Oscars

Do the Grammys Have the Same Diversity Issue as the Oscars?

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith arrive at the Los Angeles World Premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures 'Focus' at TCL Chinese Theatre on Feb. 24, 2015 in Hollywood, California. 

Black art has long been adopted and exploited by white audiences. Dances like the viral two-step, the Nae Nae, and profitable hip-hip biopics like Straight Outta Compton have magnified diversity issues, especially as the Oscars and the Grammys -- the largest spectacles of film and music -- remain platforms that deny people of color a slot in the winner’s circle.

With as much ruthlessness as an Eazy-E record, critics slammed the list of nominees of the 88th Academy Awards with the help of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Amid the announcement of potential winners, the phrase– -- created by managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com, April Reign -- flooded timelines, highlighting the Academy’s deep-rooted issue with diversity.

According to detractors, this year’s Oscar nods and its egregious snubs largely underrepresent the film industry, highlighting its Caucasian population. People of color (particularly blacks) were noticeably absent, despite pumping out some of the year’s best work (hi, Dope). Black actors like Michael B. Jordan (Creed), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nations), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), Will Smith (Concussion) and the entire leading cast of the highest grossing music biopic Straight Outta Compton were barred from the big race. Likewise, film directors Ryan Coogler (Creed) and F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) were omitted from the final list of submissions.

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The growing controversy got several celebrities charged up to take action, including Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith. Pinkett-Smith took to Twitter to express the lack of non-white Oscar nominees. "At the Oscars ... people of color are always welcomed to give out awards ... even entertain," she tweeted. "But we are rarely recognized for our artistic accomplishments. Should people of color refrain from participating all together?"

Later, she revealed she wouldn’t attend the award ceremony via a video announcement posted on Facebook. “Maybe it is time that we pull back our resources, and we put them back into our communities, into our programs, and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit that are just as good as the so-called mainstream ones.”

Award shows like the BET Awards, the Soul Train Awards and the NAACP Awards are not just necessary, they’re critical for celebrating and supporting black talent without racial disparities. Despite Fresh Prince actress Janet Hubert taking aim at the Smiths for being “the system that is unfair to other actors,” Will has lost to other black actors the two times he was nominated for an Oscar -- he was nominated for Ali in 2002 and lost to Denzel Washington for Training Day. In 2007, Forest Whitaker and his role in The Last King of Scotland beat Will Smith and his performance in The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith even took the same defiant yet peaceful approach back in 1989 when he skipped that year’s Grammys, despite scoring the first prize given to a rap artist (best rap performance) for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” By the show’s design, the ceremony omitted its rap portion and Smith boycotted.

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Years later, faulty hip-hop categories and non-broadcasted announcements of Grammy winners in these black-leaning spaces are proof positive that a lack of diversity bleeds across industries. "Diversity is the American superpower," Smith declared during his exclusive interview with Good Morning America. "I think that I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country, and make our Hollywood community, great. So when I look at the series of nominations for the Academy, it's not reflecting that beauty."

Take, for instance, the 2014 Grammys, when Macklemore’s indie-meets-hipster LP, The Heist, took home best rap album over Kendrick Lamar’s cinematic good kid, m.A.A.d city, arguably a more deserving nominee by the runaway rap king of that particular year. The following year, Iggy Azalea -- an artist often accused by fellow rap artists and critics as an appropriator of black music and culture -- was stacked against the likes of heralded lyricists ScHoolboy Q, Common and Eminem.

Additionally, the upper echelon of recording arts routinely shuts out traditional R&B acts, aiming to showcase only pop phenoms like Beyoncé, Rihanna or Prince and disregard rising stars like Tinashe and runaway hits like Omarion’s “Post To Be.” Fans saluted this year’s more diverse Grammy lineup -- Kendrick’s long-overdue 11 noms reign served as the ceremony’s redemption song -- but they can expect to catch the winners’ names of most rap categories barreling across their screen’s ticker as Kim Kardashian flaunts her post-Saint West bod pre-show.

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The longstanding exclusion of black talent at both the Oscars and the Grammys forces the question: Why? Both institutions are operated on a members-only voting basis, which further urges for the real culprit of this controversy to please stand up. Continuous calls to action ring out from celebrities like 50 Cent and Tyrese, who are begging this year’s Oscars host Chris Rock to abandon his MC duties for the Feb. 28 show. But is it better for people of color with real influence to sit at the table or excuse themselves from the conversation in order to show solidarity and a need for change?

With the overwhelming backlash hogging headlines and timelines, the Oscars and Grammy boards are attempting to clean up their acts. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced the "dramatic steps" the Academy will take to diversify its nominations and present a more accurate reflection of the industry’s stars, including a voting membership overhaul. Still, when incredible, high-selling albums like good kid m.A.A.d city and blockbusters like Straight Outta Compton are shut out, fans probably aren’t eager to mull over statements as much as -- to borrow a line from late icon and multi-Grammy winner Whitney Houston -- see the receipts.

“We still need to put pressure on the Hollywood studio heads to make more inclusive and diverse films because the academy can only nominate quality work that has been made,” Reign told The L.A. Times. “If people of color, marginalized communities, are still being stymied, if we’re still being ignored by the Hollywood studios, then the changes that the academy is making won’t result in people of color and marginalized communities seeing themselves on screen more often.”

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Both the Oscars and the Grammys acknowledge people of color every few years (see: Lupita Nyong’o). While these trophies are merited and hold a high level of validation for Hollywood and beyond, these wins must be taken with a grain of salt if the industry’s gatekeepers don’t continuously and genuinely applaud the talents of deserving non-white talent across the board.

“I’m very encouraged,” Reign says. “I think that the changes that will be made will make a significant difference. I appreciate the fact that the vote was unanimous, which indicates to me that the academy is serious about making the organization more inclusive and more diverse.”

Until circumstances change, the #OscarsSoWhite and Grammys backlash is welcomed and warranted. It’s an ongoing problem and discussion best had where the world can participate, weigh in and help diversify the narrative. And if hashtag activism and a socially responsible yet funny monologue are what it takes to allow black creatives to get their just due, so be it. 

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