeuppance for its alleged sins against The Weeknd, it will probably be due to the fact that awards shows have struggled to entertain audiences during the pandemic even more than they already did in the before times. Last month’s Golden Globes, which faced its own scandal regarding bribes and the racial makeup of its committee, hit a 13-year low in ratings with just 6.9 million viewers. Likewise, the Grammys might see a similar decline, as the ratings for last year’s ceremony slipped to a 12-year low, and social distancing has lessened the excitement around these live events.
Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if any artists, besides Zayn who also announced a boycott but has never been nominated for a Grammy, announce their support of The Weeknd before or during Sunday’s broadcast. Reliable dissenter of awards shows Fiona Apple, who received three nominations this year but was infamously snubbed for Album of the Year, called out the Grammys last year in an interview with The Guardian for nominating alleged abuser Dr. Luke for Song of the Year and even floated the idea of breaking her award with a sledgehammer if she won. As for mega-artists like The Weeknd, who knows? Seeing that insanely wealthy people don’t have much incentive to unionize around social issues, particularly for awards that won’t determine the course of their careers as much as provide some additional self-gratification, a substantial protest across the industry seems unlikely. The Grammys will continue to ignore Black art, and all we can do is choose to value them less.