The public outcry when Beyoncé failed to take home the Grammy for Album of the Year Sunday night was not typical Beyhive backlash. For many, like Adele, Solange, other Black artists, and fans of all colors, Beyoncé’s loss, the year she put out her most personal, and simultaneously universal, body of work musically and visually, was a sign that The Recording Academy has just as big a problem as the Oscars when it comes to awarding the talent of Black artists. But, of course, if you were to say that to Recording Academy President Neil Portnow, he’d deny it.
In fact, that’s exactly what Portnow did when Pitchfork Media asked him whether he thinks the Grammys has a race problem considering the fact that a Black artist hasn’t won Album of the Year since Herbie Hancock in 2008.
“No, I don’t think there’s a race problem at all,” he answered. “Remember, this is a peer-voted award. So when we say the Grammys, it’s not a corporate entity—it’s the 14,000 members of the Academy. They have to qualify in order to be members, which means they have to have recorded and released music, and so they are sort of the experts and the highest level of professionals in the industry. 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. We have 84 categories where we recognize all kinds of music, from across all spectrums.
“We don’t, as musicians, in my humble opinion, listen to music based on gender or race or ethnicity. 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. And that is going to be very subjective. That’s what we ask our members to do, even in the ballots. We ask that they not pay attention to sales and marketing and popularity and charts. You have to listen to the music. So of the 14,000 voters, they listen, they make up their minds, and then they vote.”
So perhaps the issue isn’t with the process but who’s allowed to participate in the process? Citing the efforts the Motion Picture Academy has taken to increase diversity among their voters, Pitchfork asked Portnow if that’s something the Grammys would consider. The answer? Nah.
“Well, they may have had a problem. We don’t have that kind of an issue in that same fashion,” Portnow said. “But we are always working on increase diversity in membership, whether it’s ethnicity, gender, genre, or age. In order to maintain our relevance, we have to be refreshing all the time and we have to be doing that across the board.”
Likening the democratic process of the Grammy voting system to that of the presidential election, Portnow went on to say, “Sometimes people are perhaps disappointed at the results and then when asked, ‘Hey did you participate in this election?,’ the answer is no. And then, it’s after the fact, not much you can do if you haven’t been a part of it. So to anybody that is unhappy with the results or even feels that there could be a stronger representation of any genre or ethnic group, bottom line is very simple. Just become members, join and vote. Then you have the say if you want it.”