Schwartz: ‘Lemonade’ loss at Grammys points to institutional racial bias

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

Most listeners of popular music wanted Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” to win Album of the Year at the Grammys on Sunday night. Apparently, so did Adele — even though she ended up winning the award herself.

People thought this would be Beyoncé’s year to take home the nation’s most coveted music award. Instead, Grammy viewers observed yet another example of the racial bias that influences American award shows. There is little debate that “Lemonade” was deserving of Album of the Year: It ranked higher than Adele’s “25” on U.S. sales charts, had a 92 out of 100 on Metacritic and was released following the debut of an incomparable visual album.

While the Grammys have not been as heavily criticized as the Oscars for snubbing artists of color, not giving “Lemonade” the title it deserved points to the same institutional racism we’ve seen from other award shows. It has been almost 10 years since a black artist won Album of the Year and 18 years since a black woman has won the award. Since the Album of the Year award was first given out in 1959, it has been handed to only 10 black artists.

But more problematic is the fact that the Album of the Year is rarely given to black artists who produce music that makes a statement. Mainstream award shows seem reluctant to highlight black artists unless they are far less controversial. Much of the past decades’ winners, from Taylor Swift to Mumford and Sons, largely speak to the experience of those same white people who dominate the popular musical industry. In contrast, “Lemonade” is an unwavering statement of Beyonce’s resilience and marital strife, and does not seek to be primarily palatable to white audiences.

This is exactly the type of music that we should be elevating to the acclaim of Grammy-winning artistry instead of pushing it to the side. Instead of acknowledging that music is derived from an array of narratives, the music industry consistently recognizes whiteness as the default narrative and marginalizes other narratives that it does not see as universal.

Because I am white, I do not intend to speak for the black experience, nor will I attempt to define what it is. I intend to argue only that it has been largely unrecognized by the white-dominated music industry as a whole. Much of the music we enjoy, from jazz to rap, was originated by people of color and often appropriated by mainstream white artists, at times to the point of blatant plagiarism. The industry must be held accountable when it refuses to recognize where this music originated.

One good thing to come out of this year’s Album of the Year award was Adele’s pseudo-acceptance speech where she said she felt that Beyoncé deserved the award more than she did.

“I felt like it was her time to win,” Adele said in an interview after the ceremony. “What the f— does she have to do to win Album of the Year? That’s how I feel.”

The fact that Adele used her own acceptance speech to explain why someone else deserved the award reveals both the artistry of “Lemonade” and the Grammys’ bias. Either the Grammys are out of touch with major critics and the public, or it shies away from selecting a black woman with a forceful, political album to win its highest honor. Regardless, the Grammys must recognize its biases and start rightfully recognizing the work of marginalized artists.

Though it was admirable of Adele to use her moment in the spotlight to highlight “Lemonade” and Beyoncé’s influence, Beyoncé doesn’t just deserve half of a Grammy. She, and artists of color everywhere, deserve an award of their own.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.