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We Need to Be Honest About Who Creates Culture in America

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Ronald Woan

When Beyoncé did not win Album of the Year at the Grammys on Sunday, I thought about rock music.

Beyoncé was nominated for nine Grammys, one of which, awarded to the late David Bowie before the ceremony even started airing, was for best rock performance. Her entry was the song “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which features rock artist Jack White and samples Led Zeppelin. Nevertheless, Beyoncé’s nomination in that particular category was treated as something of an aberration. On the one hand, this is understandable: Beyoncé is not thought of as an artist who makes rock music.

But there is a reason, aside from her discography, that Beyoncé is not thought of as an artist who could make rock music: rock is typically presented as a white, male genre.

Beyoncé was the only woman—and certainly the only black woman—nominated in that category. The irony of this is that it was a black woman who arguably invented rock performances as we know them. Elvis Presley, rock music’s supposed progenitor, took his hit song “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton in the 1950s. The entry of a clear rock song in that category was not hailed as a black woman’s reclamation of rock’s origins, but as a departure from them, one that, if we want to believe certain reports, was questioned by some academy members.

And the rock performance category is not, in this way, different from the Grammys more broadly, which are not, in this way, different from our understanding of American culture. Not really. We—and by “we,” I mean “white Americans”—rarely, and then only grudgingly, admit how much of our culture—not just music, but also fashion and dance and  language and even internet memes—was and still is created and cultivated by black Americans. We watch it and then we take it and then we say that we invented it. And we don’t admit that that’s what we’ve done, or how much of the best art across mediums and genres in America is made by black artists.

Or to put it another way: The problem with black artists so rarely winning Album of the Year—the crown jewel of Grammy awards—is not just that people of all colors should more often be recognized (though that is true, too). It’s that black people in this country dominate our cultural fields, and while we are happy to consume and profit from and try to reproduce their offerings, we do not reward, or award, them for it. Rather, we act as though an excellent cultural offering by a black artist or musician or writer or dancer is the exception, not the rule, when in fact the reverse is true. If the phrases “cultural appropriation” and “erasure” and “racism” render the reader uncomfortable, then perhaps we can consider it something else: dishonest.

As artist Jack Freeman noted on Twitter, Beyoncé has been nominated for 62 Grammys and won 22, 18 of which were for “urban” music. I am not a cultural or music critic, but I am alive in America in 2017, and to say that Beyoncé is only dominant in the “urban” category is not reflective of reality (whether “urban” is used by the Grammys as a catchall for “art made by black people” is not for me to say, but it was for SPIN’s Brian Josephs to thoughtfully consider). Beyoncé—and many other black artists before her and alive now—has redefined so much of music. People now regularly use the phrase “pulled a Beyoncé” to describe the unannounced release of a song or album, because Beyoncé, quoth Beyoncé, “changed the game with that digital drop” (of her 2013 self-titled album). In Lemonade, she featured and sampled from artists across genres, liberally quoted the poetry of Warsan Shire, and still managed to make a cohesive personal and political narrative (with visuals!). She dropped “Formation” on a Saturday and performed it at the Super Bowl the very next day and America knew the words.

This dishonesty—this unwillingness to admit who creates and drives American culture—is broader still. It goes beyond Beyoncé. The last black artist to win Album of the Year was Herbie Hancock in 2008. The last black woman was Lauryn Hill in 1999. How many black artists redefined music across genres, again and again, in the past 20 years? How many black artists performed at and brought viewers to the Grammys in that time? The Grammys happily had Beyoncé perform live while pregnant with twins, advertising hers as the performance everyone would be talking about the next day, but not awarding her for what was the dominant cultural musical force of 2016 outside of what is traditionally thought of as a black category, and evidently not seeing the disconnect between those two statements.

Meanwhile, in 2014, Macklemore won Album of the Year—for being a white rapper.

Art by black people as a culturally dominant force is not an exception to the rule. It is the rule. We stream it, we consume it, we watch it, we listen to it, we dance to it, we (try to) emulate it, we profit from it. We are better for and because of it. The Grammys themselves may not be so important, of course, in the grand scheme of things, and Beyoncé seems perfectly happy with her life and her half a billion dollars and her talent. But if we’re going to dole out awards, we could at least do so honestly.

Author:

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Previously, she was the associate editor at New America. Her writing has appeared in The Economist and Slate, among other publications. She received her bachelor's in Russian Literature from Columbia and her master's in Russian and East European Studies from Oxford. She has conducted independent research on the topic of Soviet dissidence in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, as a Fulbright grantee, in Bremen, Germany.