On January 26, the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards took place in Los Angeles’ Staple Center, and, in many ways, it was a night of celebration, but it was also a night of reflection. Billie Eilish won her first Grammy Award, or rather, her first five Grammy Awards, and, in addition, Lil Nas X and Lizzo also saw their very first Grammy Awards.
However, in light of the controversial events surrounding the suspension of the president of the Recording Academy, some notable figures took it upon themselves to use the Grammy Awards Ceremony as a platform to speak out against long-standing issues such as the sexist treatment of women within the Academy and the lack of a transparent nomination process, such as Alicia Keys, who called for the “[refusal] of old systems” and a “shifting to realness and inclusivity” during her Grammy monologue.
Particularly, Tyler, the Creator used his first ever Grammy win as an opportunity to express his true feelings about being recognized at such a high level. After winning Rap Album of The Year for his album, IGOR, Tyler expressed during his backstage interview that although he was grateful that his music could be “acknowledged at a level like this,” he feels that his nomination for Rap Album of the Year was more of a “backhanded compliment.” He then goes on to say that when “guys like him” try to experiment with different genres and creatively push boundaries within the music industry, they are automatically placed into the “rap or urban category,” and he further poses the question “why can’t [black musicians] be considered pop?”
What Tyler is speaking to is the “othering” of music created by black musicians in popular media, an unnecessary distinction between “black music” and “music.” When music created by black musicians is pigeonholed into being “urban,” it creates a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for them that keeps them from being recognized as just “an artist” rather than “a black artist” and further promotes the reality that “mainstream” music is synonymous with “music made by white people.”
Ironically, if the definition of pop music can be simplified into meaning popular music, then it is clear to see that hip hop and rap is one of the most popular genres right now in the music industry. This can be proven by looking at the two top spots of the Hot 100 Billboard Chart, which are currently being held by two hip hop artists. Purely looking at the statistics, black musicians are as popular, if not, more popular than their white counterparts and are more than eligible to be placed into the pop music category.
Furthermore, as Tyler expressed, labeling black music as “urban” traps black artists in a box within the music industry, making it hard for black artists to be recognized for the full scope of their artistry. Looking at Tyler, the Creator’s overall career, he has, for the majority of his career, been creating hip-hop and rap music which, therefore, earned him the label of a rapper. However, more recently in his career, Tyler has shifted from releasing rap-heavy projects in favor of more jazz, alternative, indie, and R&B influenced tracks, with IGOR being a notable example of how much his sound has progressed from the early stages of his career.
Before releasing IGOR, Tyler notably told his followers in an Instagram post not to expect his then-unreleased project to be another rap album and, instead, listen to his newest project without any preconceived expectations based on his past music. However, even though Tyler’s inspiration for IGOR draws far and ride, with rap only being one of many of his inspirations, this specific project was still placed into the rap category of this year’s Grammy Awards.
So, why is it even necessary to place black music into an “urban” category when, statistically, black creators are, in fact as popular as traditional pop artists? Does placing them in this a restrictive category limit their ability to be recognized for the full range of their creativity? I strongly feel that this categorization is not necessary. It is, however, necessary to find a way to celebrate and highlight black musicians without “othering” them, especially during Black History Month.
My argument is this: to avoid this, it is important to remember what makes music great in the first place. This is its ability to transcend beyond the person who initially composed the music. Yes, music is able to bring together people who have had similar experiences in life, but it also has the power to compel people to connect and empathize with other people that have different life experiences and backgrounds than themselves. When talking about black musicians who you consider to be great musicians, it’s important to talk about them in a way that first and foremost highlights why their music is great, like the significance of their message and the way the song is arranged that makes it unique, for example, instead of framing the conversation in a way that focuses on their race first and then their music.
And above all, do not do their art the disservice of placing it into an unnecessary category that only restricts and fails to acknowledge its true impact. Do not exclude their art from being mentioned in the discussion of what is considered great music. Give black musicians the same opportunity that is given to white musicians to be considered not an influential black musician, but an influential musician in their own right.