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When will Black artists be ready to break up with The Grammys?

Jay-Z (left) accepts the honorary Dr. Dre Global Impact Award alongside his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, during the 66th Grammy Awards on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Jay-Z (left) accepts the honorary Dr. Dre Global Impact Award alongside his daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, during the 66th Grammy Awards on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Standing on the stage at the 66th Grammys on Feb. 4 to accept an honorary award, Jay-Z's speech ended up being anything but accepting.

"We love y'all," Jay said, diplomatically motioning to the room of assembled megastars and industry vets before adding, "We want y'all to get it right — at least get it close to right."

Even watching on TV, you could feel the energy in the room shift. His brow furrowed, one hand in his tux pocket and the other holding the all-black Dr. Dre Global Impact Award Grammy, with his eldest daughter, Blue Ivy, by his side for support, HOV said he was "honored" to receive the award. He thanked Dr. Dre, who was in the house, and the Grammys' Black Music Collective for their support and philanthropy.

In an off-the-cuff delivery that's come to be rare for the rap mogul, Jay's sentences were strung together with nervous laughter as he shared memories of hip-hop boycotting Grammys past — he noted that Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff declined to show in 1989, when the first ever rap award was not televised, and that he himself skipped it in 1998 in solidarity with DMX, who had not been nominated — while not being able to resist watching the ceremony. "It wasn't a great boycott," he smirked. But as the reality of the moment set in for the Brooklyn rapper and music industry leader, he got a little gully.

Jay's protest rightfully got personal. As Beyoncé looked on in support in the audience, Jay cited that his wife "has more Grammys than anyone and never won album of the year. So even by your own metrics, that doesn't work." Of course the cameras panned to Bey, icy platinum hair flowing from under a cream colored cowboy hat looking stoic, serious, solid.

As the point of Jay's words crystallized, it was clear he was chiding the Recording Academy for historically sidelining Black artists. When he commented on how some artists who get nominated and win each year don't even deserve to be in certain categories at all, ripples of laughter and shock rolled through the crowd at the shots he was taking. But Jay shrugged off the responses by saying, "When I get nervous, I tell the truth."

But is this the whole truth?

What started off, in his opening remarks, as a searing demand that the Grammys to do better by Black creatives was undercut by his last thoughts before he left the mic. He closed his speech by compelling artists to "keep showing up" — not just to this awards show, but in life, until they reach a C-suite level of social acceptance and security. It was a pulled punch, a compromise masking a stronger critique, just like boycotting the ceremony but still watching it on TV. This is the root of why disrespect of Black artists at the awards is an annually recurring conversation: It's a search for validation in places where it does not exist.

Achievement at a Grammys-level height comes from excellence matched with politicking, not all-out rejection. It requires a buying in to the promise of what these awards claim to represent — prestige, artistry, recognition on a neutral playing field by a cross-genre body of your creative peers.

In selling this promise for over 65 years, the Recording Academy has successfully marketed itself as the center of the recording industry when anyone tracking the impact Black artists have made to invent, remix and reverberate music forward would see it is not. By partaking in the awards, an artist sacrifices some of their power to push against the Grammy's socially imagined gravitational force.

As a fan, the remedy to feeling frustrated or short-changed when the Grammys get it wrong is to simply not watch the show. But as a Black artist, submitting yourself to the institution for its level of verification, the response when that promise is left unfulfilled goes deeper than frustration.

Aside from Jay's award being one of the few times hip-hop was highlighted at all during the broadcast, Black artists throughout the night had to negotiate, in familiar ways, the bitter with the sweet. When Killer Mike took home three Grammys for best rap album, best rap song and best rap performance, he literally hit a church stomp onstage and ecstatically told the crowd it was his childhood dream to be up there. But Mike didn't have much time to cradle his new hardware, as he wasarrested at the awards ceremony following an altercation and charged with misdemeanor battery.

Victoria Monét, who was up for seven awards heading into the show and took home the award for best new artist during the broadcast, noted in her acceptance speech that the climb to this stage was a 15-year pursuit for her, one that was filled with seasons of doubt and rejection by the industry.

Luminate Data's 2023 year-end report notes that hip-hop remains the most-consumed genre, and Afrobeats is the fastest growing genre being streamed in the U.S. But the newly created best African music performance Grammy, which went to Tyla for the viral hit "Water," was not featured during the telecast. And while Burna Boy made history by being the first Afrobeats artist to perform during the primetime show, his set time was noticeably shorter than others.

This relationship between the Recording Academy and Black artists has always been a tightrope walk-type quest for legitimacy that, even with recent strides in diversifying the voting pool, still falls short. As it was reported last year, some voters rationalized not casting their ballots for Beyoncé's Renaissance for album of the year because they mistakenly believe she wins in the major categories so often. Over the years, hip-hop and R&B artists have vocally declined to submit their work for the Grammys' judgment. But in the case of big names like Drake rebuking the big show, his words come from the luxurious spot of already having been to the mountaintop of a Grammys podium before.

For smaller artists, the notoriety or just pure exposure the Grammys provide can have a life-changing effect. It can translate to more streams, brand deals, beefier budgets, bigger fonts on festivals lineups. But for someone as outstandingly talented and culturally impactful as Beyoncé, the Grammys depend on her appearance — viewership spikes when she arrives — to collect credibility and the attention of her fans.

So, if the Grammys need Black artists more than Black artists need the Grammys, when will they be at the point of fully breaking away? The contradiction that lies in Jay's speech is trusting the institution at all. What Black artists learned "doesn't work" is showing up, presenting their best and striving for approval in spaces that do not wholly give it to them.

Beyond boycotting or public derision, imagine if Jay and Bey actively divested. Imagine if they threw a one-night-only, televised concert at the same time as the broadcast. Viewing habits would shift — advertisers would, too. There would be a tidal wave of change in the org in order to compensate. The type of change Jay says he's seeking comes from pressure, not platitudes.

Black genius is rarely recognized in the present. The Grammys will still have room for redemption as long as Black artists still decide to subject themselves to it. Just as Toni Morrison's peers rallied for her to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 decades after her breakthrough novels, just as Angela Bassett was given an honorary Oscar in 2024 after a decadeslong career of exemplary performances, just as the Recording Academy has given Kendrick Lamar best rap album for every LP he's dropped since they missed the mark in 2014 with Good Kid M.A.A.D City, with Jay's level of influence and this public a call-out, the Academy will likely/probably/maybe give Bey AOTY one day in the future. Or maybe the Academy will even name an award for her, to honor the star's cross-generational contribution to music. Maybe they'll make it Renaissance-era chrome instead of all black. But by the time that future comes, will she be there to accept it? Will the praise even ring true? Not if, as a whole, the Academy continues to play in the face of Black art.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.