There were several storylines to follow at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards on Sunday. Beyoncé became the vocalist with the most Grammys ever (28). Female artists swept the Big Four awards for the second year in a row. The Big Four awards went to four different artists for the first time in five years.
With so much going on, it was easy to overlook the fact that Black artists took two of the Big Four awards: H.E.R. and two Black co-writers won song of the year for “I Can’t Breathe,” and Megan Thee Stallion took best new artist.
It was the second time in three years that Black artists have taken two of the Big Four awards; two years ago, Childish Gambino took record and song of the year for “This Is America.”
This three-year period coincides with the years that the Recording Academy has made a major effort to diversify its membership. Critics of the Recording Academy will say the diversity push is long overdue, but, based on these results, it seems to be making a difference.
The Academy’s critics might be surprised to learn that 16 times over the years, Black artists have won two or more of the Big Four awards (as lead artists; this doesn’t count artists in featured roles). Black artists first won two of the Big Four awards at the 16th annual Grammy Awards, for 1973, when Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack were honored.
Looking at it by decade, Black artists won two or more of the Big Four awards twice in the ’70s, four times in the ’80s, five times in the ’90s, three times in the ’00s, once in the ’10s and once (so far) in the ’20s.
(Why did the number climb steadily through the ’90s, then slide backwards? I may have just given the Academy’s critics more ammunition!)
Here is a complete list of all the times that Black artists won two or more of the Big Four awards:
1973 (presented March 2, 1974): Stevie Wonder took album of the year for the first time with Innervisions. Roberta Flack became the first artist in Grammy history to win record of the year two years running, this time for “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
1976 (presented Feb. 19, 1977): Wonder took album of the year for the third time with Songs in the Key of Life. George Benson won record of the year for “This Masquerade.” Note: Wonder remains, to this day, the only artist to win album of the year with three consecutive studio albums.
1983 (presented Feb. 28, 1984): Michael Jackson took album of the year for Thriller and record of the year for “Beat It.” It was part of a sweep where he became the first artist in Grammy history to win eight Grammys in one night.
1984 (presented Feb. 26, 1985): Lionel Richie took album of the year for Can’t Slow Down. Tina Turner won record of the year for “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
1985 (presented Feb. 25, 1986): For the first time in Grammy history, three of the Big Four awards went to Black artists. Quincy Jones, the producer of USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” was the only individual to receive a Grammy when that megahit was named record of the year. (The Academy did not give awards to the 44 artists involved — not even to the 21 featured soloists. Not a very charitable approach to a charity record!) Jackson and Lionel Richie took song of the year for writing the song. Sade, led by Black British singer Sade Adu, won best new artist.
1988 (presented Feb. 22, 1989): For the second time, three of the Big Four awards went to Black artists. Bobby McFerrin won both record and song of the year for “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Tracy Chapman took best new artist.
1990 (presented Feb. 20, 1991): Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block took album of the year. Mariah Carey won best new artist.
1991 (presented Feb. 25, 1992): Natalie Cole took album of the year for Unforgettable With Love and record of the year for “Unforgettable,” a collab with her late father, Nat “King” Cole (who, per Grammy rules, did not receive a Grammy for his part, which was recorded way back in 1961).
1993 (presented March 1, 1994): For the third time, three of the Big Four awards went to Black artists. Whitney Houston took album of the year for The Bodyguard soundtrack and record of the year for “I Will Always Love You.” Toni Braxton won best new artist.
1995 (presented Feb. 28, 1996): Seal took record and song of the year for “Kiss From a Rose.” In addition, Hootie & the Blowfish, featuring Black lead singer Darius Rucker, took best new artist.
1998 (presented Feb. 24, 1999): Lauryn Hill won album of the year for her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and best new artist.
2001 (presented Feb. 27, 2002): Alicia Keys won song of the year for “Fallin’” and best new artist.
2003 (presented Feb. 8, 2004): OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won album of the year. Luther Vandross won song of the year for “Dance With My Father,” which he co-wrote with Richard Marx.
2004 (presented Feb. 13, 2005): The late Ray Charles won album of the year for Genius Loves Company and record of the year for “Here We Go Again” (a collab with Norah Jones).
2018 (presented Feb. 10, 2019): Childish Gambino won record and song of the year for “This Is America.” He co-wrote the song with another Black songwriter, Jeffrey Lamar Williams (a.k.a. Young Thug), as well as a white co-writer, Ludwig Göransson.
2020 (presented March 14, 2021): H.E.R. won song of the year for “I Can’t Breathe,” which she co-wrote with two other Black writers, Dernst Emile II (a.k.a. D’Mile) and Tiara Thomas. Megan Thee Stallion won best new artist.