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Closson: Beyond appearance of progress, Grammys remain stagnant in representation

Troy Closson, Opinion Editor

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Back in November when the Grammy nominations were released, the selections were widely praised for unusually including a racially diverse group of artists — particularly within the Album of the Year nominees. Personally, I was glad to see four people of color nominated for the award who could receive the recognition that artists who look like them don’t always receive. And Bruno Mars was ultimately the first artist of color to win Album of the Year in nearly ten years, since 2008 when Herbie Hancock won. On the surface, this year’s Grammys did deserve some commendation for actually working to be more representative, rather than just verbally pointing out a problem.

Still, it felt like we weren’t fully “there” yet, especially as the night progressed. Besides Best Music Video, Kendrick Lamar continued to receive no major wins outside of rap categories as the Recording Academy still seems unable to recognize that rap and hip-hop music can actually be “Album of the Year” material. And more strikingly, Alessia Cara was the only woman to win in a major category all night — and one of the few women who took home an award altogether.

Throughout the night, we began to see deeper issues with the award show. As #MeToo and #TimesUp sweep through Hollywood and sports, one could reasonably have predicted the Grammys would provide a platform to celebrate woman artistry on a greater level in its the program — but it was largely relegated to a single section of the telecast. And overall, the number of women nominated stayed low as usual.

This is why we can’t just call the Grammys “diverse” only based off racial diversity. Yes, men of color largely gained more recognition this year. But women — especially those of color — were, and have often been, overlooked. A recent University of California report even found that between 2013 and 2018, only 9 percent of the nearly 900 people nominated for Grammys were women.

Lorde, the only woman to get an Album of the Year nod, wasn’t even invited to have a solo performance during the show, unlike the four other male nominees in the category because, as Grammys Producer Ken Ehrlich said, “there’s no way (they) can really deal with everybody.” Apparently, they just couldn’t fit her into the show despite the fact they could find the time for a number of people who weren’t nominated for anything in the first place. On top of that, Ed Sheeran won Best Pop Solo Performance, over four women, for a song about women’s bodies. And that’s just some of what happened this year.

When Recording Academy President Neil Portnow was confronted with the criticism after the show, he initially said more women need to “step up.” As if the quality of music women make is the issue here. (Ed Sheeran’s album Divide — which won Best Pop Vocal Album — had a lower metacritic score than the albums of the three women nominated in the category in case there’s any question there.)

If we’re going to talk about award shows making strides in diversity, the leadership behind them has to recognize problems in representation aren’t necessarily rooted in the lack of quality content from underrepresented groups. Rather, it’s an issue of opportunity. Saying women simply need to “step up” disregards all of the institutional barriers to success that the Grammys annually illustrate. The Recording Academy still doesn’t widely release basic data on their votes’ race and gender — likely because it’s extremely homogeneous. So moving forward, it’s important to recognize that while programs like the Grammys might be highlighting more men of color, women — and particularly those of color — can often be left behind.

Troy Closson is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at troyclosson@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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