In silencing Drake, the Grammys continue to have a problem with rap | Alexis Petridis

The Canadian rapper’s speech was cut off, further damaging the standing of the ceremony in the hip-hop community, despite championing more women

Had Drake not opened his mouth, the Grammy awards might have passed more or less without incident. If it wasn’t overly keen on courting political controversy – accepting her best new artist award, Dua Lipa started talking about the importance of “personal background”, and seemed to be making a point about immigration, but was cut off – it did try to atone for the comments made last year about female artists by the Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, which provoked outrage and a campaign to unseat him.

Female solo artists took home a succession of top awards – best album, best new artist, best pop solo performance and best pop vocal album among them. Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile dominated the country and Americana categories, and Cardi B became the first solo woman to win best rap album. Portnow made reference to what he had said in his speech, although the stony response of female artists in the audience, including Lady Gaga and Musgraves, suggested his words were being filed under “too little too late”.

Elsewhere, the kind of things you might expect to win Grammys won Grammys – Childish Gambino’s This Is America got both record and song of the year plus best music video; Ariana Grande took home best pop album – and other categories provided their usual dose of WTF? for British onlookers, used to less diffuse awards ceremonies. Take Opium Moon, self-styled purveyors of “karma sutra music … sensual and groovy”, triumphing in the new age category, or the bizarre sight of proggy soft-rockers the Alan Parsons Project taking home an award in 2019, albeit for best immersive audio album.

Kacey Musgraves with her four awards.
Kacey Musgraves with her four awards. Photograph: Jerod Harris/FilmMagic

And then Drake made his acceptance speech for best rap song. His initial point was that big musical awards ceremonies such as the Grammys are essentially meaningless, because there’s a weekly musical awards ceremony, voted for by the public, called the charts. This is not totally accurate: in awarding album of the year to Musgraves’ Golden Hour, which triumphed over commercial behemoths including Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys and Drake’s own middling Scorpion, the Grammys performed one of the few genuinely useful functions a musical award ceremony can perform, shining the spotlight on an artistically brilliant album that has thus far underperformed commercially.

If critical acclaim counted for sales, Musgraves’ fourth album – a commanding, lyrically and musically adventurous piece of self-styled “galactic cosmic country” that takes in everything from Daft Punk-inspired disco-house to hazy psychedelia, from depictions of LSD experimentation to rallying calls for LGBTQ+ youth on Rainbow, the song she chose to perform live at the ceremony – would have broken every Spotify streaming record going. In reality, it was a relative commercial disappointment, its sales barely a tenth of those achieved by Musgraves’ 2013 breakthrough Same Trailer, Different Park.

But Drake’s second point, about the Grammys’ attitude to artists of colour, was more difficult to dispute. The last 12 months have seen hip-hop continue a commercial domination of music that began in 2017 when Nielsen Soundscan figures from the US suggested eight of the 10 most listened to artists in the world were rappers. But you only had to look at the Grammy awards to realise that hip-hop artists have largely given up on the prospect of seeing themselves properly represented at the ceremony: Jay-Z and Beyoncé didn’t bother to turn up to collect their award; Childish Gambino was absent; Kendrick Lamar and Drake both turned down an invitation to perform. It looked suspiciously as if some of the biggest stars in the world were boycotting what’s supposed to be the biggest award ceremony in its field.

The official line from the academy itself seems to have shifted from denial – “I don’t think there’s a race problem at all,” offered Portnow, when even Adele wondered aloud why her album had beat Beyoncé’s Lemonade for the 2017 album of the year – to a kind of admission: “We continue to have a problem in the hip-hop world,” said Ken Ehrlich, show’s producer, when questioned about Drake, Lamar and Childish Gambino’s refusal to perform. “When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad.”

But what they plan to do about that problem remains a mystery. The artists involved might reasonably point out that the Grammys need them far more than they need the Grammys. As hip-hop’s dominance steamrollers on, no-shows by its biggest stars serve to make the event look irrelevant and out-of-touch, which was precisely the point Drake was making.

Not that anyone at home heard it. The immediate response to his criticisms from the Grammys was to shut him up, cutting his speech short without even affording him the swelling wrap-it-up music they used to gradually drown out Dua Lipa. It was a hasty attempt to spare their own blushes, one that they’ll likely live to regret.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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