In the Dance Field, the Grammys Fail Their Own Diversity Standards

La Roux
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

 La Roux, winners of the Best Electronic/Dance Album award for "La Roux" pose in the press room at The 53rd Annual Grammy Awards held at Staples Center on Feb. 13, 2011 in Los Angeles. 

Again in 2020, men dominate both awards in the dance field.

In 2011, U.K. synthpop act La Roux won the Grammy for best electronic/dance album. It was the last time a woman was honored in the category, a fact that will hardly change after the awards ceremony this Sunday (Jan. 26) when, for the fifth time in a decade, the nominees -- minus the exception of Saint Sinner, the vocalist featured on Tycho's LP Weather -- are all-male.

In fact, despite seemingly ongoing conversations within the dance and electronic music industry about diversity and gender equality, out of fifty nominees in the category between 2011 and 2020, there have only been nine women nominated: Saint Sinner, Goldfrapp’s Alison Goldfrapp, Robyn, Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath, Sofi Tukker’s Sophe Hawley-Weld, Tokimonsta, and Sophie, who is also the only trans artists ever nominated in the field.

In the Dance field’s other category, best dance recording, the numbers are marginally better with Rihanna, Clean Bandit’s Grace Chatto, and Dua Lipa having won the award and Daya, Sirah, and Foxes each having been part of winning records as featured artists over the same time period. This year, as in 2018, all the category’s nominees are men.

With the exception of Ty Dolla $ign, who features on Skrillex and Boys Noize’s “Midnight Hour,” all nominees in both Dance categories are white. In fact, Rihanna, whose “Only Girl (In The World)” won best dance recording in 2011, is the only person of color to have won either award in ten years.

In December, the Recording Academy issued a 47-page report as the result of a study by a special task force on diversity and inclusion within the organization and its premiere awards show. It offered a series of recommendations to reform membership, organization, and governance, while specifically critiquing practices within certain areas of the industry including technical fields and country music. However, perhaps because it’s a genre whose awards have always been relegated to the pre-telecast portion of the ceremony, there was no specific mention of diversity within the dance field.

The report’s limitations weren’t just its selected examination of genre; it took a painfully simplistic view of gender as well. Calling out the lack of diversity on nomination review committees -- 74% male in the years 2015-2017 -- the report makes no mention of trans or nonbinary representation. Despite an acknowledgement of “groups that were underrepresented in terms of race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and disability,” the report offers no findings on these within any field or aspect of the organization.

The dance music industry is somewhat accustomed to being overlooked by the Academy. The award for best dance recording originated in 1998 after a campaign by musician Ellyn Harris to convince the traditionally analogue Academy that music made with electronic instruments was, in fact, a valid form of music. The campaign also led to the creation of the award for best remixed recording, voted on and presented by the Production Field of the Academy. In 2005, the Grammys introduced the award for Electronic/Dance Album as part of the newly-formed Dance Field.

After several years of pop stars like Madonna and Lady Gaga winning Dance trophies, in addition to the highly controversial nomination of Al Walser in 2013, the Dance field's nomination review committee was fortified with industry leaders, mostly representatives of labels, talent agencies, and management firms. The purpose of the committee is to ensure the nominated works are truly representative of the genre and have met a standard of achievement the Grammys seek to recognize. There is, however, nothing to stop members of the committee from advocating for their own artists; they frequently do. (The sources interviewed for this story, including committee members, declined to speak on record.)

As a result, rather than representing the most popular or most critically acclaimed records or albums of a given time period, the nominees in Dance awards are typically a combination of artists whose interests are best represented within the Academy itself. More than an agreed-upon standard of excellence, the awards reflect a consensus by the industry’s current guard of power elite.

As part of the review process, committee members often end up making eligibility decisions that affirm pre-existing biases. Records with female lead artists like Alison Wonderland or Charli XCX, get moved out of Dance into Pop. Black artists like Dawn Richard or Kelela get moved to R&B. When moved into larger and more competitive fields like Pop and R&B -- as Avicii’s massive EDM hit “Wake Me Up” was in 2014 -- dance artists get overlooked for nominations entirely. Because the baseline of what is considered a recognizable and valid form of dance music gets established by the review committee, and because the committee is largely filled by people whose greatest familiarity with the year in music comes from the mostly white, mostly male artists they work with, the eligibility requirements reflect a self-perpetuating racial and gender homogeneity.

Plenty of obstacles to diversity come from structural issues of the dance music industry at large. Some of the genre’s biggest artists -- like Charlotte De Witte, whose remix of Eats Everything’s “Space Raiders” was one of 2019’s biggest records, but was not nominated -- are represented and signed out of Europe and are therefore without a local advocate to campaign for them.

Industry politics aside, a genre whose popularity is centered on live events might be ill-suited for recognizing excellence in recorded music. Could that account for why Nina Kraviz, a DJ who has been dominant on the festival circuit, has been ignored by the Academy despite having multiple releases during the 2019 eligibility year? (Her reworking of Grammys favorite St. Vincent’s Masseduction will be eligible at next year’s awards.)

For as many possible explanations on the Dance Grammys’ extreme white maleness, there are thankfully as many solutions. Foremost, the Dance field needs to be honest and rigorous in any evaluation of its own effectiveness at achieving goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This means submitting to the kind of review the Academy’s Task Force performed on country music, and responding to recommendations on diversifying the demographic makeup of recording studios. The latter is within the power of every artist, manager, and label executive to control.

It also means creating a nomination process that can withstand the most ardent scrutiny for conflicts of interest, and allowing for enough transparency as needed to ensure the efficacy of the awards. While such situations may have been unavoidable in the early days of dance music at the Academy, there are now plenty of industry professionals who don’t have a dog in the nomination fight, and can objectively evaluate eligibility while advocating for excellence representation, and not their own personal interests.

Industry leaders also need to advocate for resources within the Academy to better ensure representation of the genre. According to the IFPI’s annual report in 2019, dance/electronic music is the No. 5 most popular genre of music in the world, and yet is only recognized by two awards at the Grammys. Jazz, which doesn’t even make the top 10 genres in the same report, has five awards. Categories for instrumental recording, vocal performance, or traditional dance music (like disco, house, or techno), would fit well within the Grammys established rubric of recognition and would expand the quantity of nominees, giving more opportunities to more kinds of artists.

Some of these challenges aren’t even complicated. Tracy Young became the first-ever woman nominated in the best remixed recording category this year for her remix of Madonna’s “I Rise.” Official remixes are an unmatched opportunity for newer or lesser-known artists to expand their audience and yet, the overwhelming majority of producers given these coveted jobs are white men. Were labels and artists agree to an industry-wide goal of standards for diversity, equity, and inclusion among remixers, the nominees in this category would reflect that.

Whether or not the dance music Grammys adapt and change, dance music audiences already have. Fans and critics have embraced records by female, POC, and LGBTQ+ artists like Octo Octa, Kaytranada, Jayda G, Marie Davidson, Kim Petras, and Sarah Davachi, while more established producers like Waajeed, Suzanne Ciani, Robert Hood, Lady Alma, and Inner City continue to deliver on the promise of dance music’s origins.

In the early days, few could have imagined ever having a discussion about Grammy awards for this kind of music -- whether it was the rough and dirty house music of Frankie Knuckles or the ear-bending electronic sounds created by Wendy Carlos -- because the very existence of music created by gay people of color or trans women was radical.

Now, as the industry prepares to yet again celebrate achievements by a selection of artists whose structural advantages are uncontested, it’s imperative we demand better -- not simply to honor our history or even acknowledge the present, but to ensure the future.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this story did not include Saint Sinner as a 2020 Grammy nominee for her work on Tycho's Weather. Billboard Dance regrets the error.]

2020 Grammy Awards


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