You won’t get through the first sentence of the press release announcing the 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction class — or the first quote from John Sykes, the Rock Hall’s chairman — without seeing the word: diverse.
Making the halls of the historically white, male, classic rock-focused Cleveland institution more inclusive has been a priority of Sykes since his 2019 appointment. “I have told the board and all our committees that we have an ongoing commitment to honor the artists who really created the sound of youth culture,” Sykes recently told Billboard. “That means rock and roll as well as hip-hop, R&B and rap. In order to be relevant, the Rock Hall has to evolve with the music that is impacting youth culture.”
Indeed, the 2021 class appears to further that goal with an impressively well-rounded group of inductees. Of the 13 artists being welcomed to the Hall this year — six through traditional voting, and an extra seven through honorary categories — only four are white male groups or solo artists. In addition to demographic diversity, musical diversity is also paramount, with hip-hop, soul, funk, electronic and even spoken-word jazz all being recognized, along with more standardized guitar-based rock. “This diverse class of talented inductees reflects the Hall’s ongoing commitment to honor artists whose music created the sound of youth culture,” Sykes proclaims in the release.
Which isn’t to say that the Rock Hall’s voting bloc had to stretch particularly far to make the wider class possible. Of the six artists inducted in the performer category, five were artists Billboard predicted to have the best odds of induction — with Todd Rundgren, a three-time nominee, the lone relative surprise there. It was a class that, in large part, presented voters with a good number of no-brainer picks (an all-time rapper in Jay-Z, two classic rock-era icons in Carole King and Tina Turner) and well-timed nominations (the Go-Go’s, still riding the momentum of a well-received jukebox musical and band documentary), making for a more inclusive class than many past years.
The biggest surprise — and perhaps the biggest shift in the Rock Hall’s approach in general — is seen in the high volume of honorary 2021 inductees. In addition to its usual member voting, the institution allows induction via three honorary awards, selected by a Hall committee separate from the larger voting bloc: the Ahmet Ertegun Award (given to non-performers with “a major influence on the creative development and growth of rock & roll”), the Musical Excellence Award (for performers and behind-the-scenes figures “whose originality and influence creating music have had a dramatic impact on music”) and the Early Influence Award (for formative artists who “have directly influenced and helped inspire and evolve rock & roll”). From 2016 to 2020, only five figures total were admitted entry to the Rock Hall via these three categories. This year alone, there are seven.
The Rock Hall appears to be using these honorary categories for a variety of purposes. One is to award entry to artists who appear regularly as nominees, and are worthy inductees, but for whatever reason lack the wide support to be voted in. That would seem to be the case for standard-setting rap superstar LL Cool J and electronic paragons Kraftwerk — both six-time nominees, the former of whom was even on the ballot this year — perhaps following the model of Nile Rodgers, whose group Chic was nominated a record 11 times without induction, before Rodgers was ultimately welcomed via the Musical Excellence award.
Even with this precedent, the inductions of Kraftwerk and LL Cool J (via the Early Influence and Musical Excellence awards, respectively) are significant. The Early Influence award has never been used to recognize a pioneer in electronic or dance music before — the overwhelming majority of inductees there have been vocalists and/or guitarists, usually stemming from genres that pre-date rock, like R&B, country, gospel, folk and blues. Meanwhile, Musical Excellence — traditionally meant to recognize artists predominantly known as instrumentalists — has never gone to a rapper, or anyone from the hip-hop world. The recognition of Kraftwerk and LL in these respective categories shows how the Rock Hall is expanding its parameters to include not just new generations of artists, but new perceptions of concepts like musical virtuosity, influence and general importance.
The Rock Hall is also using these categories to reward artists who have never — and perhaps would never — appear on a year’s voting ballot, but whose contributions to the rock era are nonetheless inarguable. Singer/keyboardist Billy Preston was both a chart-topping ’70s solo star and a legendary “Fifth Beatle” for his deft musicianship and forward-thinking approach. Gil Scott-Heron’s impassioned spoken-word jazz-funk laid the groundwork for much of what would later become known as rap. Charley Patton died before most Rock Hall inductees were even born, but his early 20th Century work as the “Father of the Delta Blues” helped make much of the music of the century’s second half possible. None of them likely have the name or catalog recognition to be voted in, but their presence certainly makes the Rock Hall a richer institution.
Of course, none of this is to say that the white male rock artists who have long made up the Rock Hall’s core are nowhere to be found this year. The Foo Fighters, as dead-center a Rock Hall band as exists from the past 30 years, were an expected induction in their first nomination, helped in no small part by frontman Dave Grohl’s work in recent years as a sort of informal spokesperson for rock music in general. Ozzy Osbourne sideman Randy Rhoads, one of the most renowned guitarists in the history of hard rock, is deservedly included among this year’s Musical Excellence recipients. And Todd Rundgren, while hardly a traditional rocker with his famed studio wizardry and genre-spanning, high-concept albums, certainly fits the “difficult genius” mold of rock icon that has also long been a fast track to Rock Hall entry.
If there’s a fault to be found with the self-proclaimed “diversity” of this year’s class, it’s in the gender breakdown: Though three of the six artists inducted in the performer category are female groups or solo artists, the seven honorary inductees are entirely male. Even with those three female artists voted in, two of them were already in the Rock Hall — Carole King had previously been inducted in 1990 as a writer (along with writing partner Gerry Goffin, via the Ahmet Ertegun award), while Tina Turner was added via her duo work alongside ex-husband Ike Turner in 1991. Viewed somewhat uncharitably, you could say that the Rock Hall is only granting one new female artist entry to their halls this year, in new wave greats The Go-Go’s.
Still, the year’s class is undoubtedly a step up from previous years in terms of expanding the Rock Hall’s horizons in ways it likely needed to be expanded — while not totally losing touch with the music that has long been at the institution’s core. With a more inclusiveness-oriented voting bloc, a new generation of worthy nominees from a variety of less-traditional Rock Hall genres, and what appears to be a newfound commitment to using the honorary categories to properly fill out the Rock Hall around the margins, it’s a great sign for the institution’s hopes for continued relevance as it comes of age once more under its new stewardship.