A year after winning his first Grammy for “King Disease,” rapper Nas delivered his first solo Grammy performance, a career-spanning medley including songs that ranged from his 1994 debut album to his latest, “King’s Disease II,” which scored a nomination for best rap album this year.
But rapper and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs offered an explanation for this snub in a speech he gave at a pre-Grammys gala in 2020, in which he slammed the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). “Truth be told,” he said, “hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys.”
This criticism is rooted in historical fact. Othering of Black music goes as far back as Billboard’s “Harlem Hit Parade” chart, introduced in 1942. Black albums would eventually go on to be called “race records,” then “rhythm and blues,” then “soul” and eventually “urban contemporary” in the 1970s. Relegating Black music to these separate and unequal categories enforced a race-based system of musical segregation before the birth of hip-hop and NARAS’s decision to award Grammys for rap a decade and a half later.
As it grew in popularity during the 1980s, rap music was embroiled in controversy. In 1986, Run-DMC headlined a national arena tour for the group’s third album, “Raising Hell.” Stops at Madison Square Garden and in Long Beach, Calif., were marred by violence that police and media attributed to rap lyrics and culture.
This perception didn’t stymie hip-hop’s popularity, however. “Yo! MTV Raps,” the network’s first hip-hop show, debuted in 1988 with outstanding ratings, and it would go on to help spread hip-hop to global audiences.
Recognizing this growing popularity, NARAS added a rap category in 1989 — the best rap performance Grammy.
But the first winners, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, who won for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” weren’t on hand to receive the award, because they boycotted the ceremony over the Academy’s decision not to televise the presentation of the award to the winner. Many of the other chart-topping rap artists of that moment, including Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa, joined this boycott.
Rapper Kool Moe Dee did attend, and presented the award during the pre-telecast ceremony. But he spoke defiantly for “all emcees, my co-workers and fellow nominees,” in making clear that they personified “power and a drug-free mind,” and that “the whole world knows rap is here to stay.”
With “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince had shown rap’s potential to cross over into the pop mainstream and become a widespread cultural force. For the artists nominated for the first rap Grammy, the award was a victory — long overdue for hip-hop, many argued. But without recognition on TV, the artists felt they had been marginalized, their music coded as too Black for the Grammys. Jazzy Jeff highlighted the slight by asking pointedly about the honors granted to country music artists: “[Y]ou’re gonna give them nine categories televised, and you can’t give us one?”
This episode initiated the contentious relationship between NARAS and rap artists who wanted the Grammys — traditionally a bastion of Whiteness — to not only honor hip-hop, but also to acknowledge and represent the Black people who made the music.
In 1990, NARAS reversed course and televised the awarding of the best rap performance Grammy. Young MC’s “Bust a Move” captured the award, which didn’t exactly strengthen the credibility of the awards in the minds of rap fans and artists. As with the previous year’s recipient, the pop-crossover appeal of the winning song seemed to suggest NARAS was more invested in rewarding popular records rather than “the best” as judged by hip-hop fans and artists.
To better address rap’s growing popularity, in 1991, NARAS split the award into two categories, best rap solo performance and best rap performance by a duo or group — and these would remain the categories until 2011.
In 1995, the rap duo Salt-N-Pepa, participants in the 1989 Grammys boycott, won the duo or group category for the song “None of Your Business.” Queen Latifah won best rap solo performance the same year. The two acts were the first women awarded rap Grammys.
In 1998, nearly a decade after the boycott, Will Smith finally took the Grammy stage for the first time. By then, he was a multi-Grammy winning artist. Smith performed “Men In Black” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and won the award for best rap solo performance. But this was during what Smith called, in his acceptance speech, “the rap dark ages” that followed the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., two immensely popular and well-regarded artists who, as Smith and others noted, never received Grammy awards.
These snubs continued the trend of respected rap artists being overlooked in favor of those who crossed over into pop music and gained the most White fans. This fueled the sense among hip-hop artists that the Grammys were less interested in recognizing the best rap performances and were more focused on marking crossover appeal.
For rappers and many of their fans, this sapped the Grammys of credibility. It was the reason Jay-Z boycotted the awards show in 1999, the year he won his first Grammy. NARAS had awarded the best rap album category only three times before he won it for “Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life.” But Jay-Z decided not to attend because NARAS didn’t nominate DMX, who released two No. 1 albums the previous year: “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” and “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood.”
White rapper Eminem won best rap solo performance Grammys in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2011, which only exacerbated this consternation, highlighting the racial component of the snubs.
Controversy mounted in 2014 when the White rapper Macklemore won the awards for best rap performance, best rap song and best rap album. Anticipating the outrage within the rap world over his wins, Macklemore texted an apology to Kendrick Lamar, who earned nominations but no awards that year. Macklemore posted a screenshot of his text on social media, telling Lamar, “You got robbed.”
Even as White artists scored a disproportionately large number of rap Grammys, Black artists who ventured outside the conventions of hip-hop still found themselves categorized as rappers and unable to win nominations in other genre categories, reinforcing the sense that rap is coded as Black music — a musical ghetto.
Tyler the Creator won the best rap album Grammy in 2020 and now 2022. After his first victory, he called the categorization of his music as rap a “backhanded compliment.” And disingenuous. In 2014, Macklemore swept the rap genre categories and scored nominations for song, album and video of the Year. From 2019 to 2021, White rapper Post Malone earned several rap Grammy nominations and won awards for pop performance and record, song and album of the year. Tyler verbalized the problem, saying, “It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending … they always put it in a rap or urban category.” To him “urban” was just “a politically correct” way" to voice a racial slur.
After Tyler’s remarks and amid the worldwide protests over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, NARAS decided to nix the word “urban” from the names of several of its categories, perhaps understanding its offensive connotation, conjuring images of racially segregated spaces due to practices like redlining.
Maybe that decision, along with Nas’s performance at this year’s Grammys, is a sign of progress. The television audience saw Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar win the best rap performance Grammy for “Family Ties,” after all.
Even so, it was the only one of the four current rap Grammy categories shown on TV. And many of rap’s biggest stars were not in attendance at the televised show.
This reflects the lack of credibility NARAS and the Grammys have with the hip-hop community. Nas’s finally performing at the Grammys almost three decades into his career reveals that while NARAS has taken some steps to rectify the problem — they are belated. The history of this relationship, Nas’s historic performance included, mirrors America’s antagonistic relationship with Black people — self-congratulatory celebrations of Black cultural contributions that come far too late.