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After charged year, Grammys inch closer to inclusion

Shaun Tandon

Agence France-Presse

New York, United States  /  Fri, January 26, 2018  /  10:28 am
After charged year, Grammys inch closer to inclusion

Grammy Award statues at the 16th Latin Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Nov. 19, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. (Shutterstock/File)

The Grammys -- often derided as a tone-deaf music industry love-fest -- will take on new relevance this year, as hip-hop artists for the first time are leading the pack.

But after a tumultuous 2017 marked by racial strife and a nationwide reckoning about sexual harassment, the Grammys also must face up to a glaring hole -- only one woman is in contention in the two most closely watched categories.

Rap mogul Jay-Z leads the nominations for the music industry's biggest night, which is taking place Sunday in New York -- the first time in 15 years that the ceremony is back in the Big Apple.

For the first time, no white male has been nominated for the top prize of Album of the Year with Jay-Z's "4:44" up against works by fellow rappers Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, funk revivalist Bruno Mars and the only woman, New Zealand pop prodigy Lorde.

The awards come after several years in which the Recording Academy, the group of 13,000 music professionals, has been accused of snubbing hip-hop. 

Only two rap albums have won Album of the Year and one of the most acclaimed young figures in hip-hop, Frank Ocean, has gone so far as to refuse to submit work for Grammy consideration.

This year's shift may partially show structural reforms at the Recording Academy, which switched to online voting -- meaning that itinerant artists, not just industry veterans checking their home mailboxes, have a voice.

But the nominations also reflect a year in which racial divisions have come into stark focus in America with the election of President Donald Trump. 

Jay-Z and Lamar have both delved extensively into race relations. Rap also dominates the second most-watched category of Record of the Year, which recognizes best song, with other nominees including Spanish-language viral hit "Despacito."

Read also: Spotify releases Grammy Awards 2018 playlist

Hip-hop blends into broader culture 

"Pop culture has always provided distraction and in some ways has echoed what's going on in the world," said Akil Houston, an associate professor of cultural and media states at Ohio University.

But Houston also said that hip-hop -- initially a rebellious, outsider movement -- has become more intertwined with broader US culture with its presence in fashion, cinema and other musical genres.

"In years past, there has been a lack of presence for hip-hop culture, but I think commercial rap music has become ubiquitous with other parts of pop culture, whether it's music or films," he said.

Another change is how young people discover music. The boom in streaming lets listeners quickly sample a wide variety of music in a way that downloads, store sales or commercial radio cannot. 

And festivals, which have become a rite of passage for American millennials, have brought a new, diverse audience for rap performers. 

In a sign of changing tastes, Coachella -- the US festival with the highest profile -- will have no rock acts among its headliners this year, for the first time ever.

"A lot of fans and audiences are coming into contact with new artists and forms that were on the edge of their taste palate," said Murray Forman, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Forman also pointed to rising stars such as Khalid and Lil Uzi Vert, both up for Best New Artist, who came to prominence by releasing music on their own through mixtapes or sharing site SoundCloud.

"It's a sidestepping of traditional industry gatekeepers and barriers and hurdles. So it makes for a really robust moment that established artists are still hitting it, but younger artists have different ways in," he said. 

Read also: 'Despacito' sweeps Latin Grammys -- and heads to Asia

Absence of women 

But the Recording Academy's embrace for hip-hop, a genre historically known for its hyper-masculinity, has been a male-dominated affair.

Two fast-rising women rappers, Rapsody and Cardi B, won key nominations in rap fields but not in the four most prestigious categories. 

Lorde, in an interview with Billboard, said Cardi B deserved a nomination in a mainstream category as "she kind of defined 2017" with her song "Bodak Yellow."

Women have always played a role in rap "but it's hard to break through at the top because it is such a male-oriented aspect of an industry that is already inordinately male-oriented," Forman said.

The Grammys' absence of women is in part a fluke of the calendar. 

The last two artists to win Album of the Year were both women -- Adele and Taylor Swift -- but works by Swift, Beyonce and other top women were released outside the eligibility period for the latest Grammys. 

But in a likely recognition of the #MeToo movement, Grammy performers will include Kesha, who has fought to exit a contract with her producer, Dr. Luke, whom she accused of rape.

Tanya Pearson, the founder of the Women of Rock Oral History Project at Smith College, said the music industry had a deeply rooted gender problem as tastemakers such as journalists are predominantly men.

"The whole sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll narrative is misogynistic and masculine and that is still the context that women are up against," she said.

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