#GrammysSoWhite? Grammy President Neil Portnow Denies Academy Has a ‘Race’ Problem

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By Nahema Marchal | 11:38 am, February 15, 2017
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Recording Academy President Neil Portnow has brushed off accusations that the Grammy’s has a race problem in an interview with music magazine Pitchfork.

Following Adele’s surprise win for Best Album on Sunday over Beyonce, whose ground-breaking and critically acclaimed visual album Lemonade dominated the cultural conversation this year, many were quick to shout institutional racism.

Even Adele herself was shocked: “I can’t possibly accept this award,” she said, proceeding to accidentally break the trophy in half. “What the f*** does Beyonce have to do to win album of the year?”

It is not the first time that the Recording Academy comes under fire for privileging white singers over their black counterparts, particularly when the latter were instrumental in defining or mainstreaming genres like rap or hip-hop but consistently fail to be recognized for doing so. As many point out, not a single Best Album Grammy has not gone to a black artist since Herbie Hancock’s River in 2008—ironically, a collection of covers by the white folk singer Joni Mitchell.

Back in 2014 Macklemore too graciously apologized to Kendrick Lamar after besting him in the Best Rap Album category saying the black wordsmith had been “robbed.” “I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird” he told him via text. For that very reason, Kanye West—a long outspoken critic of the Grammy’s handling of black music—Frank Ocean and even Justin Bieber gave the the ceremony a pass this year.

Everyone seems to have taken the hint. Everyone expect perhaps Portnow himself, who defensively denied that Academy voters could fall prey to unconscious biases (like, you know, everybody else.)

“No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all” he told Pitchfork “This is a peer-voted award, it’s not a corporate entity—it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy … It’s always hard to create objectivity out of something that’s inherently subjective, which is what art and music is about. We do the best we can.” he said.

According to Portnow, visibility, sales and prominence are the only determinants of artistic worth and the only things that voters have in mind when choosing winners: “When you go to vote on a piece of music—at least the way that I approach it—is you almost put a blindfold on and you listen. It’s a matter of what you react to and what in your mind as a professional really rises to the highest level of excellence in any given year.”

To be fair, sales-wise Adele’s 25 did top Lemonade, with 9.2 million copies sold in the US, making it most successful record on the shortlist. Beyonce, meanwhile, won Best Urban Contemporary Album—a category that music critics such as John Vilanova describe as “code” for black music much like “Best R&B Performance” awarded to her sister Solange Knowles.

Portnow also pointed to Chance the Rapper’s win for Best New Artist as the perfect rebuke to critics of systematic racism:  “You don’t get Chance the Rapper as the Best New Artist of the year if you have a membership that isn’t diverse and isn’t open-minded and isn’t really listening to the music, and not really considering other elements beyond how great the music is.”

When asked if the Recording Academy would take steps towards diversifying its membership—predominantly white and male dominated—in the same way that the Motion Picture Academy did after the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, he said:

“We are always working on increasing diversity in membership, whether it’s ethnicity, gender, genre, or age,” he said. “In order to maintain our relevance, we have to be refreshing all the time and we have to be doing that across the board.”

In the wake of the Sunday’s ceremony ,#GrammysSoWhite started trending on Twitter and quickly became the rallying cry of dismayed Bey hivers.

Sales of Lemonade, meanwhile, have reportedly increased fourfold.