Just two years ago, I didn't get it. I was incensed when my roommate texted me, "who the fuck is Beck?" I pretentiously tweeted about how "Drunk in Love" required nine songwriters, while Beck plays more than 12 instruments. I refused to descend from my high horse, essentially because Modern Guilt is a masterpiece and I felt like one of my favorite rockers was finally being recognized on a national scale.
When Beyoncé's multi-faceted, envelope-pushing Beyoncé lost Album of the Year at the Grammy's to Beck's tepid Morning Phase in 2015, I just didn't get it.
I offer you this anecdotal introduction as an olive branch, of sorts. To those of you who worship Adele, who swarmed a local pastry shop just because she told you to, who KNEW HER BEFORE "ROLLING IN THE DEEP," THANK U VERY MUCH: I am not dismissing your devotion. I was once in your shoes. Hell, I once tweeted in defense of Macklemore beating out Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album. We all make mistakes.
Adele is extraordinarily talented and worthy of acclaim. No one is arguing against that. I'm sure Adele fans across the country are doing the same mental backflips that I was in 2015; the Grammy's are for artistry, I reasoned, not album sales or pop culture prowess. I hungrily educated anyone who dared cross me about the wonders of Beck—about how Odelay totally should've won Best Album in 1997! How he was robbed!! How Beck has been making excellent music since before we were born!!!!
But the thing is, dear reader: I missed the point entirely. And maybe you have too. And honestly? So did Adele, despite her best efforts.
The point is that in 59 years, only 10 black artists have been awarded Album of the Year. Only three of those awards were given to hip-hop albums; the Grammy's didn't even begin recognizing rap and hip-hop music categories for 30 years after its conception. In the years since, once-in-a-generation artists like Frank Ocean (channel ORANGE), Kanye West (Late Registration), and Kendrick Lamar (good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly) have been passed over in favor of Mumford and Sons, U2, Daft Punk and Taylor Swift. All competent artists, mind you—but do we sense a pattern?
Adele swept this year's ceremony, winning five awards out of her five nominations. Beyoncé, who was nominated a groundbreaking nine times for Lemonade, was shafted in all major categories. She ended up winning only two awards, including Best Urban Contemporary Album, which is typically not even aired during the ceremony itself—they basically told Bey that she had the best black album. And threw her a bone because she's the most powerful person in the music industry (she literally levitated while pregnant! With twins! Live onstage!) but still didn't get her dues.
This will not be another earth-scorching critique on the profound injustice that was delivered on Sunday night. There are plenty of people far more qualified than myself who will tell you the same thing: 25 was a perfectly lovely collection. But Lemonade was a phenomenon. It was an event. It was a fucking album. It was the most culturally important and artistically innovative body of work in recent memory. And it deserved the dues that Adele was handed—and she will tell you that herself.
“I can’t possibly accept this award,” Adele said after winning Album of the Year. “I'm very humbled and very grateful and gracious, but my life is Beyoncé.”
But keep your eyes on the prize, readers: what comes next is important. Adele showered Beyoncé in praise (a remarkably easy thing to do), stepped offstage, and continued on with her life. She took photos cradling her five golden gramophones.
In those few minutes, Adele and Beyoncé were physically separated by mere feet—but the symbolic cavern in between the front row and the stage only seems to grow wider. Beyoncé sat there, along with her husband Jay Z, her daughter Blue Ivy, her sister Solange, and fellow music royalty like Rihanna (eight nominations, zero awards). Adele stood in front of an all-white, mostly male songwriting staff, making vaguely cringe-worthy statements about her “black friends.”
It’s difficult to fully grasp the history of traditionalism and exclusion that these awards operate within, but ultimately, those golden gramophones are all about inner and outer circles—which people are invited to the party, but must watch from the corners of the room.
Surely, this speech was a step in the right direction. It built on Macklemore’s attempt to share his award with Kendrick Lamar in 2014, which felt a little bit like watching someone get punched in the face and then offering them an ice pack.
But this narrative, while less awkward, is not much better. Monday morning, Adele still enjoyed headlines and tweets praising her celebration of inclusion and her brave feminism. Despite declaring, in her own words, that she should not have been that night’s winner, Adele became the hero.
While the tribute speech hit on many important points, there's a huge difference between talking about black empowerment and actually empowering black people. Beyoncé is more than capable of speaking for herself—that's what Lemonade was all about. There is a kind of well-intentioned nobility in wanting to be a voice for the oft silenced (I'm grappling with it right now), but I think the solution is far simpler than it may appear. Adele didn’t need to be Beyoncé’s voice; she just needed to give her the mic.
Artists of color are used to taking a specific stand—to delivering clear and carefully thought-out messages—but white artists are still permitted to be vague and noncommittal, enjoying “ally” status.
Historically, white institutions do not reward black defiance. These awards shows want black art, they want to benefit and profit from its showcasing, but they do not want the black artists. Frank Ocean knows this. So, it seems, does Rihanna (whose triumph of an album, Anti, was totally robbed btw). Lord knows that Kanye West does too, whose infamous rebuke of Taylor Swift at the VMAs is looking a whole lot like prophecy right now.
Despite what we all may have hoped, despite liking to believe that Beyoncé is a rare and inhuman goddess come to save us all, the results of Sunday night were not altogether surprising. It's hard to imagine Queen Bey as an underdog, but institutional bias is some deeply-entrenched shit. The Grammy's still use "urban" as code for "black," for fuck's sake.
As Aimee Cliff writes for Fader, awards shows like the Grammy's are unlikely to become vehicles for change. But they offer an important platform—when it becomes clear that an institution is resolute on standing still, it’s up to its citizens to demand progress.