Do the Grammys Have a Diversity Problem?

It was another Grammy moment that lit up Twitter. Taylor Swift had just become the first female solo artist to win album of the year twice, this time for her chart-busting album “1989.” On her way to the stage in 2016, she hugged Kendrick Lamar, who also had been nominated in the category.

That Lamar had lost bothered John Vilanova, now a professor of journalism, communications, and Africana studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

“Don’t get me wrong. I love Taylor Swift and respect her a lot,” said Vilanova, who was watching the Grammys that night. Black Lives Matter had been mobilizing around the country, and stories of U.S. police violence had captured international attention. For Vilanova, Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly” and song of the year-nominated single “Alright” were like soundtracks. “It really, really struck me. Just because it felt so not representative of the year that we had. And so disrespectful to the people that we had lost.”

And so, Vilanova went digging. Much of his research went into his doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, which will be expanded into a forthcoming book.

What he found is not that black artists get shut out at the Grammys — Lamar, for example, has won 13 — but that the top honors historically elude them. Black artists regularly win categories that are considered black music, like rap or R&B, but do less well in the “general field”: album of the year, record of the year, song of the year and best new artist.

Vilanova’s research, which focused on anti-blackness, found that Little Richard, Sam Cooke, George Clinton and the Four Tops all won their first Grammys for lifetime achievement. Ray Charles didn’t win in the big categories until 2005, with his final, posthumous album. Aretha Franklin, who won 18 Grammys, never was nominated for the top four.

To explore how this happened, Vilanova looked at racial attitudes in the United States and the music industry over time. Following Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that found public school segregation unconstitutional, there was widespread disapproval of treating a specific group poorly. However, Vilanova argues, there was a rise of another kind of racism: treating white American culture, history, values and systems as inherently superior.

He also found that the concept of excellence wasn’t colorblind. It was vague, and could be used to reward white standards. This extended to how we honor music.

“You have an industry that is invested in suggesting that it knows what excellence is,” he said. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has “never defined what makes excellence, in part because you can’t.”

The academy, which organizes the Grammys, is at a critical moment. Sunday’s ceremony will be the second since the organization launched a task force for diversity and inclusion. Earlier this month, the academy put on administrative leave its president and CEO, Deborah Dugan, following allegations of misconduct. Then news broke that Dugan had filed an EEOC complaint, alleging that the academy’s decision was in retaliation for complaints she raised around voting irregularities, sexual violence and diversity. The Recording Academy did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The Inquirer spoke to Vilanova about more than six decades of Grammy history and diversity. The timeline reflects some of the biggest milestones — and misses — that have shaped the annual awards ceremony.



Picture 1950s America. It was a time when the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust provoked conversations about race, and provided a lens through which to evaluate U.S. society as the civil rights movement began to pick up steam. Integration wouldn’t be easy. And those who opposed it didn’t ignore what was happening in music and on the dance floor.

Artists such as Chuck Berry and Etta James were attracting audiences that knew no racial bounds. In the 1950s, critics considered rock unintelligent and popular, thanks to the unrefined tastes of youth. “Implied within that, there’s also a racial valence because rock and roll is black music, at least in its early foundation,” Vilanova said. “People at the time were saying, ‘OK, can we stop this? What does stopping this look like?’”

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences was established in 1957. According to its website, the academy calls the Grammy Awards “a celebration of excellence.”



The first Grammy Awards ceremony was held at the Beverly Hilton in May 1959, with an additional East Coast ceremony in New York City. Grammy historian Henry Schipper wrote in 1992, “NARAS created the Grammys at least in part to clean up and gentrify pop.”

The Grammys’ top awards were in just three categories and all went to two white men. Composer Henry Mancini picked up album of the year for “The Music From ‘Peter Gunn,’” and Domenico Modugno won both record and song of the year for “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu (Volare)”

The only black artists who won were Ella Fitzgerald, who won for best female vocal performance and best individual jazz performance, and Count Basie, who won for best performance by a dance band as well as best group jazz performance. The awards included an R&B category, best rhythm and blues performance, that went to the Champs for their mostly instrumental hit, “Tequila,” written by Champs saxophonist and Latino rock pioneer Daniel Flores.



Women were among the first Grammy winners in 1959, but when it came to women winning in the top four categories, there was a lag. Judy Garland was the first woman to break through, when she won album of the year for 1961’s “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” a live double album. Barbra Streisand would follow, winning the top award in 1964 for “The Barbra Streisand Album.” That same year, the coed Parisian vocal ensemble the Swingle Singers won best new artist, its female vocalists being the first women to receive that honor, which was added to the Grammy Awards in its second annual ceremony. No woman would win song of the year until the 1970s.



The first Grammy winners of color in the general field were bossa nova pioneer Joao Gilberto and legendary singer Astrud Gilberto, his then-spouse. Astrud Gilberto won for record of the year for the English-language version of “The Girl From Ipanema,” a bossa nova standard. That single came from Getz/Gilberto, which earned Joao Gilberto album of the year. A Louis Armstrong song (“Hello, Dolly”) won song of the year, but Armstrong didn’t take home this award because he wasn’t the composer.

During this period, the big winners were the megastar vocalists who crooned in front of big bands and the composers who penned lush themes for movies. Many of the early winners had touches of jazz. The early to mid-1960s were important years for popular music, not just in the United States but arguably in the Anglosphere, with the success of Motown and the British Invasion.



When the Beatles won album of the year for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1968, it was a milestone, because no rock album had claimed this prize.

“Disappointingly by that time,” Vilanova wrote in his dissertation, “much of rock’s black roots had been obscured by the genre’s racial remaking in the nation’s imagination.”

Take Jimi Hendrix. The acid-blues rocker was frequently cast as an unusual talent with a band from the United Kingdom, as an exception among his (mostly white) peers. Hendrix went from being the guitarist for Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, who had played his way through the Chitlin’ Circuit, to the psychedelic star who somehow wasn’t making black music anymore.

At the same time, the civil rights movement pushed forward and the Vietnam War continued. As activists pushed for freedom and equality, the marketing of music remained segregated, with white rockers and black soul singers.

Hendrix was only nominated once for a Grammy for his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” He lost.

The Fifth Dimension scored rare wins for a black group, winning record of the year in 1968 for “Up, Up and Away” and again in 1970 for “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in (The Flesh Failures).”



Stevie Wonder won album of the year three times in the mid-1970s, known as his “classic period.” Wonder was treated as a child prodigy and described as a “sightless genius.” His albums “Innervisions,” “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” and “Songs in the Key of Life” were praised not only as examples of excellence, but as a valiant stand against Motown’s preference for singles rather than albums. Wonder was making black music that white critics saw as artistic.

“Stevie Wonder pushes against all of these long-standing narratives about black music practice in America,” according to Vilanova. “In doing so, he does it in a way that makes his quote-unquote artistry very legible to the Grammys.”



Soft-rock singer-songwriter Christopher Cross pulled off a unique general field sweep and claimed all four awards. His style, sometimes called “yacht rock,” drew clear influences from soul music. This subgenre, Vilanova said, spoke to a level of cultural interaction, but also skewed toward men.

“The Grammys in the ‘80s might also be in response to disco and punk and LGBTQ organizing that’s happening in the late ‘70s, where you have all of these people who are trying to make space for different ways of being, different voices, different spaces,” Vilanova said. “Then you have this reassertion of white men and white masculinity.”



In 1982, Yoko Ono won album of the year, becoming one of the few Asian musicians who’ve won in the general field. She shared the award with her late husband, John Lennon, for “Double Fantasy,” released shortly before his murder. This was the only time a woman won album of the year in the entire decade.



MTV launched in 1981, and for its first three years didn’t often play black artists. How Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” broke through is an oft-told story: Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records at the time, reportedly threatened to pull all of his artists’ videos from MTV unless it aired Jackson’s videos.

Jackson’s music videos helped propel him to superstardom. He won album of the year for “Thriller” and record of the year for “Beat It” in 1984. The ‘80s, cultural critic Joseph Vogel notes, brought to prominence Oprah Winfrey, Arsenio Hall, Spike Lee and hip-hop, not to mention the skyscraping success of Prince, Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, among others. Richie won album of the year for “Can’t Slow Down” in 1985, to the chagrin of Bruce Springsteen fans, as the Boss also had been nominated. After this, the academy added special review committees, Vilanova said, that determine in private sessions the nominees in all categories.



Hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince won best rap performance, taking the first Grammy for hip-hop. They weren’t there to accept it, however. In solidarity with Def Jam executives Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, as well as fellow nominees LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa, they boycotted the Grammys in response to the awards show’s not televising this new rap category. A Def Jam representative accused NARAS of treating rap music as a “ghetto.”

“We couldn’t win it in the grand fashion we wanted to,” “Jazzy Jeff” Townes told The Inquirer in 1989.



Bonnie Raitt, Quincy Jones and Natalie Cole won the album of the year category in 1990, 1991 and 1992, respectively. The decade overall would bring numerous wins for women and people of color. And divas, Vilanova pointed out, rose to pop prominence: Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion took home Grammys in top categories.



The diva appeal may partly explain Lauryn Hill’s winning big for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999, Vilanova explained. When she won album of the year, one of her five Grammys that night, presenter Whitney Houston celebrated instantly.

“This is crazy, because this is hip-hop music,” Hill said during her acceptance speech, perhaps a nod to the fact that “Miseducation” was the first rap album to win in that category.

In 2000, Carlos Santana dominated the top Grammy awards. His “Supernatural” took album of the year, and “Smooth” won record of the year. Featured on the song was Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas, who won for song of the year for co-writing “Smooth.”

This period also brought the surge of illegal downloading, which impacted industry sales.



Alicia Keys and Norah Jones both cleaned up. Keys took five Grammys home in 2002, including song of the year for “Fallin’” and best new artist. Jones also won five trophies in 2003, including record of the year for “Don’t Know Why,” album of the year for “Come Away With Me,” and best new artist. Then in 2004, Outkast won album of the year for its instant classic, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”



In 2008, jazz artist Herbie Hancock won album of the year for “River: The Joni Letters,” a tender collection of Joni Mitchell covers.

The Obama era came soon after. The arrival of the first black president caused some to attest to a post-racial America. Skeptics maintained that wasn’t the case.

“In reality, race and its impact would surge back into the popular American consciousness, drawing battle lines,” wrote Vilanova, who later added, “It might not be unreasonable to call this past decade of the Grammys a recording academy whitelash.”

After Hancock’s win, no other person of color would win album of the year again until 2018. According to a report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, between 2013 and 2018, just 9.3% of Grammy nominees were women.



Beyoncé wins song of the year for “Single Ladies.” This stands as the only top award of her career — Destiny’s Child included.



When Adele beat Beyoncé for album of the year, in tears she called Beyoncé the “artist of my life”. It was yet another high-profile moment where fans, and in this case even the winner, questioned whether the right person won. Adele’s speech followed debate around Kendrick Lamar’s losing album of the year to Taylor Swift.

In 2018, NARAS launched a diversity and inclusion task force.

Following diversity efforts, in 2019 Childish Gambino won both song and record of the year. Memorably, Drake called the Grammys out during the televised event.

“I want to let you know that we’re playing in an opinion-based sport. Not a factual-based sport,” Drake said, later going on to say, “You don’t need this right here, I promise you. You already won.”



All four top categories include a diverse field of nominees. For example, performers such as Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Yola and Rosalia are competing for best new artist.

(Article written by Cassie Owens)