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Grammys 2018: female voices and the legacy of black musical aesthetics

February 1, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

As a singer and songwriter, I naturally tuned in to this year’s Grammy Awards show on Sunday night in hope of seeing some wins by my favorite artists. I was shocked to see Alessia Cara take the award for Best New Artist, since her latest album was released in 2015 and she was even nominated for Best New Artist in other music award shows in 2016. Ironically, she was the only woman to take home a solo award this year, a fact that sparked claims that Grammy’s selection of winners was sexist. When asked about the #GrammySoMale hashtag that followed, Recording Academy President, Neil Portnow remarked, “women need to … step up.” He may have proved that the Recording Academy is sexist, along with Hollywood. My personal favorite artist of 2017, SZA, delivered the iconic debut album “Ctrl” and had five Grammy nominations, yet left the show with no awards.

Sonically, “Ctrl” has the best music production I’ve heard in a long time. SZA’s vocals come from the soul, with sounds that are hypnotizing and often genre-blurring. She puts her pain and pleasure on wax, and it is intoxicating. In the first track of the album, “Supermodel,” she begins the chorus with, “Leave me lonely for prettier women,” a soul-crushing line that could hit nerves for women across the globe. SZA delves deeper when singing: “Why you bother me when you know you don’t want me? Why you bother me when you know you got a woman?” These are captivating questions about infidelity and wasting a woman’s time to which SZA emphatically asserts that most men don’t have a real answer. Of course, not everyone appreciated SZA’s brutal honesty. J. Holiday, an R&B singer mostly known for his 2007 hit “Bed,” went on a tirade on his Instagram, complaining of “Black men still losing to the [Black] women” in contemporary R&B. He added, “Beyonce, Cardi B, SZA, all y’all motherfuckers, stop using that fucking pain to make it OK to say some bullshit on your record and get nominated for a Grammy.” He suffers from a classic case of male entitlement.

First of all, J. Holiday’s comments are quite hypocritical since his own discography derives from heartbreak. Additionally, R&B and other genres often channel pain for musical inspiration. Many of Sunday night’s male Grammy nominees had albums that drew directly from unadulterated pain (i.e, Jay’s “4:44”). Still, Holiday’s criticism reminds me of some of my male peers who didn’t like SZA because, in their words, “She glorifies being a side-chick and then complains about getting played.” This conclusion misses the mark and conveniently omits the fact that SZA has been cheated on and lied to, so sometimes she’s the main girl or the “side chick” who didn’t know her partner already had a girlfriend. Rather than wallow in sadness, SZA makes music that empowered many women by unpacking her experiences with the exploitative actions of men. J. Holiday is probably bitter that he hasn’t gotten a Billboard hit in nearly a decade (I haven’t uttered his name since 2007). SZA offers a new female perspective about the current romantic scene for other “20 somethings.” As much as I enjoyed Holiday’s music in middle school, I had to read him for filth (meaning: humorously call out someone’s absurd flaws).

Personally, SZA’s music compelled me to reflect on my romantic engagements as a man. Last summer, I thought of old flames and flings as I hearkened to SZA’s singing “you’ll never love me” over and over on “Garden (Say it Like That).” The song reminded me of Bob Marley’s words: “The biggest coward is a man who awakens a woman’s love with no intention of loving her.” SZA’s mother might have deserved an honorable recognition for Spoken World Album for her insightful pieces of wisdom on SZA’s outros. “Ctrl” molded me into a more perceptive man and better communicator in this world of millennials, notoriously known for short romances and “situationships.”

Through all the questionable wins of the night, there was an aura that permeated the Grammys that night: celebration of Black music. Black music was everywhere, from Kendrick Lamar’s delivery of politically conscious rap bars at the start of the show, to Kesha’s moving delivery of Grammy-nominated gospel pop ballad “Praying” with a backup chorus of female stars, to Donald Glover’s performance of his funk-inflected song “Terrified” with 10-year-old JD McCrary singing breathtaking vocal runs. While some debate over whether Bruno Mars’s win for Album of the Year was deserved, he made a point to do what many non-black artists fail to do: he paid homage to the Black musicians who pioneered his sound.

In his acceptance speech, Mars recalled a childhood performance of his in which all the songs he sang were either by “Babyface, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis or Teddy Riley,”—all the key producers of new jack swing. Bruno Mars made “24K Magic” to revive their sound and dedicated his Album of the Year award to them, proclaiming that “they laid the foundation … this album wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for these guys.” As someone who grew up listening to ’90s music from the likes of Jodeci and Janet Jackson, I found it beautiful to see Bruno Mars win for an album that draws so heavily from a black musical tradition. Despite the drama and unfair snubs, the 60th Grammy Awards Show invited artists who showcased America’s rich music history and others who expanded our horizons, so the country could celebrate the beauty of music.

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