Kanye West made headlines at Sunday night’s 2014 Grammy Awards show by briefly storming the stage after Beck’s album Morning Phase was announced as the winner of Album of the Year, one of the highlight awards of the night. West’s move originally appeared to be a joking reference to his infamous 2009 moment, where he stormed the stage at the MTV VMAs declaring Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” video to be the best video of all time, interrupting Taylor Swift as she was accepting the Best New Video award for “You Belong With Me.”
But it was pretty clear to the viewer that West’s move had a message: he believed Beyoncé’s self-titled LP had been snubbed for the Album of the Year award. And if his move at the ceremony didn’t make that point, the interviews afterward did.
“Because what happens is, when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration,” West said in an interview with E! News after the show.
Although the move might have been distasteful (something social media was quick to point out), it made a statement about the awards show in general: The Grammys have continually failed to represent the diversity and artistry of the music industry for many years. Beck’s win over Beyoncé, who was definitely the favorite nominated artist for Album of the Year, is representative of this. Beck deserved to win Grammy awards in the 1990s when he was producing some of his strongest work—not in 2015 up against Beyoncé, which broke sales records worldwide and has become an iconic piece of work that now essentially defines one of the best artists of this generation.
But this is bigger than Beck vs. Beyoncé. Similar to the controversy surrounding this year’s Oscasr awards—dubbed “The Whitest Oscars Ever” by many—this year’s Grammys were pretty pale. Only white artists were nominated for three of the four big Grammy awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. Pharrell Williams and Beyoncé were the only non-white artists nominated for the fourth big category, Album of the Year, and neither won. And this isn’t unusual. Check out the history of the big four Grammy awards:
- Esperanza Spalding was the last non-white winner of the Best New Artist award, which she won in 2010
- The last non-white artist to win Song of the Year was Beyoncé in 2009 for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”
- Herbie Hancock was the last non-white artist to take Album of the Year in 2007, for “River: The Joni Letters”
- Record of the Year was last awarded to a non-white artist in 2004 when Ray Charles took the award with Norah Jones for “Here We Go Again”
Aside from the big four awards, it’s not an unusual trend for black artists to mostly pick up awards in R&B and hip-hop categories, but even these categories are being awarded to more and more white artists. The Marshall Mathers LP 2 by Eminem won Best Rap Album this year, a category that Iggy Azalea also received a nod in. And let’s not forget Macklemore’s wins for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song at the 2013 Grammys, which even he said should’ve gone to Kendrick Lamar.
This trend of increasingly white Grammy Award winners snubs more than Beyoncé—it snubs all non-white artists and their contributions to the music industry, and it snubs the R&B and hip-hop genres. As a result, some of the best and most iconic work in the music industry is being routinely robbed of recognition for what it accomplishes.
But it doesn’t stop there, because some serious irony underlies all of this.
While the awards tend to exclude non-white artists, this year’s show made a powerful statement about race. Performances by John Legend, Common, Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams in particular were some of the best and most thought-provoking of the night. With race issues in America being the hot button topic of the moment, the distinct contrast between the winners and the performers clearly shows how out of touch the Grammys are with the music industry.
So if you’re on social media blasting Kanye West for his actions at the Grammys this year, stop for a minute and think about what Beck’s win really represents. It’s not even Beck’s fault—in fact it’s not any artist’s fault who has won a Grammy undeservedly (or deservedly). It’s our fault for not seeing what the Grammys are ignoring, and for not speaking up about it.