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The only gold in the music video for 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s “Runnin’” is a barely visible top and bottom grill worn by the platinum-selling rapper and the gramophone he won in 2020 for Best Rap Song at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. Neither leading man touches the lauded token; it’s not theirs to carry. Instead, the GRAMMY travels like a neighborhood trophy from Black hand to Black hand around parts of East Atlanta.
With bulging eyes, grinning teeth, and greedy hands, they all held it. A status symbol dating back to 1959. The oldest emblem of prestige in music history relevant 63 years later. No other glory comes with the volume of discussions, debates, and doubts pertaining to art and artists from women and men of various races and minority communities. Rightfully so. Six decades have proven not long enough to reprimand all the racial and cultural discrimination embedded in a venerable American institution like The Recording Academy.
Time, protests, and boycotts have brought progress, correction, effort, but not complete evolution. This is also true of America as a country. It’s not a coincidence how writing about the United States from a critical lens is to ultimately repeat what’s already been written by prophets who — in their time — documented the racial, cultural, and economic inadequacies eroding the land. They spoke, and the country did not listen; they wrote, and the country did not read. As contemporary speakers and writers renew the sentiments expressed by their foremothers and forefathers, the questions remain, “Will they hear them? Will they learn?”
A similar cycle exists with yearly GRAMMY commentary. You can go back to 1989, New York rapper Chubb Rock’s “And The Winner Is…” puts in rhyme the frustration of how the GRAMMYs didn’t see rappers in the same light as R&B, soul, or pop artists. “Our records could’ve sold 50 million if it had to, but they won’t give us no statue, that’s the Grammys,” he raps. The phrasing, “That’s the Grammys” notes how there’s a degree of acceptance. Chubb had no illusions about why rap wasn’t recognized. He begins the song, “Martin Lurther King Jr. had a dream, and every time I think about it, it seems prejudice is dwindling, but in music, it’s sizzling.”
New Yorker staff writer Doreen St. Félix wrote “It’s Too Late for The Grammys to Redeem Themselves” in 2019, a short but critical essay on the shifting relationship between celebrated musicians and the biggest night in music. “The sixty-first Grammys made history. The question is whether the history-making was born out of panic or out of vision,” she penned. A sentiment that brings up a similar elephant that Sean “Diddy” Combs cited when he told the GRAMMYs in 2020 they had 365 days to do better, citing transparency, artists control, and diversity as crucial blindspots.
“I’m speaking for all the artists here, the producers, the executives, the amount of time that it takes to make these records, to pour your heart into, and you just want an even playing field,” he said, followed by, “Truth be told, hip hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys.”
These points were made while accepting the Icon Award bestowed by The Recording Academy. Combs’ need to be critical while being celebrated puts in perspective how conflicting winning can be when you’re aware of history and all that hasn’t changed within an erroneous system — even when that system chooses to celebrate you.
Countless rappers have won GRAMMYs in the 31 years between Diddy’s speech and Chubb Rock’s song. I remember hearing John Legend, Consequence, and Kanye West on DJ Khaled’s 2006 single “Grammy Family” and how it left this impression of celebratory opulence without being a direct ode to the award show. They became the image of a winner circle that only a gilded gramophone could grant access to. Last year, when Kanye tweeted a video showering the very trophy he once lionized in urine, it stained that image. Becoming a metaphor for how value is granted and removed on an ever-changing basis, the artists and audience ultimately decide what matters.
The power to decide is what Diddy reinforced at the podium to hip hop and Black creatives. It’s a notion that makes the video relevant today after last night’s GRAMMY award show. Beyoncé, Kaytranda, and Megan Thee Stallion all made history — going home with multiple awards at the 63rd GRAMMYs. Nas won his first, as well as Burna Boy. Lil Baby performed, as did Anderson.Paak, Doja Cat and Cardi B. That’s only making a note of a few moments of increased diversity and inclusiveness. For every celebratory step in progress, there are critiques and shortcomings that feel like history repeating rather than advancing.
It all depends on how to appraise steps forward vis-à-vis steps backward. And not all advancement makes up for the past. That’s why, for every person who views a GRAMMY as the crème de la crème, someone will argue otherwise. Either point is as valid as the value placed upon the award. What isn’t up for debate is prestige. To be a nominee is a profile booster. To win pushes you further in the epicenter of attention — a magnet for applause, press, partnerships, and an increase in sales and streams.
Commercial privileges will always clash with any cultural shortcomings no matter the company or institution. The GRAMMYs remains relevant in mainstream music and pop culture despite not always getting it right because they matter. For how long? It could be six more years or 63. My bet is the latter. Because there will always be a new artist or an elder statesmen who deserves recognition by their peers, fans, and anyone with a trophy to handout. But, it’s only a trophy. A trinket. An item that you can place in the hands of a child, encouraging them to follow their dream, or you can place it in a toilet, stripping away your attachment to outside validation.
But, validation is all it can ever be. It’s why the video for “Runnin” feels so wholesome. Instead of showing off the award as a brag or a boast, 21 Savage shows off the people and their excitement to see him back where it all started. The GRAMMY gives the video a symbol of accomplishment, but it would mean nothing without that local love. Visually, it’s the perfect contrast to the Kendrick Lamar lyric, “My plan B is to win your hearts before I win a GRAMMY.” 21 did that. Megan Thee Stallion did that. Kaytranada did that. They won over the people, and by proxy, they were bound to win over a voting committee, and if they didn’t, the people would have to decide how much stock should they place in such a show.
In the years to come, yesterday’s winners may be in the same position as Diddy, standing at a podium, either celebrating all that has changed or making demands at what needs to be done. That will be the cycle until the majority decides to place value elsewhere. “We have the power. We decide what’s hot. If we don’t go, nobody goes. If we don’t support, nobody supports,” he said, a statement on hip hop’s influence that will only be tested when everyone agrees on the last straw.
Looking at how The Weeknd plans to boycott The GRAMMYs after being excluded from nominations, though he had the most prominent pop album of last year, there’s still room for improvement. It’s unlikely that will ever change, but as Diddy said, it’s all about an even playing field. Not because of panic, but vision. We’ll see in the next 365 days if they visualize change or more of the same.