“What the f— does [Beyonce] have to do to win album of the year?” Adele asked rhetorically in the press room after the 2017 Grammys, where she had just won the night’s biggest award for her 2015 release 25. “I voted for her,” she said, almost apologetically. After Beyoncé’s latest loss in the Grammys’ most prestigious category — she has gone 0-3 so far in her career — the answer is increasingly unclear. Since Beyoncé released her debut solo album in 2003, Taylor Swift and Adele (arguably, her only peers besides Rihanna) have both won album of the year — twice.
The voters of The Recording Academy appear to have a problem with hip-hop, a situation that has created a widening racial gap between critical consensus and Grammy winners in the big four categories: best new artist, record of the year, song of the year and album of the year. In the lattermost category, only two rap-related albums (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) have won in the genre’s 40-year history. Since 2000, black artists have won album of the year just three times — OutKast in 2004, Ray Charles (posthumously) in 2005 and Herbie Hancock for his Joni Mitchell tribute in 2008 — even though a black artist or group with black members have been nominated every year except two. In The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll — a leading survey for music critics — the top albums in four of the last five years were made by black artists. (The exception, David Bowie’s Blackstar, beat Lemonade by the equivalent of about 10 votes.)
“I don’t hate the Grammys, but I didn’t even watch this year for this very reason,” says Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, who contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which won five Grammys but lost album of the year in 2016 to Swift’s 1989. “I knew this was going to happen — we have seen it.”
Bruner’s lack of surprise at Lemonade’s loss was a common reaction, although many people Billboard spoke with do acknowledge that Beyoncé’s album was far more musically and thematically provocative — and polarizing — than Adele’s explosively popular 25, which has sold 9.2 million copies in the United States alone through Feb. 9, according to Nielsen Music. “Beyoncé delivered the record of her career,” says music executive Livia Tortella. “But she was going against the biggest record from the biggest artist.”
Still, recent wildcard winners like Beck (who beat out Beyoncé in 2015) and Mumford & Sons (ditto Frank Ocean in 2013) suggest that having the biggest record and being the biggest artist don’t necessarily guarantee walking away with the gramophone, nor do they address an increasingly stark racial divide: Between 1974 and 1994, eight albums by black artists took the top prize — and three of those were by Grammy favorite Stevie Wonder.
“I feel that minds are more closed now,” says artist-producer Helen Bruner, a current Grammy trustee (no relation to Stephen). “I believe if Stevie Wonder released [groundbreaking, politically charged 1974 album of the year] Innervisions now, he wouldn’t win.”
Yet the decision ultimately lies with the 14,000 voting members of The Recording Academy, who must have a minimum number of credits on commercially available albums (the number differs for physical and digital distribution) or one Grammy nomination, and pay their $100 annual dues in order to qualify. This means everyone from liner-notes authors to A&R reps to mix engineers to superstars are voting on the awards, a fact that helps skew the constituency older. “The voters spoke, and [the result says] there is still a generational gap when it comes to the approach of making records,” adds Helen Bruner of the academy’s constituency. “They’ll say ‘I can’t play “Formation” on the piano, but I can play “Hello.” ’ ”
That perception took hold long before the nominations were announced: Ocean elected not to submit his album Blonde for consideration, telling The New York Times the academy didn’t “seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from.” Though he was nominated eight times for the 2017 awards, Kanye West declined to attend. “Yes I have a problem with the Grammys,” he tweeted early in 2016, calling out Recording Academy chairman/CEO Neil Portnow. “Neil, please reach out as soon as possible so we can make the Grammys culturally relevant again. We the people need to see Future at the Grammys… Not just me and [Jay Z] in a suit.”
The Grammys have, in fact, made concerted efforts in recent years to diversify its ranks in terms of ethnicity and age, which is reflected in this year’s five most-nominated artists: West, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Drake and Chance the Rapper. “You don’t get to this point without a diverse and relevant voting membership,” Portnow tells Billboard, citing a new requalification requirement (which comes with membership renewals) as one initiative designed to keep the constituency relevant: “Unless you’re currently making music as a full-time vocation, you may not requalify as a voting member.”
And while Portnow downplays any suggestion of racial bias in the academy’s one-vote-per-member constituency — “It’s more about personal taste, so it’s hard for me to criticize when we see no basis that [the results] are about anything other than music, and certainly not race” — he does concede that while “we’ve come a long way as an organization, we’re certainly not complacent or satisfied with where we are — but we also need the participation of the communities to do more. That’s how democracy works.”
Indeed, “most of the people complaining are motherf—ers who don’t vote!” says artist-producer Terrace Martin, a 2017 nominee (for best R&B album) and a Grammy voter. “When I go to Recording Academy events, I’m the only one there with tattoos on my neck. I’m trying to get my friends to vote. Everybody acts like they don’t give a f— about the Grammys — until the Grammys come around.” Martin says he became a voting member after Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, to which he contributed, lost album of the year — which is the kind of initiative the academy wants to encourage. “[Some of] the comments I’ve seen come from not understanding at all how this works,” says Portnow. “It’s one thing to be a critic, and another to join and vote and be part of the change that you want to see.”
Still, there’s little question that Beyoncé’s 2017 losses have thrown the contest’s racial overtones into dramatic relief and consequently raised the specter of the Grammys disenfranchising makers and fans of hip-hop, inarguably the creative center of today’s popular music. “We always want the biggest and the brightest artists to be involved,” says producer Harvey Mason Jr., a former academy trustee and Los Angeles chapter officer, of the decision by Drake, Ocean, West and Justin Bieber not to attend the Feb. 12 ceremony. “I know we can’t thrive as a show, as an academy and as advocates for the industry without those types of artists.”
Ratings for the 2017 broadcast rose slightly, with the entire Knowles-Carter family in attendance and a Beyoncé performance during the telecast. But more broadly, The Recording Academy’s stated mission — to reward “artistic achievement” — doesn’t always seem to square with the winners’ list. “Change is coming [to the industry]; there’s still work to do,” says Terry Jones, a producer and former trustee. “But until people are more open to that change, the results will be the same.”
“I understand that people might feel left out,” says Portnow. “But it’s really simple: Participate and vote, and then you’re part of the conversation. Not only do we encourage and welcome that,” he concludes, “we need it.”
Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of Billboard.