Is There a Right Way to Boycott the Grammys?March 12, 2021
The Weeknd’s After Hours was hard to escape following its release last March. Every song from the critically acclaimed album charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 and he even landed on the main stage at the Super Bowl halftime show. Still, the album didn’t receive a single nomination at this year’s Grammys.
In November, The Weeknd demanded an explanation from the institution about the glaring omission of what most would consider a clear contender to sweep in the main categories, as well as take home a Pop or R&B award. “The Grammys remain corrupt,” he tweeted. “You owe me, my fans, and the industry transparency…” Since November, The Weeknd, and the rest of the music industry, have gotten very few answers detailing exactly how the voting process works, and the Canadian megastar has decided to take matters into his own hands. “Because of the secret committees, I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys,” he released in a statement to The New York Times.
Black artists have a longstanding history boycotting the award show, and The Weeknd’s choice to no longer seek validation in an antiquated system is a start in demanding change. But is it enough to demand transparency only when you’ve been left out of the conversation? Failing to call out the Grammys' flawed system all of the time, including when you are nominated, allows the award show to continue with a business-as-usual approach. When artists leave reproach as a means to defend being left out of the narrative, it leaves room for systems to view it as a personal grievance and otherwise remain broken. To truly divest power from an institution as storied as the Grammys, you should not only hold them accountable in your losses, but also in your wins.
If you’re wondering why anyone would call out the Grammys for winning, just ask Will Smith. In 1989, he and DJ Jazzy Jeff won the inaugural Rap Grammy for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” but never accepted the award formally for two reasons: The award would only be announced during the pre-show, a move the hip-hop community considered disrespectful. So instead of attending, the pair stood in solidarity with other artists.
That same year, Kool Moe Dee not only attended the show but presented the nominees for Best R&B Male Vocals—but not before addressing the elephant in the room onstage: “Rap is here to stay.”
The year of hip-hop’s boycott was also the same year that the award show established a nomination committee. According to Harvey Mason Jr., the academy’s interim chief executive, it was a peer-led initiative to champion artists who didn’t benefit from mainstream acclaim. Although last year, the Recording Academy welcomed over 2,000 new members, the identities of those who have a say in the final ballot remain anonymous. So, The Weeknd is right. As it stands now, there is no way of knowing who makes up those “secret committees” who ultimately have the final say of who is in the running for music’s most coveted awards.
In total, The Weeknd has won three Grammys and has been nominated 10 times. Was he concerned then, too? While we can’t say for sure, his absence from accepting his wins for Starboy, “Earned It,” and Beauty Behind the Madness could hint at some tension. But it didn’t seem like The Weeknd was ready to explicitly call out the institution until realizing he hadn’t been nominated for After Hours. He was in talks with the award show to perform at music’s biggest night, until finding out he’d been left off the ballot completely. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Grammys seemed to leverage a highly anticipated performance, only to snub the artist in question. In 2017, Beyoncé performed while pregnant with twins and didn’t win any of the major categories for Lemonade. Every year, artists are vocal about their disdain for being left out of nominations or leaving empty-handed. Yet, every year, artists keep showing up, performing, and accepting awards—actions that tell a different story. There are many ways to protest the Grammys, but accepting a trophy just because they remembered you this time isn't one of them.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.