Kendrick Lamar and the Grammys’ hip-hop problem

Ken Ehrlich, producer of the Grammy Awards, has been putting on the show since 1980, and he’s seen the face of the show change dramatically. In an interview in Variety this week, he’s quick to acknowledge the influence of black music, but insinuated the Grammys don’t have the same issues with diversity as the Oscars do. “All forms of our contemporary music are rooted in African American culture; they’re rooted in black music, they’re rooted in the blues, they’re rooted in reggae,” Ehrlich said to Variety. “This has such a profound affect on this country musically that I don’t think we face the same set of criticisms that other artistic disciplines do.”


Ehrlich is partially right; the Grammys will necessarily involve black artists in every aspect of the award show, from the performances to the nominations, because without black music there would be no Grammys. But since the first rap category was introduced in 1989 and the popularity of rap music grew past the widely loved R&B and soul sounds of the ’70s and ’80s, the Grammys have largely adopted the “stay in your lane” mentality with a wider road. You can perform and win your rap awards, and maybe take home a music video award, but once it’s time for the main categories — Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist — don’t expect a trophy.

This kind of prejudice tends to show up when a hip-hop artist does something that is considered stepping out of line, like building an entire album around the poor treatment of blacks in America and garnering unanimous critical acclaim for it. A savvy producer knows to give a platform to a performance whose politics he doesn’t support, at least, when it’s sure to bring in more viewers and in turn more money. He knows that excluding a genre of music made up largely of black people is a bad look, so he brings them into the fold, gives them a stage, offers them a set of rap-specific trophies to share among themselves, and watches the ratings rise. But when it comes time to reward their work as compared to the biggest pop and rock acts of the day, well, there’s always next time.

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