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How the Grammys' tone-deaf categories no longer reflect the modern world

What does "urban" mean? Is Beyoncé not the music of America now? And listen to Bon Iver and tell me you don’t hear Fela Kuti.


By Andre Grant

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy Chance The Rapper was nominated for six Grammys despite having a digital-only album. I’m happy that Beyoncé was so well represented, as well. I’m grateful that her sister Solange also grabbed a nomination. And I’m thankful that Adele’s booming voice exists; that Twenty One Pilots sits next to Queen Bey in a category; that we still have breakout stars like Anderson .Paak and The Chainsmokers; that albums like ANTi, The Life Of Pablo, and Views, as remarkably nuanced and complex as they are, all garnered eight nominations.

But for what has amounted to a special year in music, the Grammy noms still ring tone deaf and hollow.

According to the L.A. Times, the eligibility period for the awards this year were from October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016. During that time, several important, genre-bending records were released. But, other than Lemonade and Coloring Book, the Grammys stuck to the script, robbing people of an opportunity to be engaged with the award show again.

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And, look, I already know what you’ll say. That the Grammy’s are for the establishment. That the radio listeners and Top 40 artists will always dominate the award ceremony. That part of this game is being popular. That the other part of the game is being categorizable. But I’m here to say we live in a post-Trump world. That means we live in a world where classical liberals and white supremacists pat each other on the back. Where Mother Jones claims someone who wants immigrants to "go back to their country" is also dapper AF.

But not only that, we live in a post-popular world. What does it even mean anymore to be “ubiquitous”? That you’re selling physical records? That’s just a knock on a system that has no idea how to quantify consumption anymore. That you’re on TV? Late-night is a quantum theory of what bookers and hosts like. That you’re selling out shows? There are so many so-called niche artists living well off show checks that it almost makes you feel bad for the ones that sign a deal. What I’m saying is if you’re being played millions of times on Spotify, on Pandora, on YouTube, etc., who can reasonably say that you aren’t popular? Or, that you’re the kind of popularity that doesn’t count?

And I’m not here for some “he said, she said” argument about who should have made it. They didn’t think Jamila Woods’ brilliant HEAVN or Noname’s Telefone should have been contenders? Cool.

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I’m here to talk categories. They’re obsolete. The Grammy categories no longer reflect the way people consume music, nor do they reflect the genreless precipice that stands before us. With the most immediacy, the Grammy’s simply no longer reflect the way people live.

In this last election, liberals crowded around their cities watching real estate prices skyrocket as foreign investors used their dream homes as banks. Millennials witnessed their neighborhoods become more and more divorced from the reality they grew up in. More cupcake shops and tailors and vegan cuisine, and fewer bodegas and food carts and liquor stores. We’ve done much hand-wringing, all of us huddled together for warmth, burning our degrees for heat, talkin’ bout “gentrification this” and “we were here first that.” Meanwhile, an entire group of people no longer saw their ideas on TV; they no longer saw their rolling hills; their noble, working class professions presented as good and honest. They revolted. But there’s no saving the suburbs now. We’re all too invested in our expensive educations, micro apartments, and white collar jobs.

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So in the midst of this great migration, where inner-city once meant malice and despair and danger around every corner, it now means living communally in a place where your food, your work, your life, your love is all in one place. So tell me now what some old radio category like “urban contemporary album” means to me in my life? Tell me what “urban” means? Is Beyoncé not the music of America now? Ain’t she singing at the Country Music Awards (scraped from the website as she was, we see y’all)?

The Grammys are at their best when you come face-to-face with genres and artists you’d never heard. Being Grammy Award-nominated still means excellence; it’s just an excellence divorced from the rudderless collisions that are affecting human reality.

Listen to Lukas Graham and tell me you don’t hear neo-soul. Listen to Bon Iver and tell me you don’t hear Fela Kuti. The times they are a changin’, and the easy stuff (like saying a song is “traditional” R&B) is closer to preservation than illumination. That’s what libraries do. They codify and index. They say: “Out of the vastness of space and time, I will make this particular thing easy to find.” And some genres deserve to be labeled endangered. What they mean for the future of music means more than what they’re doing right at this very second. That’s okay. So traditional rhythm and blues -- we need you. Don’t you ever dare change. Gospel, country, blues -- we need you.

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But for the rest of them, open up the flood gates. It shouldn’t matter if you’ve heard one song or if it’s a Soundcloud cut or it’s only available on Basecamp. It doesn’t matter if only one person listened to it. Is it the best? The importance of the Grammy Awards cannot be understated but, in a playlist world, the Grammys are in cruel danger of not changing fast enough with the times.

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