Is this the end of off-colour awards?
Racial storms at the Grammys and the Brits seem to have catalysed a new era
When, 10 months ago, the Grammy Awards stumbled into another racial controversy, it barely came as a surprise. Once more, #GrammysSoWhite trended; once more, the general prizes were mostly reserved for white artists; once more, an innovative, zeitgeist-capturing album from Beyoncé, this generation’s foremost pop-culture icon, was overlooked in favour of a middle-of-the-road effort from a white artist who brought nothing new to the cultural table (this time, Adele, instead of Beck). A weary Frank Ocean didn’t even bother to submit his releases to the panel this year. “The Grammys, like America, have an inclusion problem – or more to the point, an exclusion problem,” sighed The New York Times. By this point, the Grammys’ conservatism was a rote, annual disappointment, not a shock – and many artists seemed more inclined to follow Ocean’s lead to seek artistic validation from more edifying sources.
The long entrenchment of the Grammys’ apparent inability to recognise music by non-white artists as worthy of the highest accolades was why last month’s nominations for the 2018 awards felt like a potential sea change. Since 2004, only two black artists have won the Album of the Year prize – one of whom was dead (Ray Charles in 2005) and the other of whom was rewarded for an album of covers of a white artist (Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell in 2008). This year, though, four out of five nominees in the category aren’t white: Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars. Meanwhile, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s nomination for Despacito for Record of the Year marks the first recognition of anything in swinging distance of Latin music in that category since 2000 – and with the four aforementioned Album of the Year nominees joining the crossover reggaeton hit in the Record of the Year category, the winner is guaranteed to be non-white in 2018 (if you ignore the fact Justin Bieber makes a guest appearance on Despacito).
Across the Atlantic in the same month, another pushback against a music industry institution was finding fruit. Last year, #BritsSoWhite had become Britain’s own hashtag protest; the domino effect from the #OscarsSoWhite originator was less about copycat trends and more that, at last, the inbuilt biases of cultural institutions were being called out.
To their credit, the Brit Awards committee announced concrete plans to redress the balance within month, such as a shake-up of the voting body and method – and in November, the results were immediately plain to see. The shortlist for the industry-determined Critics’ Choice award, which had gone to a white artist in nine of its 10 years of existence and a male artist for the past half-decade, was entirely comprised of young, black women: dancehall-influenced rapper Stefflon Don, limpid soul singer Mabel and eventual winner Jorja Smith, a powerhouse blues vocalist with the versatility to take on UK garage and pop as well.
The Critics’ Choice trio also illustrated the importance of diverse representation not only for its own sake, but to actually reflect the kind of potential pop star who isn’t just aiming themselves at the middle of the road. Take Stefflon Don: the East London rapper’s first club anthem came with Real Ting last year, a brash scorcher in which Stefflon brought dancehall sexuality together with a swagger that seemed more indebted to American rap than any home-grown traditions – but without ever seeming like a pastiche. Indeed, she was the kind of rapper who received wisdom had said could never succeed in battened-down Britain, where female rappers had hitherto traded on a one-of-the-boys toughness (such as grime MCs NoLay and Shystie) or veered towards conscious rap and soul (Estelle and Ms Dynamite). Stefflon’s music, however, feels like a natural product of a London girl of Caribbean heritage who is able to draw on artists such as Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliott as influences.
Mabel, meanwhile – that’s Mabel McVey in full, as in the daughter of Neneh Cherry and producer Cameron McVey – had been releasing singles since 2015, but gained one of those slow-burning, gradual-but-organically “real” hits this year with the swaying ballad Finders Keepers – a song in which the thrust of the lyrics (to keep a casual romance casual) was offset by a yearning melody that only magnified the latent emotion. In an era in which so much pop, mindful of the need to grab listeners immediately on streaming services, is on the nose, the subtlety was appreciated – as was the guest verse from UK Afrobeats star Kojo Funds, demonstrating that the art of a canny collaboration runs in the family.
Smith, who was ultimately crowned the Critics’ Choice winner last week, perhaps has the least recognisable identity as an artist so far. Her vocal talent isn’t in doubt, and the bluesy strength of her voice – reminiscent in places of Amy Winehouse – is instantly recognisable. But her biggest hit to date has come as the featured hook singer on Drake’s Get It Together; in her own right, her UK garage throwback On My Mind made for a delectable summer anthem, but it is unclear how much mileage either style has in the long-term.
Stefflon, Mabel and Smith’s successes – both on the charts this year and among industry voters – are also reflective of the British urban-music scene’s rejuvenation in recent years. Not as an artistic force, because the quality of the scene’s ever-evolving sounds has rarely dipped, but as an economic one, with the emergence of a collaborative model that has been able to reach a wide fan base via social media, and is now able to work in tandem with major labels to bring artists such as Stefflon Don to new levels of popularity.
The scene’s clout – along with voices representing it slowly inching into positions of power within the industry – ensures that when campaigns such as #BritsSoWhite come along, there is actually a knock-on effect. This can be seen, too, in the longlist for the BBC Sound of 2018 poll, revealed last month. The burgeoning UK Afrobeats scene is represented by Not3s, fresh off the ubiquitous hit Addison Lee, and Yxng Bane – but there is also room for artists such as Manchester rapper IAMDDB, whose casual half-rapped, half-sung style feels entirely distinct; and Korean-American house producer and vocalist Yaeji, a figure whose accidental crossover from the underground club scene (thanks to the beguiling, bass-heavy Drink I’m Sippin On) seems enormously encouraging.
But the encouragement engendered by this unusual flurry of the music industry actually recognising exciting voices still has a note of caution attached. This is one that goes back to Ocean’s decision to bypass this kind of recognition in the first place – an act that essentially, silently, calls it out as meaningless in terms of artistic validation. This year’s Grammys line-up may have taken baby steps to rectifying its race problem, but that doesn’t mean black artists aren’t still being held to conservative standards. Of the Album of the Year nominees, Jay-Z arguably hasn’t been near his artistic prime in the past decade; Lamar is a modern-day genius, but also an artist who makes the kind of respectable political rap that white rock fans tend to hold up against youth-orientated street rap; Gambino’s sideways turn into 70s soul is a tried-and-tested credibility move, but unfortunately not one that has made him much more interesting as an artist; and Mars is as middle-of-the-road an entertainer as it is possible to get. It is hardly representative of the most exciting voices in rap in 2017 – though a Best New Artist nomination for Lil Uzi Vert, whose XO Tour Llif3 was a surprise hit, is a counterpoint here.
In past years, the unstated tension between rewarding commercial success and cleaving to conservative musical values in deciding industry accolades served to shut out non-white artists. Now, a combination of the political climate, increasing industry power and a chart service whereby artists can bypass major labels and still achieve hit records is beginning to push back the gates.
But it is still the case that artistic quality on its own is insufficient – and as long as that is the case, to be validated by the industry is still to play the game on their terms. It is important to remember that long-term cultural validation will always trump the annual glitz of a Grammy or a Brit. Should Beyonce have beaten Beck in 2015? Of course. Did Beyoncé ever need a Grammy to affirm that her self-titled opus would have more artistic worth and cultural significance than Beck’s forgettable ninth studio album, Morning Phase? Of course not.
Updated: December 9, 2017 04:27 PM