In an era in which the topic of race has taken center stage, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-nominated album “To Pimp a Butterfly” wears its blackness as a badge of honor.
Lamar hasn’t suffered for his forthright honesty. With 11 Grammy nominations, the rapper was one shy of Michael Jackson’s record 12. “To Pimp a Butterfly” may even win album of the year, the Grammys’ most prestigious award.
But, in a year in which another awards show has taken heat for its lack of diversity, is Lamar the standard or the exception?
Much like the movie industry, the music industry has long been accused of not doing right by artists of color.
Billboard published a piece titled “Confessions of a Grammy voter: Industry heavyweights share their predictions — and gripes” in which an unnamed 30-something R&B and pop songwriter-producer complained, “The voting bloc is still too white, too old and too male.”
He added, “I do see a significant difference from (what it was) three or four years ago — the voters are becoming more diverse in terms of minorities, females and younger ages — but there’s still a long way to go.”
‘There’s a little injustice’
More recently there has been discussion surrounding whether white artists like Adele and Sam Smith are overvalued for singing soulful music while black R&B singers receive less support from labels.
Grammy-nominated R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan told The Associated Press that she is aware of speculation that race may play into why she has not reached the same level as Adele, despite comparisons between the two.
“I guess I’m glad that people are recognizing me in some way, and kind of see there’s a little injustice in how black soul artists are received,” Sullivan said. “But, at the same time, I try not to focus so much on the negativity.”
Harvey Mason Jr. is a six-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter who has worked with such musical superstars as Elton John, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber and Mary J. Blige. This year he is nominated for his work on the “Pitch Perfect 2” soundtrack.
He told CNN that the Recording Academy, which awards the Grammys, does have a wide and diverse membership and is catching up in terms of aligning with fans’ tastes.
Mason points to Lamar as just such an example. He sees the rapper as having adopted a Quincy Jones-type approach on his latest project, with diverse guest performers and rich production.
“(Kendrick Lamar) has found a way to come with original music and that’s what’s getting him the attention,” Mason said. “The fact is he is coming from a genre (hip-hop) that is often overlooked, but he has raised the bar.”
‘Everyone has a stake in American music’
Commentators have come down on both sides.
During last year’s Grammys race, Rolling Stone’s Raquel Cepeda pointed out that “Not only is every single best new artist nominee white (the first time since Sheryl Crow trounced Counting Crows in 1995), so are the contenders for record of the year! And — inhale — a full third of the rap album nominees are also white.”
“It’s one thing to be out of touch and another to be racist,” Cepeda continued. “However, when something begins to reek of both, that’s when the theories start to fly. Here’s one: The music industry enlisted Kidz Bop to boost Macklemore as a foil to the proletariat hip-hop artist of the year, Kendrick Lamar. On what planet did voters with the most basic knowledge of hip-hop culture and rap music think when Macklemore beat out Lamar for best new artist (in 2014)?”
But Jesse Sendejas Jr. of the Houston Press recently wrote that historically, “For the most part, music’s highest honors have appreciated the contributions of its diverse artists in a way the Oscars still can’t seem to.”
“There has never been a year in Grammy history when a person of color has failed to win a statuette,” Sendejas wrote. “That’s because everyone has a stake in American music, something that can’t be said for American film.”
Of course, judgment is in the ear of the beholder. Duke Ellington once famously noted, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” If Grammy voters sometimes seem limited in their range, Mason said, it doesn’t matter as long as the music still hits a chord with listeners.
“Most people don’t care who sings what,” Mason said. “There is no ‘black music’ or ‘white music.’ Make good art and people will listen to it.”