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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Why didn't Childish Gambino attend the Grammy Awards? Because it has a long history of dissing hip hop

A cardinal sin of hip-hop culture is to show disrespect, and artists are increasingly taking to task various institutions for slights against the music and its community. The Grammy Awards is a repeat offender

Childish Gambino was a no show at this year's Grammy Awards, despite winning Song of the Year. Photo: AFP
Childish Gambino was a no show at this year's Grammy Awards, despite winning Song of the Year. Photo: AFP

It's one thing for a major star to snub the Grammy Awards, but it's something else when they happen to be the winner of one of the night's major gongs.

The 61st edition of the awards suffered such an indignity when organisers and a crowd full of artists had to watch singers John Mayer and Alicia Keys – the latter soon to headline the Dubai Jazz Festival on February 22 – hurriedly accept one of the Grammy’s marquee awards, Song of the Year, on behalf of the absent Childish Gambino for his powerful viral hit This is America.

The rapper and actor emerged victorious from a competitive list of nominees that featured Drake (God’s Plan), Kendrick Lamar and SZA (All the Stars), Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (Shallow), Ella Mai (Boo’d Up), Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey (The Middle), and Brandi Carlile (The Joke).

To put into context how major Gambino’s spurn is, he was the first ever hip-hop artist to win Song of the Year, which is a big moment. And the last artist to have a major Grammy award accepted in absentia was back in 2003 when Luther Vandross sent one of his managers to pick up his Song of the Year trophy for Dance with My Father.

But unlike Vandross, there weren't health reasons for Gambino’s no-show. This was another chapter in the feud between the hip-hop community and the Grammy Awards.

This was also highlighted by Drake’s unwieldy acceptance speech after winning Best Rap Song for God's Plan. In a direct diss to the event, he said: “Look, if there are people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here. I promise you”.

Eminem, Kanye, and a history of disrespect towards hip hop

A cardinal sin of hip-hop culture is to show disrespect, and artists are increasingly taking to task various institutions, ranging from the NFL to clothing brands Gucci and H&M for slights against the music and its community. The Grammy Awards is a repeat offender.

The seeds of the award show's troubled history with hip-hop go as far back as 1989 when the Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance (both won by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince) were introduced to the awards. But the move was undercut by the Grammy's decision to not include the Best Rap Performance as part of its telecast, which prompted a boycott from a host of artists including DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and LL Cool J.

Ever since, the relationship has been a rocky one, with some levity found when Lauryn Hill's 1999 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Outkast's 2004 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below both won Album of the Year.

But these felt like anomalies, and the Grammys then continued to sideline hip-hop into genre specific categories, while handing out major awards to acts who, respectfully speaking, are not part of the global cultural conversation - including a lot of country music, and plenty of jazz.

Eminem's classic The Marshall Mathers LP may have been heralded as a seminal point of pop culture, but he had to sit through the niche jazz pop duo, Steely Dan, picking up the 2001 Album of the Year for Two Against Nature. In 2005 it was Kanye West's turn - the first of a seemingly endless Album of the Year snubs - when his brilliant debut The College Drop Out lost out to Ray Charles's posthumous album Genius Love Company.

The list continues: legacy act U2, country music darlings The Dixie Chicks, jazz great Herbie Hancock, bluegrass duo Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and even the vapid folk group Mumford and Sons all went on to pick Album of the Year nods, while hip-hop acts - despite the genre accruing increasing commercial clout and fast establishing itself as a cultural leader - remained away from the spotlight.

Hip-hop’s fightback

Hip-hop’s latest fight back against the Grammy’s really ramped up in 2016 when Frank Ocean didn’t submit his critically lauded album Blonde for Grammy consideration, labelling the event “dated.” The Grammys eventually responded to the growing angst - and low ratings - by expanding the diversity of its membership and setting up committees to ensure quality control and relevancy when it comes to nominations.

This resulted in a slew of hip-hop acts nominated for major awards last year, with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino all vying for albums of the year. Inexplicably, however, it was Bruno Mars's catchy yet ultimately safe and unremarkable 24K Magic that took out the category, and a lot of that goodwill was lost. This was further compounded when Lamar’s album Damn went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music – it seems like a panel of academics were far more aware of its quality than a group of music industry tastemakers and insiders.

With all that bad blood, Gambino’s decision to skip the awards is not at all that surprising. But what should keep Grammy organisers awake at night is whether a major exodus of artists from the wider urban music world lies ahead, thus cementing the ceremony’s irrelevancy, perhaps irrevocably.

Updated: February 11, 2019 04:15 PM

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