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  • Addison Schmidt

The Grammy’s: A History of Scandal and a Future of Uncertainty

Courtesy of LA Times

The nominations for the 2024 Grammy Awards were released on Nov. 10, featuring major nods towards female artists, including awards-season staples like Taylor Swift and SZA, and newcomers to the field, such as the indie-rock supergroup boygenius. 

At face-value, the nominations seem to mark a changing of tides for the Recording Academy, the nonprofit organization which organizes the Grammy awards. Almost all of the nominees for “Record of the Year” and “Album of the Year,” two of the ceremony’s biggest awards, are women, and nearly half are artists of color —  a rare occurrence for an awards show which has long been accused of bias and discrimination against marginalized artists. 

While the Grammys are often looked at as the crowning achievement for musicians, a history riddled with controversy and marred by backlash has darkened their reputation in recent years. 

A look back at the three of the largest controversies embedded in the Grammys past helps to put a perspective on the nominations, and to answer a pressing question: in a ceremony embroiled in controversy, can a valuable future still be forged?  

Hip-hop and rap are the leading genres of music in the United States — but a quick glance at the winners for the Grammy awards’ largest categories would suggest an alternative reality. 

An album categorized as hip-hop or rap has not won album of the year in over 20 years. The last winner was Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2004. 

While many albums have been nominated — both Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce were nominated for awards in the major categories for the 2023 ceremony, for example — the lack of winners highlights another major controversy in the Grammys past: a history of racial bias. 

Over 81% of Billboards top-selling albums are made by artists that are non-white or of mixed race, yet less than 30% of non-white artists received nominations from 2012 to 2020. And while the Grammy awards have been around since 1958, only 11 artists have one Album of the Year, one of the major awards of the night. 

For artists of color who have received nominations, very few have won in the “Big Four” categories — Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist.

Examples of this have been abundant in recent years: most notably, Beyonce, one of the best-selling artists of all time, has lost the ‘Album of the Year’ category three times in the past decade to other white nominees, despite each of her three nominated albums being received to critical acclaim. 

The racial biases that have seemingly been present in past Grammy nominations and winners have even driven certain artists of color to forgo the awards entirely — Abel Tesfaye, better known as his stage name The Weeknd, publicly declared that he was no longer going to submit his work for consideration after his hit single “Blinding Lights” was overlooked by the Academy. 

While the merit of the music itself may not be enough to demonstrate a racial bias, the dichotomy in victories when comparing white artists to non-white artists has called into question the validity of the Grammys themselves, which have long been looked towards as the preeminent music awards and among the highest honors for artists in the music industry. 

The controversies themselves have also called into question the acting taking place behind the stage: the voting process. 

The Recording Academy, the organizers of the Grammy Awards and the body that votes on nominations, has thousands of members, ranging from artists to music producers to a wide variety of other music professionals. 

But the voting process by the Academy for the Grammy Awards has long been a notoriously complex process, one which many artists and producers alike have accused of intentionally fostering secrecy around their voting processes. 

After The Weeknd and other famous artists of color such as Drake and Bruno Mars referenced the voting process as reasoning behind not submitting their work for consideration, the Recording Academy announced significant changes to the voting process in 2022 — most notably that the awards would no longer be overseen by “review committees,” according to the official Grammys website. 

Review committees consisted of a group of qualified music professionals who “represented” their peers in the Recording Academy voting process for many of the major awards of the night. But many music professionals, including The Weeknd and former Grammys president, Deborah Dugan, accused these “secret” committees of favoritism, with many members of the voting committees potentially collaborating with artists nominated in the major categories. 

While the voting process has gone under significant overhauls since 2021— the awards are now decided by “majority, peer-to-peer vote of voting members of the Recording Academy,” according to the Grammys official website — the history of such voting biases calls into question whether or not changes to the decision making processes have actually increased diversity. 

Further muddling this issue are controversies that lie outside of the winners themselves — namely, the Grammy Awards’ string of controversial leadership. 

After Neil Portnow, the former president and CEO of the Grammy Awards, stepped down from his position in 2019 partially due to a controversial comment regarding female artists, Deborah Dugan, the former CEO of the AIDS nonprofit RED, was hired as the awards’ first female president, a hallmark moment for the awards in a time when they were embroiled in scandal. 

However, Dugan did not last long at the post — less than a year after she was selected to take over as president, she was placed on administrative leave, which was quickly followed by a discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Comission, accusing the Recording Academy of sexual harrasment and corruption, as well as accusing Portnow of sexual assault, which the Academy was aware of. 

The accusations of rape aginst Portnow have once again come to light — a lawsuit, filed on Nov. 8 by an unnamed woman, accused Portnow of  sexual assault which took place in 2018, during a period in which Portnow would have still been president of the Grammy Awards. 

The woman also sued the Recording Academy, accusing the Academy of negligence after she reached out in 2018 shortly after the alleged assault occurred. 

While Portnow is no longer the CEO of the Grammy Awards, the lawsuit stands as a firm representation of the history that both the Recording Academy and the Grammy awards are having difficulty evading. 

In particular, the suit against the Recording Academy suggests a system of abuse, one which not only emanates from the very top of the institution but is perpetuated through the very structure of the Academy. 

The nominations for this year's ceremony do undoubtedly pose as a beacon of hope for the future of the awards, one that suggests a diversified voting body and a diversified selection of winners. 

But such cracks in the foundation of a monolith institution cannot be filled by a singular ceremony. For now, it seems that even as the Recording Academy moves towards a more progressive future, it may always be weighed down by its unfortunate past. 


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