Adele’s victory reveals racial biases in the entertainment award system
The talk of the country last week was Beyoncé’s Album of the Year snub at this year’s Grammy Awards. The impact of Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade” was one of many shining moments of 2016, but Grammy voters thought “25” by British pop star Adele was more relevant, despite the glaring truth that “Lemonade” had far greater significance. In “Lemonade,” Beyoncé proved her versatility as a genre-hopping vocalist—jumping from reggae to rock to R&B to country. Secondly, it can only be fully appreciated as a visual album. After all, it was more than just a collection of songs; it was the art, the visuals, the dance and the powerful messages of heartbreak, loss, forgiveness and self-love. For me, “Lemonade” was the album of 2016 because it had an unmistakably black female narrative that empowered generations of black women across the world. Many of the lyrics in the album became popular slang (cue the “boy, bye” line, the iconic “Becky with the good hair” lyric and the huge surge of memes about taking your man to Red Lobster). Fun fact: Red Lobster’s sales spiked to 33 percent after Beyoncé’s song “Formation” came out with her “Red Lobster” lyric. This album’s significance in popular culture alone surpassed that of all the other nominees in the Album of the Year award category.
The “problem” with “Lemonade”, at least for some white audiences, was that it was the most political, unapologetic, pro-black project Beyoncé has ever released. She pushed aside European sacred images in favor of African pantheon like the Yoruba water goddess Oshun. In “Hold Up,” she wielded a baseball bat with such swagger while wearing a yellow Roberto Cavalli dress, channeling Oshun, who is often portrayed in yellow. She dared to present cameos of black mothers holding pictures of their dead sons, lost to racially motivated violence. She even featured a twerking Serena Williams, an emblem of black strength, excellence and body positivity. These bold presentations of black womanhood were not meant to appeal to white tastes.
In hindsight, I should not have been surprised that Beyoncé lost Album of the Year. Only two years ago, I was arguing with my friends when the Album of the Year went to “Morning Phase” by alternative rock artist Beck, over Beyoncé’s iconic eponymous album “BEYONCÉ.” While Grammy voting panels do not base their votes on album sales, Beck’s album was the lowest-selling album of the nominees that year and the lowest-selling winner of this award category since 2008. Many of the people watching that year’s Grammys show did not seem to know who Beck even was; #WhoIsBeck was trending on Twitter.
To many black Americans, Beyoncé’s latest snub follows the trend that black art cannot be fully embraced if it does not pander to white audiences. Frank Ocean, who recently boycotted the Grammy Awards, wrote an open letter to the show’s producers on his Tumblr, saying that the show has “cultural bias and general nerve damage.” Even Adele said, in her acceptance speech, that she was undeserving of the Album of the Year award because the “artist of [her] life is Beyonce.” While I appreciate Adele’s symbolic gesture—breaking her award in half to share with Beyoncé—this does not make up for the countless times that black artists have been robbed of awards and overall recognition for their artistry. The Grammys’ issues with race bring to mind the 2015 hashtag #OscarsSoWhite that caught people’s attention for two years in a row. Still, the problem is bigger than the Grammys, the Oscars and all the other entertainment award organizations in America. We live in a society in which mostly old, white men determine what is quality art, so maybe these award voting panels will have to diversify before black art finally gets its long-overdue appreciation.
While Beyoncé deserved the Album of the Year in my eyes, her real victory was in producing a magnum opus that was intended for—and inspired by—black people. In the process of recovering from utter disappointment, I relearned a valuable lesson from Beyoncé: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Osa Omoregie is a member of the Class of 2018.