On February 12th, 2017, Frank Ocean published a blunt dismissal of the Grammys on Tumblr. “You know what’s really not ‘great tv,’ guys?” Ocean asked. “[Taylor Swift’s] 1989 getting album of the year over [Kendrick Lamar’s] To Pimp a Butterfly. Hands down one of the most ‘faulty’ TV moments I’ve seen.” Ocean’s post reflected a widely held view: At best, the Grammys appeared to reflect what he called “cultural bias”; at worst, the Recording Academy was systematically ignoring the work of innovative minority acts. His opinion was supported by Kanye West, who called the Grammys “way off and completely out of touch,” and Drake, who reportedly refused to submit his Views album for Grammy consideration (following Ocean, who did the same with Blonde).
Those artists had a strong case: Album of the Year has gone to a white act nine years in a row, and commercially successful, critically adored records by Ocean (Channel Orange), Kendrick Lamar (both good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly) and Beyoncé (both Beyoncé and Lemonade) have failed to win the award five years straight. No rapper has ever won Record of the Year; the only non-white R&B singer to take home that honor is Bruno Mars – when he was a featured singer on Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk.”
The 2018 Grammy nominations, however, are different. Four non-white acts are up for Album of the Year (Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars). And five are up for Record of the Year (Gambino, Jay-Z, Lamar, Mars, and the “Despacito” team of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee). “This is the year where people are saying, ‘Oh wow, they got it right,'” says Tunde Balogun, co-founder of creative agency LVRN, whose artists 6lack and D.R.A.M. both received nominations this year. This year also marks the first time in history that an all-minority slate of artists are nominated for Record of the Year, and the first time a Spanish-language song has ever been up for Record of the Year (“Despacito”). “I’m very happy with the nominations,” adds Chris Anokute, a manager, former major-label A&R and Recording Academy voter. “It’s a new day for the Grammys.”
The Academy has been attempting to make its Grammy-nomination process more representative for years. Anokute remembers attending long meetings “about how we can make it more diverse and be a better partner to the music community as a whole.” An important part of this effort involves informing people who are eligible to vote but unaware they can participate in the Grammy process. Though musicians can join the voter pool as soon as they have six credits on commercial music releases, many people who qualify don’t know that they are eligible to participate in the process. Artists also need to know to submit their work to the Recording Academy for Grammy consideration, or have a label with a well-organized operation to take care of that for them.
LVRN’s Balogun credits the Recording Academy for taking “steps to educate people more on the process behind the nominations.” “They made a huge effort to bring more people in this year for meetings, let them know how things work,” he adds. Both 6lack and D.R.A.M. had separate sit-downs with officials at the Recording Academy. Terrence “Punch” Henderson, co-president of the label Top Dawg Entertainment, which saw its artists Kendrick Lamar and SZA receive multiple nominations apiece, also felt more in the loop this year. “We all have to understand how the system actually moves,” he says. “I learned a lot this year when we went in and sat down with [the Recording Academy] and they gave us a bunch of information [about the nomination and voting process].”
In addition, the Recording Academy moved to an online voting system for the first time in 2018, a move that’s likely to raise turnout among younger voters used to living in the digital age. (The accounting firm Deloitte, which oversees the voting process, doesn’t share turnout data.) “A paper ballot is tough,” Balogun says. “People don’t even check their mail anymore” – especially since the voting body includes musicians and producers, who travel frequently. Anokute didn’t vote for last year’s Grammys; he voted this year partially thanks to the ease of the online ballot. The new voting system also makes it easier to avoid mistakes, like casting a vote in too many categories (15 is the max, plus the four general categories), which nullifies your ballot.
Another factor that surely improved the nomination process is the increasing dominance of streaming: It’s never been easier to be a well-educated voter. A decade ago, a voter with a rock or country background voting on a general category may not have heard a hot rap single or a great R&B album. In the world of Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, voters have no excuse not to listen. “Streaming helped to to quantify hip-hop and R&B properly, so it’s better represented,” says Balogun. “People see the impact on culture. In the past, people may have just voted for artists they had heard of. But maybe they did their research more this year — If this song has 500 million streams, maybe I should check this out — which is important for all of us.” In the second round of Grammy voting, the online ballot even has links to all the songs that are nominated to make it easier for voters to do their homework.
Rap, R&B and Latin pop music have fared particularly well in the streaming landscape, which has in turn been reflected in the Billboard charts, leading to news coverage and increased cultural awareness. “That by its very nature is going to make this kind of selection process more in the moment, more in line with what is moving the fans,” says Zane Lowe, creative director and L.A. host for Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio. “With streaming, you’ve seen hip-hop and R&B become the most influential and successful genres of music, not just in terms of what they do for culture and the impact they’ve had in pop music, but also statistically.” Adds Anokute, “You can’t turn away from Cardi B, from Migos, from these acts that are cutting through. They got the popular vote.”
Of course, winning the popular vote in America does not always mean you take home the big prize. And 2018 could turn out to be an outlier year, just like 2005, the only other year in Grammy history when four non-white acts were nominated for Album of the Year.
But with artists from more genres and more age groups represented this year, from Balogun thinks a positive feedback loop will develop to help the Grammys’ maintain this level of diversity moving forward. “More people are going to feel like they’re represented, which means more people will participate in the process,” he says. “And if more people participate, it will keep getting better.”