Do the Grammys Have a Race Problem?

No black artists are nominated for Best New Artist or Record of the Year, but Iggy Azalea gets props in both

Iggy Azalea is one of the five all-white nominees for Best New Artist this year. Credit: Merrick Ales/FilmMagic

White people rejoice! You've managed to cold-jack yet another awards season, and in February no less. The Oscars will be whiter than they've been since 1998, and this year the Grammy Awards promise to be a throwback to that time when Shirley Temple got down in blackface — dumb-stoopid-affected accents and all.

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!

Exhale, then pretend that Azealia Banks, the Roots, YG and Future to name a few, never existed or dropped well-deserving joints this year. Ponder this while taking in what will likely be a somber (high five, Taran Killam) white re-imagining of R&B from Best New Artist and Record and Song of the Year nominee, Sam Smith, as he performs "Stay With Me." 

If you suddenly start craving Wonder Bread and mayo-rap sandwiches at some point during the broadcast, try not to blame it solely on race or the unbearable whiteness of a newish category — Best Antiseptic Rap/Sung Record — that's been gaining traction. A million-billion social networking years ago — in 2012 — the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences did something totally leftfield in our checkbox-obsessed world. They decided to siphon off 31 jazz, world music and Latin-centric categories from the Grammys. (However, NARAS later reinstated Best Latin jazz album after Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon and Bobby Sanabria got in their asses). Without warning the industry that professed to "honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position," ethnically cleansed its musical categories. Most viewers of the awards show were none the wiser because those categories, in a twisted case of art holding a mirror up to society, were never given screen time.

How to push the conversation forward? Look back. When DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince beat out LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee and others in 1989 to win the first Best Rap Performance Grammy, a lesson should have been learned: Expect the Grammys to get it wrong, at least in those few categories artists of color are expected to reign in — especially if Marshall Mathers III decides to release an album or haiku that year. (In all fairness, Eminem not only paid his dues but also is consistently excellent.) The Grammy voters have historically displayed its huge cojones with the public crimes against hip-hop music they've committed over the years.

The hip-hop artists, including those who've managed somehow to strike an emotional chord with a broad audience, that have even hinted at self-determination, political or social activism, and presented unprocessed depictions of life in urban America, have never walked away with a Grammy. Not Public Enemy, or N.W.A, Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and dead prez? Nope. And, brace yourselves, not even Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac Shakur.

It's one thing to be out of touch and another to be racist. 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 last year? Short answer: Tralfamadore. Finally, we have proof that aliens do, in fact, exist. And no, they don't live in a post-racial society either. That's evident in this year's Best New Artist, Best Record of the Year, Best Rap Album and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance nominee Iggy Azalea, the Australian transplant and self-professed "runaway slave master." 

Unlike nominee Meghan Trainor, a cheerleader for full figured-empowerment, Iggy Azalea isn't as harmless to hip-hop as one may think. She's not an outright terrorist, but that doesn't exclude her from the axis of evil. Nobody is perfect, sure. And leadership roles shouldn't be foisted on people who may not want them. However, Azalea's provincial view of hip-hop is to rap music what Lifetime is to anything urban: awfully wrong.

To be young and Australian and inspired by hip-hop culture is to be expected because, well, it is our young nation's most significant if not far-reaching cultural export so far. Hip-hop's myriad forms of expression have intersected itself into the lives of young people all over the world, and at its best have offered a salve to the spirit, a lingua franca for heads to connect and coalesce. Iggy Azalea, not her existence per se but her success, is one example of that inspiration-gone-wild. Listening to her spit rhymes too blah to quote here is not the problem. It's what she represents and how many people the world over take her minstrelsy as the current gospel according to rap music.

Aside from her previously debated racist tweets, the music itself is anything but a new classic: it's more like a motherfucking Columbus effect. Instead of remixing or creating a new vernacular, Azalea debases it with an ersatz accent that sounds like nothing we've ever heard in any 'hood, at least on record. Her act is an inauthentic recreation of urban life that ridicules it, music's answer to revanchist gentrification, one that desecrates the culture and the people who Azalea claims to have been inspired by.

Think about the ripple effects. Think about the hearts and minds Azalea has already colonized through this one-time counterculture, a message blessed by the music industry establishment and supported by consumers the world over, and then it won't sting as much when she succeeds Macklemore in winning Best New Artist (among other nods). It's to be expected.

It's a bummer but choose to look at the bright side. This year Beyoncé, inarguably the most accomplished artist in, like, forever became the most nominated artist in Grammy history. (Even though, distressingly, she's been relegated mostly to the R&B categories, like they did to another boundary-crossing pop genius, Michael Jackson, in 1980.)

And next year, D'Angelo will surely be nominated for Best everything (or folks will riot), and we'll be treated to the kind of alchemy that may wash away this year's rickety wreck. So there, something to distract you from the trauma of having to sit through hours of off-kilter hip-pop pirouettes you're about to be put through.