This Sunday (Feb. 10), we’ll see if hip-hop can cross one more important barrier at the Grammy Awards. This year, rap songs make up five out of eight of the nominees in the record of the year category, and also take up three out of the eight slots for song of the year. A hip-hop song has never won in either of the categories, which are two of the annual event’s biggest awards.
The Grammys have had a pretty dodgy past with recognizing the genre’s merits — and diverse winners in general — but with the rise of streaming firmly cementing hip-hop as America’s most popular genre it seems that Recording Academy voters might not be able to ignore rap in these categories any longer.
In record of the year, Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s “I Like It” goes up against Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” Drake’s “God’s Plan,” Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All The Stars,” and Post Malone’s “Rockstar,” which also features 21 Savage. All of those tracks hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for at least one week, except “All The Stars” which peaked at No. 7 in February of last year. Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born duet “Shallow,” and Maren Morris, Zedd, and Grey’s “The Middle” are also up for the award — the last two were crossover hits, reaching the top 5 on the Hot 100, but none hit No. 1. Drake, Kendrick and SZA, and Childish Gambino also got song of the year noms for their efforts.
Andrew Barber, the founder of pioneering Chicago hip-hop media company Fake Shore Drive says that part of hip-hop’s challenge at the Grammys is due to the lack amount of Academy members that work in the genre. “The biggest challenge with hip-hop is that there’s not enough people voting from that community,” he says. “I think we would’ve won in these categories a long time ago if we had more voting members.”
From Barber’s perspective, he’s heard of more people from the hip-hop community joining up recently, especially in his home city of Chicago after Chance the Rapper’s three Grammy wins at the 2017 ceremony, including the trophy for Best New Artist.
“[Chance] being an independent artist and getting there and winning three awards, and performing, I think it showed that you could do it,” he said. “You could come from Chicago and work really hard and this kind of thing can happen. I think it’s been positive.” In October of this year, the Academy reportedly invited over 900 new members to its voting community after specific recommendations from its special task force for diversity.
Song of the year, which is awarded to the winning songwriters, would be a particularly righteous win for the genre. Barber said it was “insane” that no rap song had won in the category so far. “[Rap] should be held on the same level as anything else and it deserves to win and hopefully we can get that this year. Once people will see that win, hopefully it will cause them to get involved,” he says.
Rahim Wright, founder of marketing firm and record label The 740 Project — who helped boost the early careers of Migos, Lil Yachty, and, Lil Uzi Vert — says that hip-hop has earned its honors now more than ever before. “Hip-hop is popular culture right now,” he says. “It’s up to the awards shows to catch up and acknowledge where we’re at.”
Amidst the positivity of having a diverse nominee pool, there is founded concern that this is all just lip service. It’s worth mentioning that at last year’s Grammys, JAY-Z received 8 nominations for 4:44 and walked away with zero trophies, while Kendrick Lamar’s wins were relegated to the rap-focused races, and the poppier Bruno Mars swept the night’s major categories.
Saeed Jones, host of BuzzFeed’s live morning show AM2DM, shared his fears when this year’s nominations were announced in December. “There’s certainly a pattern and the Grammys aren’t the only organization that does this,” he said. “But where you see a lot of diverse artists and nominees and that draws us in, and then when we get to the actual awards, there’s white winner, white winner, white winner, and I hope that isn’t repeated this year.”
For that reason, the very real possibility of Post Malone becoming the first hip-hop winner is a tricky thing, especially considering his past controversial comments about the genre. For the record, Wright says he’s into the concept of a win for a Post Malone if it means 21 Savage gets to claim an award of his own. The win would surely bring a lot of attention to 21’s current legal situation.
To make matters worse, statistically speaking, Jones is right and a Post Malone win would be in line with who the Grammys continually chooses to recognize. Not only has hip-hop been entirely left out from these categories, Black artists and songwriters from all genres have been mostly left out in the cold by Grammy voters. Only 13 black artists have accepted the award for record of the year out of the 60 times it’s been given out (14 if you count the ensemble win for USA for Africa’s “We Are The World”). Black songwriters have fared even worse: a song featuring a black songwriter has won song of the year only 8 times in the 60 years of the awards history.
Unpacking Beyoncè’s surprising loss to Adele in 2017, NPR’s Ann Powers wrote, “Achieving the ideal of equality is proving as heartbreakingly difficult for the recording industry as it is for all of America.” Sunday night’s ceremonies, and these two categories specifically, will definitely be a referendum on how the Academy is doing on fixing itself over the last two years.