Grammys boss Neil Portnow: 'I don't think there's a problem with race at all'

As artists rally in anger to protest the 2017 awards’ landslide for Adele, when many felt Beyoncé deserved top honours, the Recording Academy president defends voting members’ impartiality

The head of the Grammys has denied the awards have a problem with race, insisting voters “almost put a blindfold on” when listening to nominated albums.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, defended the awards against widespread suggestions of racial bias since Sunday, when Adele’s 25 beat Beyoncé’s Lemonade to the top prizes, to the disappoinment of many, including Adele herself. That was the latest in a string of controversial decisions to bypass black artists, including Kendrick Lamar being beaten to album of the year by Taylor Swift in 2016, and Beck beating Beyoncé to the same prize in 2015.

“I don’t think there’s a race problem at all.” Portnow told Pitchfork. “Remember, this is a peer-voted award. So when we say the Grammys, it’s not a corporate entity– it’s the 14,000 members of the academy. They have to qualify in order to be members, which means they have to have recorded and released music, and so they are sort of the experts and the highest level of professionals in the industry.”

Portnow said appraisal of music was “inherently subjective” and insisted: “We don’t, as musicians, in my humble opinion, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity. When you go to vote on a piece of music – at least the way that I approach it – is you almost put a blindfold on and you listen. It’s a matter of what you react to and what in your mind as a professional really rises to the highest level of excellence in any given year. And that is going to be very subjective.

“That’s what we ask our members to do, even in the ballots. We ask that they not pay attention to sales and marketing and popularity and charts. You have to listen to the music. So of the 14,000 voters, they listen, they make up their minds, and then they vote. Now here’s the other interesting part of the process, and we stand 100% behind the process: it’s a democratic vote by majority. So somebody could either receive or not receive a Grammy based on one vote. It could be that tight.”

He said the Recording Academy is “always working” to increase the diversity of its membership. However, he said: “You don’t get Chance the Rapper as the best new artist of the year if you have a membership that isn’t diverse and isn’t open-minded and isn’t really listening to the music.”

Meanwhile, Solange Knowles has joined the chorus of stars, both black and white, responding to Sunday’s ceremony, calling on those angered by the result to: “Create your own committees, build your own institutions, give your friends awards, award yourself, and be the gold you wanna hold, my Gs.” Solange, who is Beyoncé’s sister, won the best R&B performance award at the Grammys for Cranes in the Sky.

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