The internet has been abuzz with Kanye West’s latest Grammys scandal, excoriating him for disrespecting Beck, a humble and genuinely talented musician. It should be said, however, that West’s antics in 2015 were far more tame than his treatment of Taylor Swift in 2009. This year, he apparently changed his mind mid-stage, and scurried grinning back to his seat, saving his opinions for after the ceremony.
Later, Kanye insisted that Beck should have “respected artistry” by giving up his award to Beyoncé, and critics like Garbage’s Shirley Manson are right to call him out for his arrogant bullying. Stripping a true artist of an award for the sake of respecting artistry doesn’t make any sense. It’s shortsighted and misguided, and Beck deserves better. Beyoncé did take home three Grammys for her self-titled album and its hit single, so she certainly didn’t need Kanye West’s defense.
He Did Have A Point
Though Kanye’s anger may have been misdirected, many others (including yours truly) believed Beyoncé should have won that category, and even Beck was astonished that she didn’t.
Does that mean he doesn’t deserve the award? Of course not. But the triumph of another white man–even a deserving one!–over another expected-to-win black artist does follow a troubling trend in the Grammys’ award system. Kanye blatantly disrespected two artists that did not deserve to be the butt of his frustration, but I believe he was ultimately asking us all to consider this trend.
Lukewarm Relationship With Black Artists
The Grammys have long been criticized for it, especially when it comes to hip hop. Last year, even Macklemore was bewildered by his win over Kendrick Lamar publicly acknowledging that Kendrick should have won instead. A great piece from Complex notes that when Macklemore won three out of four rap categories last year, he effectively won more rap Grammys than Tupac, Biggie, Nas, DMX, Busta Rhymes, KRS-One, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Big Pun, Jeezy, Ja Rule, and Kendrick Lamar combined! Few would argue that Macklemore is more talented than nearly three decades of rap legends, so his unprecedented success is a bit dubious.
Kanye West said: “We culture. Rap is the new rock ‘n roll. We the real rockstars.” And he’s right, but at a price. The more that rap evolves into the new rock ‘n roll, the more its definition will be expanded, and the more players will want to hop in the game. Hip hop is concerned about acts like Iggy Azalea becoming the recognizable face of the genre. The last year was rife with racial tension, from protests over police killings to white rappers stealing spotlights as the media’s darlings. Between Macklemore, Swift, and Eminem’s wins, and Azalea’s nominations, I can understand why Kanye would want to speak out on Beyoncé’s behalf when she was seemingly-snubbed by a white artist in a category she was expected to win.
The Grammys Suck at Diversity
They don’t “get” hip hop, and shy from innovation that crosses the cultural boundaries they can relate to. Grammy awards gravitate towards more familiar, more “palatable” (read: vanilla) music.
Kanye West didn’t identify the Grammy’s disrespect of artistry as a racial issue, and Beyonce is, of course, not a rapper, but it does overwhelmingly tend to be black artists in general that get snubbed. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s becoming more visible.
In short: Kanye West is still an arrogant jerk, but he has a point. His cry to “respect artistry” should have been redirected. For the Grammys to be taken seriously, they need to move with the tastes of the public, and reevaluate their idea of artistry in some places so that it better aligns with our own.