Are the Grammys Racist?

In April, the Grammy Awards announced a massive restructuring to their awards categories. The academy pared down their hulking 109 awards to a trimmer 78, thus eliminating 31 categories and potentially creating 31 very pissed-off musicians.

A group of Latin musicians, including artists such as percussionist Bobby Sanabria and pianist Mark Levine, have now sued the academy over what they say is a breach of contractual obligations to members. The restructuring hacked Latin music categories in half, going from eight categories last year to four this year. The musicians say this could have a severe impact on their careers. Bobby Sanabria points out that nearly 75% of the categories being cut are those of racial or ethnic minorities, and calls it “the most blatant example of racism in the history of any arts organization” and “a slap in the face to cultural and musical diversity.”

So what’s going on? Is the academy really racist? Is this just a bunch of executives taking a look at the immense number of awards they give out and deciding to tone it down to maintain the award’s distinguished status, coincidentally taking away a few categories of ethnic minorities? Is it a little of both?

Mancini took the '58 awards by storm.
When the Grammys began in 1958, they had 28 categories. It included the standard record, album, and song of the year; two composition categories; one “country and western” category; four jazz categories; two for soundtracks; three for engineering and album production; a rhythm & blues award; six classical categories; three vocal categories; and a handful of comedy, children’s, and spoken-word awards.

20 years later in 1978, the available categories had almost doubled to 51, adding a best new artist category; categories in pop, gospel, folk, and Latin; and beefing up the number of awards available in virtually every category, but especially country and R&B. By 2008, the categories had skyrocketed to 111, with new categories in rap, rock, dance music, new age, polka, reggae, world music, Native American music, Hawaiian music, and zydeco, along with massively increasing the number of Latin, folk, gospel, and production categories.

Looking at the way the categories have changed over the years, which I’ve conveniently compiled into a handy-dandy color-coded Excel spreadsheet, it’s clear that categories are added and removed according to shifting musical tastes. In 1988, while rap was in its infancy, the genre had one category. By 2008, there were six rap awards. A jazz fusion category also appeared in 1988, during that genre’s heyday, but by 1998 was just a distant memory.

Grammy categories added over the decades -- click for a full-size chart.

Over the years, you can plainly see that music of other cultures has become much more recognized: in 1978, there was a single nebulous category for “ethnic or traditional” music. By 2008, this category had exploded into folk, blues, reggae, zydeco, Tejano, Native American, banda, norteño, Hawaiian, polka — even two world music categories, one for “traditional” and one for “contemporary.” Latin music, once a single category, had blossomed into a kaleidoscope of individual sub-genre awards.

But this can only go so far. You can only give so many hyper-specific awards before they lose their value. These subgenres especially are sometimes hard to differentiate, and it’s a little unfair to let a single drum pattern or bass riff keep one artist from ending up in a category they almost sound like that might be an easier win.

But hey, I’m all for complaining. Let’s forget Latin musicians for a second and find the other people who are being disenfranchised.

What about women?

Another element to the restructure involved removing individual awards for male and female vocalists. This leaves men and women to compete against one another in individual genre categories.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that women will be at a disadvantage, does it? If you browse any record store, popular music seems to be giving pretty equal footing to both genders, even if the fairer sex does tend to get the same kind of image treatment as a comic book heroine. But look again.

In 2004, the academy did this exact thing to the rock category, taking away “best male rock vocal performance” and “best female rock vocal performance” and combining them into one “best solo rock vocal performance.” In the seven years they’ve been giving this new award, all seven have been awarded to men. The truth is that music artists are like colors — the manly ones appeal to almost everyone, but the feminine ones are avoided by most men. The hope is, of course, that the academy will be choosing winners based on musical quality and not popularity — indeed, the best new artist of 2010 was a black female jazz musician — but the results of the rock award doesn’t make me hopeful.

What about musicians who don’t sing?

The Grammys follow popular music tastes, so it makes some sense that the first event had 25% of its categories dedicated strictly to vocalists while 2008 gave 39% of its awards to vocalists. People of the 50’s were coming off of the big band craze and instrumental music was still a lot of the pop music of the day, while you’ll hardly ever hear a purely instrumental recording playing on the radio in this day and age.

Still, if it weren’t for instrumentalists and songwriters, those vocalists would all be alone on stage with a single acoustic guitar.

The new categories completely gut the number of awards strictly dedicated to instrumentalists and songwriters. The best instrumental performance award in pop, rock and country categories are gone, and the jazz and classical categories — a previous bastion of awards for instrumentalists — has been pared down so there are just as many vocal categories as instrumental ones. Again, at first glance this just appears to up the stakes for instrumentalists competing against vocalists, but do we honestly think that a vocal-less album is going to win against the singers of the world, no matter how amazing it is?

For the best

Bobby Sanabria
In the end, while it sucks for all the musicians in categories being cut, this restructuring is an overall good idea. When you go to a restaurant with a James Beard award, you know the food is going to be good. When you go to a restaurant with a “Best of Citysearch” award, you’re not so sure — because James Beard is esteemed, and you know they only give their few awards to those who really deserve it.

The Grammys should be the same way. The members of the academy shouldn’t be assuming they deserve an award just because it helps their careers. Awards are an honor, not a right.

In their defense, the academy has explained that the massive category cuts followed a well-reasoned plan: each genre now gets four categories, leveling the playing field and not allowing any one genre to get more awards than any other genre. The downside of this is that smaller sub-genres must be lumped in with larger ones, which makes it appear that it was done to cheat ethnic minorities out of awards. Overall, the Grammys seem to have done a good job of following society’s musical tastes — maybe we should be blaming society instead?

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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One Comment

  1. Since when were only black people alowed to sing the blues, or latino people latin music. As far as I know there are no race barriers in music. So to say that cutting some awards from catigories is racest does not follow.

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